Growing number of street families a ticking time bomb, but there's hope, experts say

The youthful mother was captured forcing a minor of about three years to sniff glue unbothered by stares from shocked passersby or even stopping to think of the long-term effects the sniffing could expose the child to.

Asked why she was doing so, the mother responded that the glue would make the child calm and "protect" her against the cold floors of the streets.

The unpleasant incident portrays the sad lifestyles street children and families go through on a daily basis; without shelter, threadbare clothes and meagre food mostly from the well-wishers.

While it is a dog's life for about 15,000 street families in Nairobi, experts argue that living on the streets may not be their wish and is definitely not a death sentence after all.

African Nazarene University counselling psychologist Dr James Mbugua explains that there are some crucial steps that someone born and bred on the streets must undergo so as to be moulded to a dependable member of the society.

"Not all children who have been born on the streets will turn out to be bad because there are several influencers out there," Mbugua told The Standard.

When considering where to begin the rehabilitation, the psychologist says some of the factors to check are whether the child was from a family, duration they have stayed at the streets, the kind company they keep and their personality.

There are instances where such children turn out well, mostly when a problem that took them to the street has been discovered and fixed, he explains.

When it comes to rehabilitation, he says what is required for a child picked from the street is a father and mother figure who will step in as foster parents, or someone who will give them acceptance.

"They need acceptance and affirmation. Once they are given this, they will go very far and even achieve their dreams," Mbugua says.

"The same way will find children brought up in well off families not turning out to be the greatest," he added.

For those who have used drugs so as to survive on the streets, Mbugua says treatment will depend on the level such a person has gone.

"Drugs affect all of us in one way or the other but when they get to the level of chemical dependency we will be talking of someone who has been affected," he explained.

"To help such a person who has reached a level of chemical dependence then that is a mental health issue. In that case it will require treatment to reverse that so as to rehabilitation," the expert added.

Treatment can be both inpatient and outpatient depending on the addiction of such a person.

However, some street urchins interviewed believe that some stuff they sniff like glue helps them forget the pain away from home and even keeps them from feeling cold.

"We buy the glue from some shops along Kirinyaga road and Ngara. The glue makes me feel high and even makes me not to feel the biting cold at night," Allan, 13-year-old who has been on the street for five years tells us.

Dr Joshua Azere from Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital says people who sniff glue have a weakened immune system, suffer from brain damage and hearing impairment and have changes to the heart rhythm.

"Sniffing glue is just like any other drug addiction and requires special rehabilitation programmes. It has a number of problems on the users that can be deadly including weakening body immunity, effects on the heart, slurred speech and hallucinations," said Prof Gordon Nguka, a nutritionist and dietetics expert from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

He went on: "To get out this issues the victim has to be taken through special addiction rehabilitation programmes and nutrition and dietetics intervention on addictions."

Alice Harambe, Senior Registered Nurse at Kakamega County General Referral Hospital says an individual who has used glue can be rehabilitated to normal life over a period of time depending on how long they had used it. The individual will need specialised medical care, psychological counseling, physical rehabilitation, emotional rehabilitation retraining on Normal habits and grooming.

Harambe says such an individual experiences dizziness, abdominal pains, nausea and vomiting.

Monica Mumbua who runs an organisation that helps rehabilitate and reintegrate street children said some of these children are willing to be assisted, mostly those who escaped from homes without any problem.

"Some of them are disciplined and do what they are told as their wish is to get out of the street for a second chance at home, those born on the street long for a helping a hand," Mumbua says.

"Then there are those who are rejected by their family members because they lost their jobs, got pregnant or some are victims of circumstances," she explained.

Mumbua shared a case of an elderly woman who was selling vegetables in Kangemi market.

"Unfortunately she ended up in the streets due to the shooting hospital bill of her sick child and could not afford living in a rental. One ended up in streets after losing his job and getting chased by his sister," said Mumbua.

Another one was a pregnant woman who ended up in the street after her only bread winner (husband) was arrested and remanded in a cell.

She stayed in the streets where she raised her child after giving birth.

The caregiver says their role on the streets is encouraging the street families to embrace each other.

She says sometimes back street families engage in deadly fights since they used to live in demarcated zones within the city for instance those around Globe Cinema roundabout were not allowed to roam towards Tom Mboya.

"We ask them not to hate each other but embrace themselves and avoid gender violence amongst them, stop stigmatisation and live as a family, we have integrated others back to their homes after realising that street life is not for the fainthearted," she explained.

Unlike home, the main problem on the streets is clean water for drinking and domestic use like bathing.

"Young ladies bathe using stagnant water around Uhuru Park as early as at 4am as they wait for the sunrise to go wash their clothes and children at the same place," she explained.

"They also drink the same water but those who are courageous to beg for drinking water from hotels around the city, sometimes they are chased away, boys rarely bathe and stay with same clothes for years,"

Mumbua hopes that the new regime under Governor Sakaja will consider reconnecting free drinking water at the city for such vulnerable people and even free bathrooms next to public toilets even as he seeks a long lasting solution.