NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 15 – “Higher, higher, higher, higher Jesus higher,” her sharp voice could be heard as far as 10 metres away as she praised her maker, maybe – or just trying to attract the attention of anyone who cared.
The 7-year-old needs divine intervention for her own security and that of her siblings, but the coins are equally important since it is the only guarantee for a meal and even sleep.
Mary has been outside Kimathi House for some time but on this day, she caught my attention.
And even as I retreated to where she sat on a cloth, holding a small empty bottle, a train of queries run through my mind.
What does her future hold?
Why have the authorities turned a blind eye on them?
It’s about 8pm on April 4 and I had just left the office. Everyone else was rushing home – the streets were still busy.
“Hi, what’s your name?,” I asked, and after a prolonged stare, she responded, this time in a low tone.
She went on to disclose that her mother was around – a few meters away on the same street, just to make sure that I knew someone was watching.
Interestingly, she didn’t point using her fingers, and didn’t turn to that direction where her mother was seated – but she simply signalled using her eyes as if in fear.
“Why do you seem nervous? ” I posed.
Her response was heart wrenching, “my mother…I have to borrow until 11pm.”
Innocently, she added, “my target is Sh500 every day.”
And yes, Mary is a school-going, child.
She wears light clothes in the cold – what seems to be a strategy by her mother to attract compassion, who is warmly covered as later established.
-I know this is not right-
Despite her tender age, Mary knows what she’s doing is wrong.
“This is not good since I am still a baby,” she said, a shred of evidence that her conscience is alive.
But she has limited options since borrowing money on the streets is her only assurance of sleeping early after a meal, in her mother’s rental home in Mathare slum.
Her school is located within the slum.
The conversation was over and as I departed, she lifted her small arm, bade goodbye and then said, “thank you, uncle. See you tomorrow.”
-Meeting Mary’s mother-
It would take a week to meet Mary’s mother, who was this time not seated far away from her daughter, who was on this day joined by her elder sister, 10, and younger brother aged five years.
She only agreed to my interview request after Mary remembered me.
Her story is of a worried mother, not because her family is in the streets borrowing which amounts to child labour, but because of a worrying trend of abductions in the city.
Her more than two decades in the city is full of regrets but she is determined to rewrite the story of her children.
But how is it possible?
She doesn’t intend to go back to her roots in Meru County but hopes to change the fortunes of her family right in the streets of Kenya’s largest city.
And though she is ready to work and allow her children to be just be children, her list of worries is endless.
“I didn’t not go to school. What kind of work can I do?” She asked.
Peninah who freely gives her contact is, however, ready to do a casual job.
“I don’t feel good using my children to borrow money,” she said, facing the floor as if ashamed.
“When we can’t raise our rent (Sh1,500), we sleep in the streets of Nairobi.”
In the streets, she said a myriad of challenges faces them which include attempts by “strangers to steal my babies.”
Three of her friends have lost their babies in the last few months.
But the big question is, who will help Kenya’s future leaders, the children?
The number of street families and children being abused either as labourers like in the case of Mary is ballooning every day, as their guardians take a back seat, hoping to eat from their sweat.
Over 30,000 cases of child abuse were reported in Kenya over the past 10 years through the national child helpline service 116.