Kariokor Rescue Center Closed Down
Originally published in Flash, newsletter of the Undugu Society of Kenya, May 1994
By David Blumenkrantz
During Undugu's Public Awareness Campaign on the Plight of Street Children in September 1992, eight experimental "rescue centers" were operated in various parts of Nairobi, offering feeding, counseling, medical and other services to hundreds of children. The positive response to these centers, both by the children themselves and society at large, led to the establishment of four permanent rescue centers, which were officially opened in July 1993 by Mayor Steve Mwangi. The Undugu Society assumed operational control of these sites, with support from UNICEF, a coalition of commercial sponsors, and other concerned organizations and individuals.
From the outset, the rescue centers were wildly popular among the street children, and an estimated 500-600 children visited the centers daily. Many discovered within themselves latent artistic talents, or other skills. It was also a rare drug-free zone. Boxes of discarded glue containers were collected at the gates. A boy who wanted to participate in sporting activities such as karate or football soon discovered the brand of peer pressure that inspired self-discipline.
For the social workers the centers served as vital contact points for reaching the children. Through a series of regularly conducted personal interviews, social workers were able to eventually visit the children's homes. This often raised the possibility of involving the parents or guardians in the rehabilitation process. Failing this, it at least assisted the social workers in deciding upon the best course of action. Various alternatives were available, including: entry into formal school (after basic literacy courses); entry into non-formal school, such as UBEP, polytechnics, or youth centers; and skills training courses for the informal sector (for those over 15). Repatriation to their rural homes was another option, upon request. Many of the repatriation cases were children of families victimized during the ethnic strife that affected parts of the country.
Laughter and shouting filled the air. It was a typical day at the Kariokor Social Hall. There were hot meals, cold showers, and recreational activities. The register for Monday, January 24 indicates that 98 children sought refuge from life in the streets at the rescue center that day.
Few of these children noticed the District Officer for Nairobi's Central Division, Mr. Osiya, when he stopped by the center in the late morning. He spoke briefly with Madeline Njeri, the social worker who supervises operations at Kariokor. There had been a meeting earlier that day, he explained. The Provincial Children's Officer, Mr. Keraro, had informed the Nairobi PC and DO's that street children were to be removed from Central Division, which includes Westlands, City Center, and Kariokor. Apparently there were too many complaints about the number of street children attracted to the Social Hall and adjacent Kariokor market. Not only tourists but also local residents were "under threat by their presence." Osiya was therefore under "direct orders from above" to close down operations at Kariokor. To emphasize his seriousness, he told a shaken Njeri that he might even come back that day or the next with a lorry to remove the kids.
Subsequent consultations were held between Undugu staff (Community Organization Department leader Lynette Ochola and Njeri) and the DO, which culminated in an assurance from Osiya, on the 28th, that he would make no move to close the center until he had personally secured an alternative site, within a month's time. Contrary to that promise, police swooped in just three days later. In the early morning hours, 33 boys were apprehended in and around the Social Hall and market areas. All but ten were later identified as regular visitors to the Kariokor rescue center.
Complaints from Undugu staff went unheeded. The sergeant on duty told a distraught and angry Madeline Njeri that this sudden swoop was part of a "new directive.” District Officer Osiya was unrepentant, declaring that the center was to be closed down once and for all, by 6:00pm that evening.
Back at Kariokor, activities were at a minimum and tension was high. Was this really to be the last day? Only a few children dared to stick around. They were either defying the threat that they too would be picked up, or had they grown so accustomed to the rescue center life that they would rather go down with the ship than risk being caught on the streets alone during this latest crackdown. A few boys told how they had paid chai of 50 to 100 shillings each to policemen, in order to avoid being picked up. They even identified one crooked cop as Mkosti, who they knew personally from past encounters.
Meanwhile, Madeline Njeri was inconsolable, complaining bitterly of a "breach of promise" by the DO. She was particularly fretful about certain children who she "did not want to lose," citing the painstaking and cautious rehabilitative work that had begun to bear fruit in those special cases. "Will these children now lose faith in us?" she wondered aloud.
Later that same day, while Lynette Ochola was meeting with the DO, the OCPD of the Kamukunji Police Station arrived with his men. Unknown to Ochola, the boys were descended upon and brutally removed from the premises. The story was later told of how two of the boys had escaped by entering the latrines and smearing themselves with human excreta, after which they reportedly walked away from the DO's compound unchallenged, a victory for decadence and self-degradation.
Those not so resourceful were taken away to the Kamukunji station, where they were to spend the night in unsanitary, miserable conditions, branded as vagrants, treated as convicted criminals, awaiting an uncertain future.
The following morning the scene shifted to the Juvenile Court, where several Undugu staff members arrived early to learn the fate of the boys. Would they be released back into Undugu's care? Sent to the remand home in Kabete, or an approved school? In an open compound behind the court, the boys were brought in and made to sit, detention style, head down between their knees, silently.
A female officer-began interrogating the prisoners. She seemed to enjoy the opportunity to deliver some quick, sharp blows to the heads of boys whose answers displeased her. The undeserved violence infuriated Undugu's Chairman, Father Arnold Grol, who entered the compound in protest.
"Get out of my way, you're disturbing my work," the officer barked angrily.
"But I cannot stand here and watch you killing my boys," was Father's reply.
"Your boys?" She stood up and charged after Father, forcing him bodily into retreat.
This raised the ire of the other Undugu staff, which protested against this mistreatment of their elder and mentor. "If I see you hitting the boys again, I will go and tell (President) Moi," Father threatened.
"Why don't you go right now and tell him," was the officer's retort. "He's in Nairobi right now!" This exchange seemed to inspire an older, male officer, who suddenly sprang to life. Grabbing a cane, he began to clobber the boys mercilessly. "Let him see us beating them," he chanted maniacally between blows. Father snapped and started shouting. "Wacha, wacha!" he implored in vain, as his driver led him away.
Fortunately, the magistrate for the juvenile court arrived shortly thereafter. His presence provided what was perhaps the only bright light in an otherwise dismal few days. With nearly five years of experience in dealing with such cases, magistrate Ogwang' proved to be gentle, reasoned and sympathetic. After listening patiently to the stories of beatings and mistreatment, he concurred that they went beyond what was required and said he would look into them. Concerning the fate of the boys, he assured us that those who could be proven to be regular visitors to the rescue center would be released into Undugu's care, though they would have to spend at least one more night at Kamukunji until case files could be prepared. By this time Father Grol would have secured spots for many of the boys at Mji wa Furaha, a children's home on the outskirts of Nairobi.
For the others, they would eventually be released back into the vicious circle of street life: survival, rejection, and persecution. Only this time there will be no rescue center at Kariokor to provide shelter.