George Ochieng’ defied being shackled by the fate that awaits millions of slum children and luckily made it. Today, his life’s purpose is helping slum children avoid the many traps lying in wait to destroy their lives. This unsung hero shares his experience with MWAURA MUIGANA of a life encapsulated in the lyrics of the song “Ghetto Child” by celebrated RnB singer, Joe and featuring Shaggy.
“There’s a world out there that I wanna see
There’s a man that I’m destined to be
I won’t be stopped by the ghetto streets
I believe inside that I can’t be beat
This life could be a ball and chain
If you let yourself get caught in the game
I had some friends who sold drugs for dough
But I don’t intend to go down that road …
One day I’m gonna change the world
Make a better place for every boy and girl
Everyone in need, homeless families
Have a place to sleep and food to eat…”
While growing up, George Ochieng’ was unaware of any other life outside the sprawling Korogocho slums in Nairobi County. A visit to his uncle in the neighbouring Lucky Summer Estate couldn’t have been more eye opening. George irrevocably fell in love with the one-bedroom permanent house complete with a flush toilet, a dining table, running water and a cleanliness he had never imagined existed. He henceforth aspired to get out of the slums and live like his uncle by working hard in school.
Everything was going well for him until his parents divorced. His mother, Jane Auma, was hard-pressed to maintain her family as the sole breadwinner. It didn’t help matters that after sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), his mother fell sick and was admitted at the Kenyatta National Hospital for a long time. George didn’t have a choice than to drop out of school to fend for his four siblings through foraging the dumpsites. He effectively became a street boy.
Luckily, in 2000, a good Samaritan introduced him to a Catholic nun, Sister Gill Horsefield of the Medical Mission Sisters. She was running a community health programme Huduma ya Afya ya Vijana in Korogocho slums. The programme trained slum youth to become community health workers and change agents. Owing to his diligent work in the programme, George eventually became a trainer. Sister Horsefield also noticed his potential and sponsored him for secondary education at Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School in Korogocho from 2001 to 2004.
While working in the programme, George realised there was a lot to be done for the community. For instance, many children dropped out of school after KCPE due to lack of fees and it was a challenge securing vocational training for them. Ensuing stress and lack of guidance and counselling led most to crime, drugs, alcohol and substance abuse, prostitution and other anti-social activities.
When Sister Horsefield left the country in 2006, George decided to start a project to help overcome challenges of poverty, drugs, alcohol and substance abuse through advocacy, moral and religious teachings. He brought together 10 friends also brought up in the slums and with similar experiences. They came up with Slum Child Foundation (SCF) to tackle these issues.
From school to school…
George and his friends split into groups and visited different schools in the slums to share their individual experiences with the students to inspire them to keep off from social ills and work towards realising their aspirations.
“The initial focus was on the vulnerable girl child who lacked basics like sanitary towels and was often forced to contend with improvised towels that were unhygienic. Other desperate girls received money from boys and men to buy sanitary wear in exchange for sex, thus risking contracting sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy or forced early marriages, and ultimately dropping out of school,” George explains.
Many girls were encouraged through these school visits to change their behaviour. SCF sought for ways to bring more girls to the fold through joint activities. This is how the annual students convention that brings together children from slum schools in Korogocho, Kariobangi and surrounding areas was born. The convention brings on board society role models as facilitators to give hope and inspiration to the children. The event is normally attended by over 250 students and in addition to crucial life lessons they are taught, each girl child takes home a packet of sanitary towels.
“My former school, Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School, offers the venue for the convention, which is held in September of each year to coincide with the United Nations Day of the Girl Child,” George notes. George and his team mobilise organisations and individuals to donate sanitary towels for distribution during school visit programmes and at the annual convention.
It was Prof James Ole Kiyiapi, then a permanent secretary in the ministry of education, who challenged SCF to incorporate boys in their programmes. Prof Kiyiapi argued that boys, too, needed to be empowered not only for their own sake but also to stop being contributors to some of the challenges facing the girl child such as rape, drugs, unplanned pregnancies and gender violence. SCF restructured their programmes to include boys and girls under various sub-themes.
Pads not drugs campaign: This campaign runs in girls’ schools where they are taught about ills of drugs and substance abuse, early sex and prostitution. They also receive sanitary pads.
Boys as change agents: This campaign is specifically for boys. The volunteers visit boys’ schools to teach moral values such as the need to respect women, avoiding drugs, alcohol and other substance abuse, as well as crime.
Out of school: This forum brings together children on Saturdays to participate in different activities. CFC mobilises well-wishers and support groups to spend the day with the children engaging in various activities such as sports, reading, singing, drama and so on, to help nurture their talents.
Toto club: This is specifically for small children to provide them with fun and teach them social interaction skills.
Home visits: Volunteers also go to homes to reach out to children and parents who are not able to attend programmes outside home. These volunteers include professionals in areas such as counselling, nutrition and health.
Students’ annual convention: This annual event has a new theme each year. This year’s theme will be on narcotics to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Narcotics to be held in New York later in the year. SFC is already engaging youth in and out of school to come up with declarations on drugs to be presented at the New York meeting.
Why focus is on drugs…
Drug use and substance abuse are a major challenge in the slums. Due to poverty, unemployment, stress and other factors, most adults and youth resort to drugs and alcohol. Consequently, crime rate is high while girls and women resort to prostitution to afford the very basics. Teenage pregnancies and school dropout is high among young girls.
“The issue of drugs always springs up as a major challenge whenever we talk to the youth,” says George.
George’s voluntary work among the youth and slum community has attracted attention from local organisations like the National Authority for Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA), the United Nations and other agencies that focus on drugs. SCF has been invited to take membership and also participate in various organisations working to control the use of drugs and substance abuse. These include the East Africa Youth Network (EAYN), the World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD), Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
In 2012, George was invited to a high profile one-week conference organised by WFAD in Stockholm, Sweden and gave an account of his efforts in dealing with drugs among the slum youth in Kenya.
When the US President Barrack Obama made comments about drugs, many youth in the programme felt he was lenient about drug abuse. George wrote a letter of protest to President Obama on behalf of the youth. It was picked up by social media and also highlighted by media in America and Europe. Many pined to see the young Kenyan who wrote to President Obama and this earned George an invite to the fourth edition of the WFAD conference in Sweden for the second time.
“I gave my own experience of slum life and the global impact of drugs and substance abuse on our children and youth. I also differed with the US President’s comments about drugs,” he highlights his address at the conference.
DRUG Network, an international news agency, shared George’s story in the Internet after the Stockholm conference. An international organisation, Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, was very impressed and invited SCF to be a member. George was subsequently sponsored by UNODC to the one-week 58th session of the UN Commission on narcotic drugs in Vienna, Austria in March this year. His address was titled ‘Slum Voices at the UN’ and reflected on his own experience.
He was impressed by the united front against drugs and substance abuse from European and American nations. He mooted the idea of a Pan African Substance Abuse Consortium (PASAC). He brought together several Africans and the idea took off. This is now an African chapter of WFAD. He is currently mobilising a number of organisations to speak with one voice in addressing the issue of drugs and substance abuse. Several UN partner organisations have expressed willingness to partner with PASAC.
SCF doesn’t have a source of income. George operates a boda boda business for part of the day to raise office rent. The other four volunteers do their own small businesses for upkeep and assisting the programme.
George is married with one child.
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Published in May 2015