It is a bright Sunday morning in Meru town. It is the day of the week that street families, aka Commandos of Meru town, look forward to. It is a day that they assemble at Nteere Park Meru to receive gifts, get medical attention, play, and interact with other families.
They do this on alternate Sundays, while other Sundays are for visitors who would like to experience “life with the Commando of Meru” during a special tour or “A day out with the Commandos of Meru”.
Faith Gikunda, a journalist who is a community tourism trainer with Learn From Streets (LFS), explains that this is the name for Meru’s street families.
“Meru street families are digital, after all, Meru town is now clean, and there is no garbage for them to chokora,” Faith says mischievously. LFS is helping rehabilitate the street families.
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“The tour is not to one of those noisy, dingy, smoky, smelly, crowded and chaotic places that you imagine,” she assures us.
Thirty minutes later, James Mwiti fondly called Father – by the street families – joins us. Mwiti is a father figure to the Meru street families.
In downtown, Meru we find timber and mabati rental units, acquired to house the Commandos. Here, we find Mitaa (grouped settlements) or single units where street families live together, while adults share the single units.
“These kids were once scruffy and notorious for begging and stealing, and committing other uncivil acts,” Mwiti says.
He adds that he understands the perils of living on the streets. “While growing up, I had a short stint on the streets, and I have first-hand experience of life there,” he says.
Life on the street
“In this walk,” he promises, “you will learn about street life, how children come to the streets, what they are doing, and many stories.”
True to his word, as we move from one den to another, Mwiti and Faith greet groups of Commandos we meet as if they have been friends since childhood.
Mwiti does the narration in a deadpan, teasing wit that only fades away when one of the children interjects to tell their compelling stories of how they run away from home. Part of the stories include running away from physical and sexual abuse, poverty, social vulnerability and exclusion.
“My father used to beat everyone including my mother,” says 11-year old Ntoribi from Igembe, Meru, adding, “he used to take alcohol and one day he beat my mother so badly until she was hospitalised and I ran away”. Like many of the children who end up living on the streets, Ntoribi stowed away aboard a lorry and ended up, alone and penniless, on the streets of Meru town.
However, five years down the line, he has a home, and a family. He and the other five boys have a shelter. He tells us that they underwent the ‘rite of passage’ in the recent past.
Further, downtown, we encounter some Commandos who want to intimidate us, but the presence of Father helps the situation.
We come into a small square and the scene before us is one that is straight out of Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens). Commandos are emptying filthy sacks outside a recycling shop. They are selling items that they have scavenged.
At another ‘station’, we find a dozen grimy boys huddled over a board game. Mwiti explains that for many of these children, living on the street is better than what they left behind as it offers them a kind of freedom that is hard to give up. At this point, Edwin Thuranira, another official with LFS, joins us.
After four hours of the tour, we are back to base – Mwiti’s business shop in the Central Business District of Meru town. It is 6pm and we find a huge screen mounted at an open yard in front of the shop.
“This is for the Commandos. Every evening, they come here to watch news, movies, and other programmes,” says Mwiti. The activities start at 7pm. By 6.30pm a handful of street kids, boys and girls, young adults, and some elderly are already seated.
“Boys and girls living on the streets have jobs as cleaners that LFS encourages them to do from and they can earn more than Sh200 per day,” says Mwiti.
However, there is a catch about the money collected, he says. Street children have no safe place to keep the money they earn and end up spending everything they earn every day.
“Since the street kids and families have high regard and trust for Mwiti (Father), we have organised them into groups and they give him money for safe-keeping and it is recorded,” explains Emma Kaimuri Thuranira, an artist and founder member of LFS.
“We don’t pressure the children and the street families to come off the streets until they are ready to do so,” says Thuranira. Some of them, he explains, eventually opt to go home while others accept to join the established groups so that they can go back to school, and access some training. “If they have some talents such as art, we help tap it,” he says.
LFS, in partnership with Meru County government has a project to settle street families in communities. That makes it easy for them to organise family activities such as registration of street families, the rite of passage, health check-ups and education. The focus is to put them into communities so that they can speak in one voice
She says that it is difficult for the county government to reach all street children and families if they are not documented and are invisible to the system.
However, she says, LFS started a documentation process, which by December 2019 had captured 300 street people” says Faith. Regrettably, Covid-19 has slowed down most of the work and interventions, she adds.
“There is no shame involved. These children, the elderly, and street families are just telling their stories and living their lives,” Faith says.