A Place to Call Home: Helping Kenya’s Street Children Start a New Life
When Theoneste* first came to the Wema Centre in 2006, his hair was unkempt, his grimy clothes hung loosely off his body. At the age of 16, he was one of many “chokora” or “scavengers” haunting the streets of Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city. Digging through the trash for food or plastic bottles to sell, each day was a constant hustle to survive. Still, Theoneste preferred life on the streets to the years of abuse he suffered under the roof of his parent’s house.
Now, three years later, Theoneste is a different person. With the help of the Wema Centre, a CAP grantee that rescues and rehabilitates street children, Theoneste has become a healthy, responsible young man. From basic services and support—shelter, food and health care, counseling and recreation—Wema’s Drop-in Center provided Theoneste with the care he needed to gain confidence and change his life. With the encouragement of Wema’s social workers, he enrolled in the organization’s vocational training courses and learned how to cook, sew and use a computer. Since completing his training in 2008, Theoneste has been working as an assistant cook at Wema’s Ganjoni Drop-in Center.
Today in Kenya, there are an estimated 300,000 children like Theoneste. They are runaways escaping violence and abuse; orphans who have lost parents to AIDS; children abandoned by mothers and fathers who cannot care for them. Without love or support, they live at the margins of society and struggle each day to survive.
The Wema Centre, which derives its name from the Swahili word for “well-being,” is now a haven for 900 of these children. Rescued from the streets, these children are registered, screened and assessed by experienced staff who then connect them with appropriate services. When possible, some are reunited with family members, referred to youth homes or reintegrated into the school system; others are given temporary housing and provided meals, sanitation, medical care, vocational training, HIV/AIDS education, access to recreational outlets and a safe space to grow into productive members of the community.
As a CAP grantee, the Wema Centre’s services and efforts have expanded and improved. For example, with CAP technical assistance, a review of beneficiaries’ files was conducted revealing that 80% of the children accessing Wema’s services had experienced some kind of AIDS-related trauma. This prompted Wema to focus its outreach on children whose parents died of HIV/AIDS-related causes. As a result, the Street and Community Outreach Project, which includes the Drop-in Center that welcomed Theoneste when it opened in 2006, has increased contact with groups of at-risk children. Through an open-door policy and services that promote positive behavior change, the Outreach Project also collects data that enables the organization to target its efforts more effectively.
“It was an awakening for us, when [CAP] came in… we were able to establish a much wider system of supporting vulnerable children at all levels,” said Wema’s Program Coordinator, Henry Otieno, “We created a completely new model for the kind of work we had been doing. And our staff is now much better trained, and our operations much more efficient, so we have been able to help more vulnerable children than we had been able to before.”
The numbers bear this out: before CAP, it took the Wema Centre 13 years to go from six initial beneficiaries to 300; with CAP assistance, it took only four years for that number to triple and exceed 900. Like Theoneste, these 900 boys and girls have found a home at Wema.
*To protect his privacy, the beneficiary's name has been changed.