It’s around 7am on a Saturday morning at Globe Cinema roundabout in Nairobi and the hooting noises from matatus entering the city centre are deafening at close range.
But a few metres away, some street urchins are dead asleep under the pillars and pavement below the overpass, holding tightly onto plastic bottles containing glue.
Their only protection against the cold weather are the rugged clothes they are wearing.
A stone throw away, a few families have already woken up and are headed off to work: begging on the streets and scavenging for scrap metals in rubbish dumps to sell to dealers to eke a living.
They appear listless, with bloodshot eyes and dry, cracked lips, a clear indication they might be hungry while others appear irritated by invisible forces and angrily hurl unprintable insults to passers-by for refusing to give them money.
Within the Central Business District, traders along Mama Ngina Street open their shops around 7am. Here, some three street children of about 10-13 years usually sleep on the pavements and the entrances to the shops.
On this particular morning, a middle-aged woman arrives to open her shop but she first has to get rid of the street kids by sprinkling water on the pavement.
Welcome to the unforgiving world street children in Nairobi live in.
“We are not thieves and we are not in any way planning to break into your shop. We only came to shelter at your shop following a drizzle at night,” the youngest of the three street urchins could be heard pleading for forgiveness.
We follow them up to the Kenya National Archives across Moi Avenue where we offer to buy them tea and some snacks from a hawker. As they take their tea, we engage them in a chat.
“I came to Nairobi in 2019 after my father separated from my mother. My father was always a drunkard and when at home, he was always violent forcing me to run away for safety. My fellow street children are now my family,” says the younger one, who only identifies himself as Jeremy, aged 12.
Jeremy says he comes from Meru County but by the time he sought asylum on the streets, they were living in Roysambu.
A youthful lady, who identified herself as Joan, says she has been in the streets for the last nine years and does not know any other home after her uncle who was taking care of them died in a road accident on Christmas eve.
“Immediately he was buried in Kitale, I was kicked out of our home by other relatives. I was the only child and a girl. They took that advantage to flush me out of our home. I was 15 years old and came back to Nairobi. The landlord also locked me out of our house over rent arrears,” says Joan.
She adds: “I resorted to going to the streets to look for food and shelter. The first few months were difficult to cope up.”
At one point, Joan says, she became a commercial sex worker in the seedy parts of the city, but left after realising she was messing up her life.
Joan says she later got hooked up with a street urchin in his 20s, who provided shelter and security as they roamed the streets and dumpsites looking for money and scrap metals to sell.
Along the way, Joan got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy but after three years, the man took away the child and disappeared.
“I had no other place to go as he was everything I had. I had to look for ways of surviving. I got pregnant again in 2019 and also gave birth to a baby boy," she reveals.
Given the both lived on the streets, Joan says it was very difficult to bring up the child and frequently got infected by diseases.
She narrates: “I am now surviving from hand to mouth. We can go for several days without getting something to eat together with my fellow girls living on the streets.”
The woman, who can still afford a smile despite her sorry situation, says men, especially night guards, bar owners and hoteliers still take advantage of their vulnerabilities.
“For them to give you food or money, you must sleep with them,” she says.
Her case is just a tip of the iceberg. Joan is among the over 15,000 street urchins living in Nairobi City County who besides being rejected by their families and the society, cartels in both the national and the county government of Nairobi have turned their plight into a cash cow.
According to a census of street families conducted in April, 2018 by the ministry of Labour and Social Protection, there were 46,639 street persons spread across the 47 counties.
Majority of them were males at 72.4 per cent and females at 27.6 per cent. Majority (21,550 persons) who were youth aged 19-34 years followed by children aged below 19 (15,752 persons).
The counties with the highest concentrations of street persons were Nairobi (15,337), Mombasa (7,529), Kisumu (2,746), Uasin Gishu (2,147) and Nakuru (2,005).
The report said a significant proportion of families have lived in the streets for 10 years and above.
Females are mostly on the streets due to domestic violence, being born on the streets or mistreatment by relatives, according to the findings.
With regard to education, most of the street persons have at least reached primary school level.
The most prominent skills and talent they possess include carpentry, masonry, tailoring/dress making, hair dressing, ball games, singing and art and craft.
It was established that activities undertaken by street persons include drug and alcohol peddling, water fetching, garbage collection, sex work, petty crime, parking and begging.
At night, males mostly engage in garbage collection, drug and alcohol peddling while most females engage in sex work.
The 56-page census report stated that during the day, most of them engage in begging. The main source of food for the street families is begging, though a small proportion either cook or buy food.
Majority of street persons aged 10 years and above had engaged in sex with most of the encounters being without the use of condoms, leading to exposure to sexually transmitted infections.
Lowest levels of condom use were reported among the youthful population aged 15-29 years. Most females aged 15-19 years had given birth.
In 2005, the government hatched a plan to have street children resettled and rehabilitated at the Ruai Street Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in Kasarani constituency. However, multimillion shilling project, which sits on a 40-acre piece of land, which was started eight years ago by then Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, has since stalled.
Subsequent governments (under governors Mike Sonko and Anne Kananu) did little to have the street urchins resettled. The contractor abandoned the site due to non-payment of work done.
Presently, the children are spread across many social halls in city estates, which now act as their holding areas.
It emerged that cartels, which rake in millions of shillings by supplying foodstuff and other items at inflated prices to the social halls, have thwarted attempts to complete the Ruai project.
Interviews with insiders reveal that the cartels are untouchable with fears that Governor Johnson Sakaja may not succeed in eliminating them.
Maringo/Hamza Ward Rep Patrick Macharia says the street children centre at his ward has over 300 children who are living in squalid conditions due to lack of crucial facilities.
“The centre in my ward has a mixture of young and old children. I have been helping these street children because they go through a lot of challenges. Sometimes, they go without food. As a medic, I decided to them circumcised in order to prevent them from getting sexually transmitted diseases,” he told The Sunday Standard.
He says the street children being rescued need proper healthcare thus the County should focus on equipping County hospitals and so that the children can be accessing good medical services.
“Governor Sakaja should make the Ruai project a priority so that all the children from the street and those like in my ward can be taken and get life changing training,” adds Macharia.
Efforts to reach Sakaja were futile. His communication team also declined to comment.
But human rights crusader Ebole Atamba says Sakaja should come up with a budget to rehabilitate the street families since their cycle on the streets is unending.
John Kamangu Nyumu, former Ruai MCA, says when the idea was conceptualised, the number street urchins in the city had become unmanageable.
"It had reached a point where they were using human waste to threaten Nairobi residents in order to mint cash from them. They could rob people in broad daylight using violence and as elected leaders we had to find a solution,” Nyumu told the Standard in an interview.
He added: “The project by now would be over because the previous county governments were not up to the task to have it completed. Money would be allocated for the project but instead would be diverted to other projects.