Brian Murimi is a man about town. For the past seven years, the tall, soft-spoken 23-year-old has been combing the streets of Nairobi looking for street families so as to offer them long-term solutions to their challenges. He opens up to ESTHER AKELLO on how curiosity, divine direction, and collective responsibility have conspired to give hope to families many consider hopeless and a menace to society.
That is the name of the ‘underground’ movement that Brian Murimi is championing. This is because, there have been times when Murimi, the founder, has had to go under tunnels, bends and curves, in the still cover of the night to look for, wait for it… street families.
When Brian first told me what Love Light was about, I wondered what manner of profound insight would drive a 23-year-old young man, (who should be busy enjoying a laissez-faire life as people in that age group are wont to do), to intentionally scour dumpsites and river beds for street families, leave alone the obvious danger it poses and the enormity of a task that is nothing short of a suicide mission. His decision to the undertaking he assures me, although unclear at the beginning, was an early one, when he was just 16 years old, and influenced by a series of events. The biggest game-changer was the shocking loss of his father just two months after a short-lived illness and a month after Brian celebrated his 16th birthday. Ironically, that same year, Brian too had been suffering from an undiagnosed illness.
“My dad was my friend and mentor. His loss in 2007 took its toll on me and made me re-think what was important in life. It was then that the name Love Light came to me. I did not know what it meant, but it remained at the back of my mind,” says Brian.
His conviction would not reveal itself until two years later while recuperating from a medical procedure.
“I was reading the Bible in the book of Isaiah Chapter 58. It talks about how to please God through prayer, fasting and helping the poor. From that, I knew what I was supposed to do and I have never looked back,” says Brian.
Brian was also touched when he one day spotted a homeless person sleeping on his neighbourhood cobbler’s stand. It was his first time seeing a vagabond and the scene was unsettling. And that marked the genesis of the 58 Movement (as Love Light was called prior to 2014).
Brian never saw the homeless person again, but he had ignited an unquenchable fire within him. At that time, as luck, innovation or determination would have it, Brian was quite the entrepreneur in high school.
“I read a lot, so after a while, I started trading books with other students for profit. I decided to pour in 10 per cent of all my earnings to Love Light with the aim of having my first outreach programme once I finished sitting for my final national exams,” recalls Brian.
He also shared his plans with a friend who agreed to come on board. Business was not exactly booming but by the end of the year, Brian used all his profits of 100 Shillings to fund their first mission, which comprised of five bags of Mukimo (a mixture of mash potatoes, maize, beans and green leafy vegetables) and a heart full of determination. In the dead of the night, after a random scouting stint around their neighbourhood, the duo met up with a group of 15 street boys. The atmosphere was tense but Brian introduced himself anyway, determined to pass his message.
“We told them they were important, needed in society and worth the effort. We told them God loves them and asked to pray with them,” remembers Brian.
The pair would carry out other small-scale outreach projects thereafter in other areas giving out food, clothes and shoes not knowing that the tables were about to turn drastically.
Commitment comes knocking
One evening in 2010, while on his way home, Brian noticed a host of families gathered by the banks of Nairobi River, chatting and warming themselves by bonfires. True to form, he decided to organise an outreach programme. Realising the project was bigger than the previous ones, he called on his friends to not only chip in, but to accompany him on location as well. Four heeded the call and once more in the dead of the night, the crew ended up serving tea, chapatis and porridge to bewildered street families. When the crew was leaving, a friend suggested they plan for a follow-up.
“It was while on our second outreach project that we realised street families were people just like us. They had dreams and aspirations and we could see the yearning in their faces. We knew we had to do more. We knew we had to change their lives for the better,” recalls Brian.
Doing more meant knowing the families. Knowing the families meant commitment, consistency and resource mobilisation. The team made a decision.
“Our second outreach programe happened to be on a Friday, so we agreed to come back every Friday night thereafter, with food and sit with these families one on one. We have been doing it since,” says Brian.
For project sustainability, Brian realised more people needed to own it. So he reached out to a few more friends who reached out to more friends creating a ripple effect. Soon his team grew. Meanwhile, word about what Love Light was doing went round and soon the team was dealing with 30 street families. With time, the group was able to deduce what most families suffered from. Most come to the city to find good jobs but get none hence endingup in the streets.
The script gets even worse for women as in a bid to survive, they end up in flash marriages or dead end relationships where they are taken advantage of sexually, with most ending up as single mothers. In their efforts to sustain their families, they take up commercial sex work risking further pregnancies, abuse and disease.
As far as children are concerned, most are runaways, orphans or victims of broken families.To date, what Love Light started as nightly get-to-know meetings have since developed into a full-fledged curriculum geared towards giving street families a dignified yet sustainable life. The tenets of the project include identifying problems, finding and implementing solutions. The first tenet, identifying the problem, relies on trust, built over recurrent bonding visits including meals.
The second tenet, deals with identifying long-term solutions either through education or starting businesses.The third tenet (and where the training wheels come off), deals with arming the families with practical knowledge through mentorship, advice and counseling on issues including finance, family, sexuality and so on. The results are literally life changing.
“One of my best success stories is when a middle aged man broke down in my arms. He had come to express his gratitude and to say goodbye. He had been attending our mentorship meetings eventually managing to find a job out of town. He said our meetings helped him heal and change his perception of life,” Brian emotionally recalls.
There have been other successes. Brian speaks fondly of a woman who followed Love Light’s advice and joined a merry-go-round. From her earnings, she bought polythene bags and started selling them. Her family is no longer in the streets. Brian admits that there have been challenges. There were times when the burden seemed too heavy to bear and dwindling finances due to lack of consistent sponsorship. The general public has also stereotyped street families as mere lazy thugs who refuse to earn their keep thereby refusing to get involved with them. Poor security following recurrent terrorist attacks has also affected the programme.
“We have also partnered with the Nairobi county government to provide us with certification in order to avoid mistaken identity mishaps during swoops,” says Brian.
But with all the challenges, the team manages to elevate the lives of street families.
“The team and our supporters have been amazing. Our vision burns bright because of their passion and dedication,” concludes Brian.
Published March 2015