Benjamin Ogunyo is getting Kenya’s street children back into their homes by empowering their families to become economically independent, socially responsible, and emotionally accessible for their estranged children. By alleviating the severe pressures impoverished families face, he is helping build healthier communities capable of taking responsibility for solving problems together and overcoming poverty, crime, disease and hopelessness.
La nuova idea
Frustrated by the growing multitudes of children living on Kenya’s streets, Benjamin decided the only lasting way to help street kids is to begin at home—the very place they originally abandoned. He believes that no matter how difficult the situation, the best solution for everyone lies in reuniting families and rekindling emotional bonds that have been stressed to the limits by external pressures. While existing programs exacerbate desperate situations by locking troubled youth up and further isolating them, Benjamin’s program successfully gets kids off the streets, and back into their communities, improving life for the entire family.
Benjamin’s organization, koinonia, a Greek word, that means “doing it together in partnership”—is set up to engage youth and their estranged families to work toward successful reconciliation. The program is no easy task, demanding long hours of dedication: Benjamin and his team befriend youth on the streets and learn about each child’s circumstances, then convince the entire family to commit to a carefully planned strategy for reuniting. Though this first step is emotional, the second is more practical. To alleviate economic instability—a major cause of stress—the team provides counseling and job skills training. They tackle the situation with long-term goals in mind, supporting education for young children, apprenticeships for older ones, cooperative childcare among families, joint venture initiatives, and business microloans—all to strengthen entire communities and give parents a second chance with their children.
Beginning in the 1970s, large urban migrations gave rise to sprawling slums in Kenya’s major towns and cities. As poverty grew rampant, the capital city Nairobi was overwhelmed by masses of people unable to afford even to live in the squalid shantytowns—and so they end up struggling hand-to-mouth on the city streets. Today, an entire generation of children has known no other life beyond the streets, growing up with little hope for the future.
Over the years various governmental and citizen sector programs have attempted to address the preponderance of homeless children roaming Kenya’s streets. As a short-term effort to make street kids as safe as possible, many agencies provide free food, clothing and sometimes shelter, but it is only a temporary solution to an enduring problem. Consequently, this approach has merely exacerbated a dire condition as impoverished kids continue to pour into the cities from the countryside. Smaller towns like Eldoret in Western Kenya—where Benjamin initiated the project—also attract street children. Many of them are orphans of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, while others are there because desperate parents have forced them to go beg for money. None of these children has easy access to education, given the lack of free primary schooling, so kids from poor families drop out early and are either “pushed” or “pulled” to street life. Combine this with a host of other problems, ranging from adolescent rebellion to a breakdown of the extended family structure due to migration, and Kenya has a complicated cycle on its hands.
The consequences of so many children living on the streets are dramatic: theft, murder, high rates of HIV/AIDS infection, and loss of intellectual and work potential are just some of the results. As a knee-jerk reaction, the government’s response to this situation has been to take a tough stance; it attempts to clean up the streets by locking away children who have fallen into a life of crime and poverty. But the existing institutions lack both educational and rehabilitative services, doing nothing to improve a child’s future prospects. Even worse, the government relies on unsustainable donor funds to run these expensive institutions. Benjamin rejects the idea of institutionalizing children and thinks the government’s actions are both optimistic and shortsighted—a case of treating the symptoms rather than inventing a cure
Benjamin has developed a two-part strategy for his team. They begin in the most direct manner: hitting the streets to befriend and respectfully talk to children in order to learn why they are living on the streets. Armed with this knowledge, Benjamin designs an intervention program for each child and works individually with the child and his/her family unit with the ultimate goal to integrate the former street child back into the home.
Working with the information the child provides, Benjamin and his team assess the root of the conflict and brainstorm solutions so that the child can return home. In the best scenarios, the young person is willing to go home, and the next step is for Benjamin to visit the family and begin counseling them. He prepares them to accept the child back by discussing the various sources of conflict that often push children onto the streets. One effective method he utilizes is to encourage parents to remember the dreams they once had for their children before the stress of life became overwhelming. In many cases, Benjamin is able to touch on long-buried emotional bonds and remind everyone that there is still hope. This tactic relieves feelings of guilt and replaces them with a desire to help one another, thus creating a more neutral ground when the child comes back into the home.
Even as a family is repairing years of emotional damage, Benjamin believes that they must learn to care for their children through economic independence and stability. To meet these fundamental needs, Benjamin encourages families and neighbors to organize supportive groups aimed at improving overall family and community welfare: setting up childcare exchanges, establishing joint ventures, sharing access to food, and taking advantage of micro-business loan projects. To support the long-term educational goals, Benjamin and his team convince young kids to return to school and older ones to start working in apprenticeships. Many have set up their own small businesses to earn additional income to fund further studies. Currently, the program serves 105 children and 25 families.
While there are many successes, the unfortunate reality is that not all children are willing or able to return home. Benjamin has to allow some street kids to go, but he tries to keep in close touch whenever possible. He believes that if the child feels someone is interested in his/her welfare, at some future time the youth might decide to return to school or try to find work. Benjamin has managed to convince some children to get off the streets by using what they tell him about their dreams to connect them with appropriate programs and opportunities. As a last resort, he does not entirely rule out the effectiveness of some rehabilitation centers for certain kids - especially orphans and those coming from severely dysfunctional homes. But he believes the most suitable option for children with families is always to start back in the home.
Benjamin’s program relies on resources from a number of institutions: Uasin Gishu, the district children’s advisory committee, and Moi University. He has also secured both financial and technical support from Indiana University and addresses HIV/AIDS through partnerships with them and AMPATH.
Benjamin began life struggling to survive. He was born into an extremely poor family that was torn apart early on; his mother was left destitute in a rural area while his father left to seek work as a laundry man and became disabled and alcoholic. Lacking support at home, Benjamin was only able to attend school because of his own perseverance and hard work. He traveled extra miles to earn money for school by growing and selling tomatoes. Along the way, Benjamin got lucky; he befriended a Christian missionary who paid part of his school fees and later found him a job to fund his education. Benjamin always worked hard—washing cars and doing numerous odd jobs—in order to continue his studies.
A self-taught social worker, Benjamin began volunteering to care for street children at the Eldoret Children’s Rescue Center. At the center he saw the limitations of existing programs: they were simply supplying food, clothing and shelter, but had no long-term action plan. The center’s resources were insufficient to improve their lives in a meaningful way, and Benjamin realized that the children needed education to empower them to take control of their own destinies. So he initiated an informal program and began teaching the children how to read and write—the skills most needed in the community.
Benjamin became a great teacher—even though he himself was not able to continue school beyond the secondary level given his financial limitations. So many people recognized his talents along the way that he grew confident that he could successfully create a home school. This school soon became the best in the district—though it had the unforeseen effect of drawing more kids away from their impoverished families in order to get a good education. Benjamin’s program became so popular among all stakeholders of the center that he was soon asked to start a formal education program on site. To get himself up to speed on all he needed to know, he attended the Mully Children’s Center, where he learned the ins and outs of running a formal education curriculum. Today, Benjamin is putting these lessons to work as the Koinonia program helps hundreds of children get off the streets, reunite with their families, and attain an education that will give them confidence to succeed in the future. Benjamin is married with two children and lives in Eldoret.