A young lady steps out of her flat in Roysambu estate, just over 10 kilometres from the Nairobi city centre, to meet me at around half past noon. Chelang’at Rero is accompanied by her niece who, like her, is carrying a couple of bags in her hands, as they prepare to let my cameraman and I tag along on their short mission.
At least once a week, Chelang’at makes time to provide a meal and distribute face masks to homeless children who are found near the Roysambu Bridge, close to where she lives. She said she usually does this alone but this time round she has her niece and us.
We hardly spoke as we made our way to the Thika superhighway near just a stone’s throw away from where the children were. I kept on wondering what would drive such a young person to take up such a cause.
As we headed to an ‘island’ on the highway, I counted nine children, all boys, probably between the ages of nine and 16. Though dirty, the children were not as completely shabby as I had expected. However, they were surprisingly calm when we approached them.
It was a scorching hot day as is expected during the month of September just before the onset of the short rains season and the hunger the boys had was palpable.
Chelang’at began unpacking and distributing white plastic plates to the boys but, still, there was no scramble to get in line. They patiently sat down as she served, and those who wanted extra helpings asked.
Chelang’at said a number of things motivate her to help these boys. One of them is that she endured a difficult childhood after her father left the family and she would not want to see others go through anything like that.
“When I was young, I grew up without a father; our dad left us when I was barely seven years old. I stayed with our mom. At our home, we are eight (children). Our father left us and remarried leaving my mom with a burden of raising eight children,” she said.
She said that one of the most difficult aspects of her father’s absence was the struggle to get an education. She recounted how she barely made it through her first year of high school because of that.
“Joining high school, there was a piece of land that was supposed to be sold so that I join Form One. My father accepted that it be sold so that I can join high school but, unfortunately, he went behind everyone’s back and started taking the money.”
She added that she and her siblings were forced to do odd jobs to put food on the table and save a little for their education but it was not enough.
“Fundraisers were held for me until I returned to school. Actually, I was just going back to do my exams because that academic year had come to an end and in high school there was no repeating.”
She also credits the help from well-wishers as another motivation for her. This, she said, was instrumental in helping her finish her high school education.
She maintained that an act of kindness, no matter how small, can go a long way in changing someone’s life.
As they ate in silence, she handed out the face masks with each boy receiving his humbly. In the distance, a young man, definitely not a homeless person, began calling out to Chelang’at derisively asking her to go to him and also serve him.
Furious, I kept throwing dirty looks at him but none of that appeared to affect Chelang’at. Her eyes, the only visible part of her face, seemed unperturbed by the unwanted attention from the young man.
The young man eventually gave up as Chelang’at served the last of the food to a tenth boy, and then went round talking individually to the boys.
She told me that it was part of her work as she considered them to be her family and it was important for family to talk.
As she stood there, I got the distinct impression of an older sister looking after her younger brothers. She did not look remotely tired and never uttered a word of complaint as she surveyed them.
I kept on being amazed by this 23-year-old. Many youth her age, in her situation, would be preoccupied with other things, such as searching for employment and completion of education.
The boys were lively and mostly coherent when they spoke to us. Chelang’at said that some of them did not even know their own names because of the effects of drugs they had taken.
Despite this, those that spoke had hopes and dreams which they shared. Kevin Nyakundi, one of the boys there, said he had been living on the streets for the last four years.
Kevin’s parents are still alive but he pointed out that he found himself leading this life after being misled by bad company. He said his education ended in Class Six because his family was unable to raise the necessary school fees.
The situation is dire but he is grateful that Chelang’at took it upon herself to help them when most of society shuns them.
“We are very grateful for the food she gives us because, honestly, no one else can volunteer themselves to come and give us that food. We are very grateful and may God bless her, bless her abundantly.”
He, however, remains optimistic that his situation will change and he will be able to get a job and fend for himself.
“We just sleep outside but if we can get someone who will sponsor us to study a course…like I would like to study a course in mechanics so that even as I get help, I will also be able to help another person,” Kevin said.
Eventually, we were treated to a short rap session which most of the boys joined in on.
As we prepared to leave, I turned to Chelang’at and told her that I had not carried any money with me to leave the boys. I had covered stories of such children before and on those occasions they asked if I could give them some money to help them thereafter. To my shock, Chelang’at told me that it will not be necessary.
She said that not even she gives them money. Instead, she has taught them to ask her to buy for them specific things they need rather than asking for handouts.
“These ones are serious, they really want to leave this life behind,” she said.
As if on cue, one came to tell her that he had a pain in his throat, possibly a case of tonsillitis, and asked if she could buy him some medicine. Chelang’at said she will see what she can do and then she said her final goodbyes and we left.
Before we parted ways, Chelang’at expressed her desire to see a day when there are no children living on the street, that all children, and adults alike, will have a home to go every night and food to eat.
She hoped that society and big corporates will devote more resources to helping such people who are determined to escape their plight.
A lot of bad things happen around us but this experience taught me that there remains a lot of good in the world and the youth, with the right motivation, can truly be the change the world needs.