Hard choices as urban parents juggle child upringing with careers and social pressure

The mushrooming of poorly planned residential estates in Nairobi has also given birth to a generation of free-ranging children who have made parenting a nightmare.

“We now face two choices to either raise couch-potatoes or free ranging children who we have too little control over,” says David Wachira of Pipeline in Nairobi.

Free range is normally associated with indigenous chicken or pigs left loose to scavenge for food while returning home for the night. Raising children at Pipeline, Wachira says, is no different from keeping free-range pigs or chicken because you send them out to play and expect they will find their way back safely.

“We are telling parents to encourage their children go out there to play and not just sit behind the TV especially during the holidays because it is not healthy,” says Dr Vincent Onywera a lecture at Kenyatta University’s Department of Exercise, Recreation and Sports.

Dr Onywera, who has so far carried out two national studies on the physical health of Kenya’s children, found worrying levels of obesity and lack of physical activity especially among urban youth.

“But where do they go to play and with whom? We are told children are falling into poor habits like smoking, alcohol drinking, foul language and early sex because of peer pressure. How do you know who free-ranging children are playing with?” asks Wachira.

Recently, at the launch of a campaign to stop child drinking by Kenya Breweries Limited, a survey by Synovate indicated 32 per cent of alcohol-drinking children were introduced into the habit by their friends.

Wachira counts himself among the lucky ones because he has a shop which also serves as his home with two children and their mother.


Wachira says since schools are closed, the children have to stay close because their security cannot be guaranteed if they venture out. The strip of road outside is shared with a busy crowd, free ranging cattle and a flurry of macho ridden motorcycle taxis.

The other option for Wachira is for the children to play at the roof top of the building which is perilous as well.

“Some barriers on the rooftop are not strong enough and can lead to accidents like we recently witnessed a child fall from a roof.”

But since not all people own shops still there are many children playing along the muddy paths but apparently with no supervision.

Wachira says a child was knocked by a motorbike just a week earlier and died. That is not the first of such accidents but there is no way they can be avoided.

“I just tell them to go out there and play, where I don’t know but I expect them back home later. Children cannot just watch TV the whole day because health messages say this is not healthy,” says Mama Nick of Zimmerman.

But this may very well be jumping from the pan into the fire because a few weeks ago, Mama Nick saw her eight-year boy coming from a movie showing kiosk.

“I was shocked, the places are famed for pornographic films. So now what am I supposed to do with the boy and the next one in the oven,” says the lady who is heavily pregnant.

If the children have to play safely, Wachira says they have to be taken to a commercial entertainment park which means money.

“Even if you had money and the time children cannot be locked indoors until the weekend when entertainment spots are open.”

But Phyllis Moraa who also lives at Pipeline says that is exactly what she does. Lock them up.

“I expect them to stay indoors and watch TV because out there danger lurks,” she says. 

Several studies show that children with parental supervision are most likely to do well in school, delay sexual activities and stay away from drugs.

Moraa, a vegetable vendor in the local market says lack of open spaces is a major problem facing the thousands that live in the area. She argues that some buildings should be brought down to create space for children to play.

Children’s Act

But this will not happen although the law is on her side because these are private buildings with owners holding title deeds. Even most schools in these estates do not have playing space. The Children’s Act says it is the responsibility of the community and parents to make sure children have a safe playing ground and it is the right of the child to play and have leisure.

This is not the only estate with no open spaces and a bulging free-range generation.

In Kawangare for example, children fight for the narrow alleys with free range dogs, chicken and pigs. Mathare, Huruma, Dandora are among other Nairobi residential areas with planning issues.

Susan Njeri, works in a mobile money transfer shop in Pipeline. The Form Four student comes home every holiday and keeps herself busy in the family shop for lack of any place to go.

“In school we have space to play but during holidays it is easier for me to stay here rather than go out,” says Njeri.

When she decides to venture out, Njeri goes swimming in either Mlolongo or Buruburu and that too involves money so she prefers staying home until schools are open. Njeri wants to be a professional swimmer but says she cannot make it to the school team because when at home she has no place to practice.

Space to play is not the only problem that faces this concrete jungle because even basking in the morning is not possible due to the tall buildings that block the morning sun from reaching the ground until when the sun is high.

The number of dead ends in the estate has also ensured that the open spaces are always crowded as, seemingly, the spaces available are being used for all manner of activities – business, transport – which clogs the available space.