, NAIROBI, Kenya, July 12 – Walking through the muddy alleys of the Kibera slum, one easily notices the seemingly hard working nature of the dwellers. Countless businesses are in operation mainly dealing with food stuffs both raw and cooked. The slum is full of life as everyone goes about their work.
But behind this, are depressing stories of young boys and girls, some in their teens others even younger, heading their homes.
They are the mothers and fathers taking care of their siblings like a parent would.
Winfred Kalewa is one such child. At only 15 years, circumstances have forced her into being a parent to her four siblings. She has played this role since she was 12 years when her mother was killed in cold blood at the height of post election violence.
“My dad died in 2006 then my mum died in 2007 during the violence. She had gone outside to buy food at a place called Mashimoni (within the slum) and that’s where she was killed,” Winnie explains as she tries to fight back tears.
“She had left in the evening at about 5pm and never returned. I was wondering where she went to. I could not leave the house because it was bad outside, there was violence everywhere. After two days that’s when my neighbors told me that she was killed. It was hard on us because she is the one we were depending on,” she goes on to say.
The form one student at a nearby day secondary school now takes care of her brothers Maurice 12, Lawrence 10 and sisters Susan who is eight and three-and-a-half year old Abigael who calls her mum. They all live in a one roomed mud shanty in Lindi where they pay Sh800 monthly rent.
She says her day begins at 5am when she wakes up, makes breakfast and then prepares her siblings for school.
Although she has relatives, Winnie says none of them wanted to foster them after the death of their mother. Instead, the five children are assisted by the Kibera Community Self Help Programme also known as Kicoshep.
“We buried her at the Lang’ata cemetery with the assistance of neighbours. Some of our relatives came for the burial but none of them mentioned anything about us afterwards,” she says.
What strikes me about Winnie is her zeal to raise her brothers and sisters the right way, and her resilience despite the hardships she faces and the fact that she doesn’t complain.
So what does she do when her siblings misbehave? I pose.
“I beat them. Especially if one stays out late. They are supposed to be inside the house by 6.50pm because the security here is not so good. I also don’t allow them to play with children here, they play by themselves and when in school,” she says authoritatively.
But it has not been easy for this teenage girl who wants to become a surgeon in future and get out of the slum life. Taking up the role of a parent has left her with no time for herself or even her friends.
“The boys in this area are not good. They sometimes want to take advantage of me because they know I have no parents. They tell me that they can give me money for food and other expenses but I tell them I can do it on my own,” she says.
Unlike Winnie who is full of optimism for a better future, Millicent Aoko, a 17 year old who is taking care of her nine siblings seems to have lost hope.
I find her in their one-roomed shanty with seven of her siblings where they are having lunch. They are eating ugali with green vegetables and beans.
Millicent narrates that after going through a rape ordeal in 2007, contracting HIV and worse still losing both her parents, she feels she has no future and has even dropped out of school to take care of her brothers and sisters.
“I wake up at 5am, prepare the children and when they leave for school I go to look for odd jobs,” she says.
“I don’t get a job everyday and when I do, I earn about Sh100 or Sh150. So what we mainly eat is green vegetables because we cannot afford anything else. In a week I can get a job for three days only and that money is not enough for everything,” she adds.
Many orphans like Winnie and Millicent have been left at the mercy of charity organisations to assist them with their day to day needs.
This is despite the fact that there is the cash transfer fund established by the government to assist orphans and vulnerable children. The fund provides cash transfers to poor households taking care of orphans and vulnerable children.
Sophie Donde, Programme Manager at Kicoshep says they provide food, clothing and sometimes pay rent for 15 child-headed families within Kibera. They also offer counseling for the children to ensure they don’t stray.
“We mostly identify them through the caregivers who are our ambassadors in the field and some are referred to us by the organisations we work with,” she says
“We know the number of orphans that are in Kibera are about 40,000 but for the child-headed homes, I don’t think there is a study that has been established,” she adds.
British Airways and Comic Relief, a British charity organisation, have also come on board to assist such vulnerable children in a new charity programme dubbed Flying Start.
Sophie Onyango, Community Relations Coordinator says they aim to raise about Sh980 million in the next three years to assist vulnerable children in Africa.
“I hope that everybody out there can know that there are people who really need to be helped. It is sad that a child like Millicent is thinking about everyone else other than herself believing that she is here just to take care of her siblings,” she says.