The Story of Peter Kamau by Nell Pollak
The past week has been amongst one of the best weeks I have had in Kenya and maybe even of my life. Not only has my life changed dramatically but the life of a sweet young boy’s did as well. He has given up a harsh life of neglect and hunger and I have welcomed a new brother into my family as well as into the Arrive family.
It was back in the very beginning of November during one of my first weeks in Kenya while I was still volunteering at an orphanage in Nairobi when I first met Peter Kamau. Brian Ash who is a friend of mine from the University of Colorado and the Founder of the organization Arrive in Kenya was in Nairobi for a visit and invited me to join him to talk to some street children. Street children, as the name implies are children that live on the streets. They are boys and girls as young as 6 years old who are forced to live homeless, often orphaned, and abandoned in the streets because of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, violence or abuse at home, and for many other reasons.
Brian’s organization, Arrive has a mission to restore hope for street children by giving them a home, an education and basic healthcare. (I am presently volunteering at Arrive.) Prior to the day I spent with Brian I hadn’t really talked with any street children before. In fact, I hadn’t really even been aware of the magnitude of this problem in Kenya at all. The guidebooks I read and the people giving me guidance in Kenya warned me to stay away from street children as “they are dirty, thieves and are sick”.
My preconception of street children changed even before I got out of the car to greet them that day. As we approached we could see that they were high from the fumes of the glue they had pressed to their lips and they were dirty from their life on the streets but they were just children as young as 8 years old; some even younger. I was appalled to see the conditions under which these youngsters were living.
The kids we met that day were very happy to have visitors. They swarmed around and asked us all sorts of questions. One kid in particular stood out. Although you could tell that this boy had a plastic bottle full of glue hidden under his sleeve and that his eyes were glazed he was still able to communicate properly and express humor, which indicated that, he probably wasn’t a heavy glue sniffer. He actually seemed ashamed of having to live on the street and kept his bottle of glue hidden. He introduced himself as Brian but later we found out his name is really Peter Kamau.
After the kids got a bit more comfortable with us, we asked them all sorts of questions such as their names, ages, and history to get a better sense of why they were on the streets. There are a variety of reasons why such children end up living on the streets. Some of them were pushed to the streets while some were pulled onto them. Many of the children that were pulled to the streets ran away from home and resorted to the streets due to lack of adequate attention and care at home. Many were victims of domestic conflicts and violence. Some kids had no choice as they did not have a home or parents. On the streets, many of these children picked up a strong addiction to huffing glue (which they call gum). On a daily basis, they inhale the fumes of glue out of small plastic bottles as a way of getting high/drunk. They do this to suppress pain, loneliness, fear, and hunger. ( These children don’t realize that they are harming their brains in one of the most intoxicating ways. ) Not only are they exposed to taking drugs such as the gum but they are also exposed to a variety of other things such as harassment, violence amongst themselves and towards others, sexual exploitation, loneliness and fear, physical and emotional abuse, neglect, starvation, and poor hygienic and sanitary conditions.
After about an hour of talking with the children we bought them some bread and milk to temporarily ease their hunger and then I headed home to Kangemi where I was then working. I could not stop thinking about those poor children fending for themselves on the streets. I really wanted to get them all off the streets but did not have the resources to do so.
About a month passed and I was still thinking about ways that I could help these children when Tammy, an American friend that I had met in Kenya, invited me to visit a feeding program for street children. The feeding program takes place once a week at a small church in an area of Nairobi called Kawangware. Before being fed by some church members, the children must listen to the pastor for about an hour in an attempt to motivate them.
When I arrived at the church to attend the feeding program it didn’t occur to me that this church was very close to where I had first met the children on the street with Brian a month earlier. Upon entering the small tin structure, I was happy to see about 10 to 15 young boys attending the program. It saddened me to see the condition they were in but I was impressed to see that they had made an effort and had actually come to the program. Again, one boy in particular stood out. The instant I entered the room I shared eye contact with this boy and we both started beaming. It was Kamau. He remembered me and we were both so delighted to be reunited! After seeing Kamau, I looked around and noticed that nearly all of the boys that I had met previously were there.
I greeted all of the boys and spent some time with each and every one of them to get a sense of how they were all doing. Out of all of the boys, Kamau seemed like he was the most enthused and able to speak with me. We spent a lot of time together that day. We talked all about his ambitions. He told me all about how he wanted to go back to school and study. He wanted change in his life but didn’t have the means of doing it on his own. I could tell right off the bat that he was a very bright boy and I was very impressed by his life goals. He told me that he wants to be an engineer one day. After talking for some time Kamau grabbed my hand and got me up to dance. He and his friends were very excited to show off their dance moves to a mzungo (white person). We all danced for a while and shared some laughs. It was really a great day spent with Kamau.
It was very difficult for me to leave the feeding program that day. I wished I could have taken Kamau home to Kangemi with me that very day but I had nowhere for him to go. From that day on, not one day passed that I did not think about him. I worried about him as if he were my son. He had such an impact on me that I knew that I could not let this kid suffer life on the street much longer and decided to ask my friend Brian Ash to help. I thought who better to ask than Brian who has become the “street boy expert and savior”. I told Brian the whole story and sent him a video clip that I took of Kamau at the feeding program. Brian could also see the potential that I saw in Kamau and told me that I could bring him from Nairobi to Keumbu in western Kenya where the Arrive children’s home is located. I was scheduled to move to and start volunteering at Arrive in a few days and I was extremely excited at the possibility of Kamau living there.
A few days after arriving at Keumbu to start working at Arrive, Brian and I went back to Kawangware, Nairobi to see if we could find Kamau. He was easy to find. He was where we had seen him last time. I cannot even describe how happy I was to see him there because I knew that was the day he would be given the opportunity to have a home and go back to school. He seemed very excited to see us too. After spending some time talking to him we asked him if he wanted to come home with us. I will never forget the look on Kamau’s face. He was ecstatic. The best part of all was that his friends were so supportive. Rather than being spiteful and jealous of Kamau they were all so happy for him.
We left Kamau that day with a promise of a new life. He had just one last test to pass. We told him to show up the following day on that street without the glue and ready to go to his new home. The next day Kamau was at the designated spot and ready to go.
It was time for him to throw away the smelly oversized fleece and ripped up jeans that he had been wearing for God knows how long. First, I brought him to the market to get an entire new set of clothes and shoes.
Next, I got him a bar of soap and had him take a shower. After, we visited a local salon to get him a haircut which only cost approximately one U.S. dollar. After getting new clothes, a shower, and a haircut, Kamau looked like a completely different person and it only took about an hour for this transformation to happen.
After we celebrated with some pizza and soda we then hopped in a matatu home to Keumbu. It was on the journey home when I really realized how remarkable an experience this all was. It was the moment when Kamau had rested his head on my lap and fell asleep when I realized what I had done. I had just “adopted” this young boy.
I can say with all of my heart that bringing Kamau home to Keumbu is probably the best thing I’ve done so far in my entire life and I could not be happier to now have him as a part of my family forever.
As of today, Kamau has been in Keumbu for one week. He has adjusted extremely well. Ever since the boys showed him the ropes on his very first morning here, Kamau has been a brother figure to each and every one of them. Kamau’s days of scavenging for food, searching for a haven to sleep at night and of unsanitary practices in the streets are all in the past now. He is now fed three healthy meals a day, has his own bed to sleep in, his very own clothes, a school uniform, and most importantly a family to support and take care of him. Keumbu has been a really great place for him as it is hundreds of miles away from the hustle bustle of the city and of the horrific street life he was subjected to in Nairobi. He is now enjoying a very peaceful life in a small rural town of green, lush fields to play and hike. One of Kamau’s favorite things to do since coming to Keumbu has been going on evening hikes to watch the sunset. It has become a sort of ritual for us to do each night with all the rest of the boys. After just four days off of the streets, Kamau has gone back to school and has impressed all of us with his immense knowledge. His smile, which is extremely contagious hasn’t left his face since he has arrived.
One day Kamau told me once again that he really wants to become an engineer and I told him when you are a leading engineer you better be there to help me. We both laughed and he agreed.
Kamau’s story is just one of thousands of stories of street children in Kenya. If you would like to help get more of the deserving children off of the street and into school, please visit www.arrivekenya.org