The hustle and bustle of Pangani close to the busy Juja Road gives one the impression that nothing good can come out of such a setting. But there is a life-changing oasis of peace within this environment. It provides a haven for street girls and their counterparts from poor slum families in Mathare, Korogocho, Dandora and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It’s within the precincts of Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church, Mathare.
Like the biblical good shepherds, during the months of January and February each year, social workers lead girls aged between four and 12 years from the streets into the centre. This will be home for the girls for the next one year during which time they are debriefed from street life behaviour and their physical and emotional health restored. Some of these girls have undergone a difficult life in the streets or slums, where their rights are violated by adults or sexually exploited and in the process acquire sexually transmitted diseases. Within this short time, their lives are transformed from begging and engaging in all kinds of anti-social behaviour.
Holistic formal and informal education is offered to the girls, some of who are adults but have never stepped into a classroom. Their talents are nurtured in an effort to help them fit in, as useful members of society when they return to their natural settings. The programme aims to empower the girls to achieve a fulfilled and transformed life away from the streets and eventually to reunite with their parents or guardians.
Those of school going age are enrolled in regular schools after they complete the programme and others into various vocational centres to learn skills they can use to make a living. The centre meets all their costs including uniforms, learning materials, food, transport and fees.
Pangani Lutheran Children’s Centre (PLCC) is a project of the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC). To date they have helped close to 300 street girls. This may seem like a small number considering the current estimates of children living in the streets are about 60,000. But as the Chinese proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.
The genesis of this centre goes back to 1993 when many street children and those from poor families in Mathare, Korogocho, Dandora and Mukuru kwa Njenga slums started flocking the KELC compound in Mathare looking for food and other assistance. The church fed them on bread and soda. Soon this turned into a regular feeding programme. It became clear that feeding and letting the children back into the streets or to their slum homes wasn’t enough. A holistic programme was necessary as many were out of school, while others were grappling with problems such as glue sniffing, drugs and alcohol and also suffered from various infections.
It was in 1994 when a Swedish missionary, Ruth Abrahamson, who at the time coordinated women activities in KELC came up with the idea of accommodating the children and giving them more care. Various indicators showed that girls were more vulnerable and needy than boys and so Pangani Lutheran Children’s Centre (PLCC) was born with an initial intake of 20 girls.
When I visited the centre, I talked with Susan Gatonga, a social worker and Claudia Heiss, a German missionary and also a social worker, who has been with PLCC for 10 years, six of them helping to rehabilitate the children. Both are passionate about their work and their faces light up as they talk about their achievements. The journey starts in the streets where social workers go to establish a relationship with the girls. It is through these interactions they get to know the status of the girls – those who are orphans, from street families, from the slums or just poor girls with nowhere to go.
Once they determine a child can do with help from the centre they approach their parents or guardians to make them understand why their daughter needs to be helped out of the streets. Some are sent to the streets by their parents or guardians to beg or engage in sex for money. But many are in the streets because they are genuinely needy and these are given priority by PLCC.
The guardians or parents are required to sign a consent form for their daughter to be admitted into the programme to avoid any confusion about the centre being an adoption agency. Only one child from each family is sponsored so as to give opportunity to as many needy families as possible. PLCC refers those they cannot absorb to other organisations helping the needy.
The first step after the girls are enrolled in the programme is to take them for medical check-ups. This is followed with comprehensive treatment of any diseases found and also weaning them from glue sniffing, alcohol and drugs if the girls were already engaged in these vices.
“We take the children straight from the streets. Their only common denominator is coming from the streets and not attending school. But they differ in many other characteristics like age, family background, attitude, behaviour, social and intellectual skills. We observe the girls keenly during the familiarization phase so that we can identify their individual needs and help them accordingly,” Susan explains.
“The main challenge we face when they start the programme is their minimal concentration span. They are used to doing so many things on the streets and so we have to train them to focus on what is being taught to them,” adds Claudia.
According to the social workers the girls often join the centre already traumatised and struggling with different issues like drugs and sexual abuse. Some parents in the slums have crude ways of dealing with problems. For instance, when they wish to sleep with men in their often one-room shack, they give drugs or alcohol to the children to put them to sleep, oblivious of the dangerous side effects. All traumatised girls are attended to by psychologists and are helped to fit in the programme.
“Another challenge the centre faces is of older girls who have never been to school and find it difficult to fit in regular schools after the one-year programme. Due to the stigimatisation they find in school, they often want to return to the streets but we encourage them and remind them the education they get is for their own benefit,” says Claudia.
Claudia adds that they often find difficulties getting schools to take in slow learners and those who have been out of school for extended lengths of time or have never been to school at all. For this reason, they are in the process of establishing a school to cater for children with special needs at their other centre in Ongata Rongai.
The Ongata Rongai centre currently has 13 children attending different local nursery schools, 69 in primary school and 16 in secondary. They are currently constructing classrooms at the centre for not only children under their care, but also those from the neighbourhood. Those girls who are not able to continue with formal education are registered for vocational courses. PLCC is in the process of starting a vocational training college.
The Ongata Rongai centre has been on a growth path and in 2002, through help from well-wishers, the church acquired a five-acre plot along Maasai Lodge Road where they have set up another home currently accommodating 47 girls. Merck Chemicals, an international pharmaceutical company based in Germany, recently installed solar power to cut down on electricity costs. The company has also put up one green house to help in food production. Plans are in place to put up more green houses that will reduce the cost of buying food and also bring in some income to the centre.
Hand Stretch Programme…
PLCC also runs the Hand Stretch Programme, which assists single parents and guardians of the children in the centre, as well as orphaned teens. The programme conducts seminars, workshops, and training to help these groups acquire skills that will make them self-reliance. Once trained, they are offered small loans to help them embark on income-generating projects like small-scale businesses or farming activities.
These seminars encourage the families and guardians of girls in the programme to become united and form strong social networks. This has seen them form groups to set up joint income-generating ventures. For instance, one group makes liquid soap for sale and domestic use, thus making a profit and also cutting down on the cost of buying soap for family use.
The centre also has a weaving training project aimed at giving youth, who are not in school, extra skills. Various products such as mats, bags, and kikoy are made and sold to make an income for the girls.
Published in November 2014