A Kenyan Street Boy's Quest for Survival

In Dagoretti, a small town on the outskirts of Nairobi, poverty lures many children into homelessness. They are known as chokoraa, an epithet that translates to "garbage-eaters" because the children -- most of them being boys -- survive by scavenging through people's trash trying to find pieces of food.

They are used to do the most menial jobs available in Dagoretti's open-air market, including collecting trash, cleaning filthy public toilets and transporting heavy loads around the marketplace. The wages they receive for this are barely enough to afford them a decent meal.

At night, covered in sacks and plastic bags while clustering together to keep warm, the boys take turns to stay awake in order to keep watch for any forthcoming danger. They sleep outside on verandas or pavements, fully exposed to the elements.

In the middle of the night, it is not uncommon for local security guards, older bullying street boys, criminals, even the local police, to ambush their sleeping location, beating them with clubs and whips. They also go through their pockets, taking any coins that might have been saved during the day.

In order to cope with this and other daily terror on the street, as well as to suppress hunger pangs, and deal with traumatic memories, most of the street children succumb to substance abuse like sniffing toxic glue. As they say, this glue offers temporary escape from daily brutality and social rejection. To afford a meal, they run chores for small businesses in the area, like sweeping and fetching water or collecting pieces of scrap metal, which they sell to recyclers.

Their unsanitary environment is a breeding place for lice, ticks and jiggers. Jiggers -- also known as chigoe fleas -- are bugs that burrow into the skin of their hosts. Since they have no access to medical services, the boys perform surgical operations with thorns or rusty needles and pins to remove the jiggers.

Life in the streets is based mainly on simple subsistence, without any aspiration in life. It lacks meaning and purpose because of its alienation from the mainstream society. Street children are denied an identity by the way other people treat them. But it's not entirely a hopeless situation with these children. The following narrative proves that with small, persistent efforts, they can be helped to realize their own utmost potential.

In 2006, I met Daniel, a 12-year-old street boy, while my American friend Mark and I were working on a documentary film about street children in Dagoretti. Daniel had dropped out of school after his mother, a widow, became unable to feed him. After enduring many nights of going to bed without food, he decided to try his luck in the streets.

While working with him in the streets, Daniel could barely read or write, yet he was always scribbling on cardboard pieces collected from the pile of trash next to where he slept. These cardboard pieces were his phone-book, as he saved people's phone numbers beneath the old rags he used as bedding. Using a borrowed phone, he would call us every morning to remind us to go filming. He and Mark became close friends, and it was fascinating how much they communicated even without speaking, as neither could understand the other's language.

Daniel wanted to go back to school, but he wasn't ready to leave the streets yet. He was addicted to sniffing glue. For him, staying at our organization (a center for rehabilitating street boys) meant he couldn't sniff any more. Eventually, we persuaded Daniel to join our organization. His cheerful personality added a lot of value to the center. We traveled with him to his mother's house to tell her that Daniel would be living with us.

Daniel went back to school soon thereafter and has been living with us ever since. Almost every week, he visits his mother as well as his friends who are still struggling in the streets. He now has a Facebook account and I've noticed on my News Feed that he writes on Mark's wall in English. Mark also took Swahili lessons and, during his latest Kenyan visit in August, he remarked on the improvement of communication between them.

In November, Daniel will be sitting for his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations to mark his completion of primary school education (equivalent of eighth grade in the U.S.). He hopes to join high school next year, and I suspect he is studying hard because I haven't noticed any recent Facebook activities from him.

Having prevailed over tougher circumstances, Daniel is bound to succeed in his exams and in life. As I wish him the best, my heart also goes out to the children still living in the streets, and whose success stories are waiting to be written.