Empowering Children, Communities and Families through Education

Following a recent attack on the Somali-Kenyan border where five people were shot dead including two policeman and a teacher, the Garissa Branch Chairman of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Ibrahim Atosh, said this week that it was concerned about the safety of its members in areas of Kenya bordering Somalia, and would support a withdrawal of teachers in the region until the government could guarantee their safety.

With such a move on the horizon, and with many schools already closed in the area, it is understandable that the affected teachers are not able or willing to work under such a cloud of fear until additional security measures are put in place. However, in the long term, it is the children themselves that are disturbed most significantly and such moves historically have long-lasting effects not seen by many.

It was just under a year ago in Thika when, in a similar vein, 6,000 teachers in the area were advised not to go to work by their Union Officials in a row of pay, and such a demonstration, irrespective of its own merits, had far-reaching effects on our work at AfCiC. With schools closing and with many of poorest children unable to eat having previously relied on school feeding programmes, Thika and the surrounding areas saw a huge influx of children coming to the street.

IMG_8099Once children are on the street, living a life of apparent freedom can seem so appealing in comparison to the order, discipline and relative structure of school and home, and once there, can often be very hard to pull away from, even with NGO’s such as AfCiC working with them and for them. The draw of making their own money through either begging or informal work (such as collecting scrap metal or carrying bags, luggage and shopping) and often the use and subsequent addiction to glue or ‘musi’, can make this move away from street life very difficult for the child. We at AfCiC see this tussle every day when boys we work with, when given the opportunity to come to our rehabilitation centre (Interim Care Centre) for 6-8 months, choose the streets instead, often purely because of the addiction they have built up, and their struggle to pull away from that.

So it is on this basis that we base much of our education empowerment work – on the belief that prevention through education is the key instrument to seeing a long-term street-child free town, and hopefully building a model which can be replicated elsewhere.

We operate a School Dropout Prevention Programme (SDPP), designed to identify those children most at risk in coming to the streets, and responding to that risk before they do. This process takes a number of forms;

  • School feeding programmes, operating in 3 local schools and where over 1500 children are provided with well-cooked and nutritious meals every day.
  • Payment for school uniforms, desk fees and equipment, an amount of money that, even with the provision of ‘free primary school’, can be prohibitive to many children and their families.
  • Child Sponsorship, a programme that allows us to place children who cannot be supported by their family in either boarding or day schools when the ‘free’ option is not appropriate. In addition to helping children go to primary school, through the help of donors, we facilitate access for some children into secondary schools – schools that always require fees – fees which are unaffordable to most children and their families.
  • Holiday clubs in each school holiday, designed to provide an alternative activity at a time when many children, without regular school and a meal each day, head to the street for food, money and entertainment.
  • Advocacy work, where AfCiC staff go into local schools in the to help children and teachers alike to understand and participate in debate in issues such as child rights, child abuse, HIV/Aids and parental responsibilities. Through Child Rights Clubs in local schools, we have reached over 4000 children as a way of increasing child participation in these matters, and have widened child access to education.
  • Teacher training, where we work with teachers to help them understand and identify when a child is most at risk to going to the street, and what they can do to help prevent that situation.


Even with these tools, ‘education empowerment’ doesn’t always have to focus on what we traditionally see as the home of education: a school. Whilst children are the focus of our work, it would be negligent of us to disregard parents and communities, individuals who are at the root of why children come to the street, and are arguably the stakeholders with the most power to prevent a child’s first transition from school to street.

Street children are, in many ways, just the fruit of a bad tree, with the root of that tree being the households, communities and wider society from which they come. Poverty, in whatever form, means many households cannot afford to provide their children with basic food and shelter, and a lack of education on HIV/Aids and protection, as well as a culture of large families, means planning ahead financially for extended families does not happen. Many parents, man, woman or both, are dogged by alcoholism, and child abuse, whether mental, physical, sexual, or through neglect, is common in families, and provides even more incentive for children to leave a dysfunctional home for a similarly dysfunctional life on the street.

Education focussing on these stakeholders is equally, if not more, important as educating our children, and we work with community leaders and many parents to help them change their situations, often by creating small businesses that they can hopefully sustain in the future.

On a wider scale, the problems we see here in Thika and Kenya are not new – they are problems that are duplicated across the developing world. The 2nd Millennium Development Goal (MDG) (as a whole group they are a set of goals aimed at bringing a focus to 8 key issues of development by 2015) is focussed on Education, specifically that every child across the world should have access to free primary school education. The UN have noted that enrolment in primary education in developing regions reach 90% in 2010, up from 82% in 1999, though in 2010,  they also note that 61 million children of primary school age were out of school, with more than half of these children (33 million) coming from sub-Saharan Africa.

However, what they fail to note is that even with the provision of primary school education, free or not, there are many hidden barriers to children actually taking up that offering, and that Education has to be focussed on more than just teaching in schools, if we are to move to a time when children are not ‘pushed’ to the streets due to a lack of care and basic provision in their family and community.

Whether or not teachers in the Garissa area strike or not, and that choice will still affect children in some way, in the long-run it is a holistic view of education, focussing not solely on children, that will help families and communities take up their responsibility of care for the children in their charge, and in the long-term, see children at-risk of going to the street find care and support much closer to home.

Volunteer Reflections

My name is James Mortimore. 9 months ago, I came to Africa for the first time, having just turned 30 and having left a job in London wanting to see a different side of the world. Understandably, I was both quite excited about doing something new, but also very scared, extremely uncertain about launching myself into a whole new realm of unknowns and possibilities. The plan, though slightly change in retrospect, was to spend 4 months working with AfCiC in Thika, Kenya, before spending another 2 months with an organisation called New Generation in Burundi, both organisations working in one way or another with street children, and combining this with some travelling in the East African region.


I write this, then, having just come back from Burundi, having left Kenya after nearly 5 months working with AfCiC in Thika. During that time, I was able to see a group of nearly 25 boys, formerly from the street, grow in confidence and contentment as they completed the final 4 months of their time at AfCiC’s Interim Care Centre (ICC), a residential rehabilitation centre for street children. It’s worth noting that for these boys, I didn’t see them when they were on the street, nor when they first arrived at the ICC, a notoriously difficult time!

The ICC is used as a temporary home for these children, helping them in the first instance to provide regular shelter and food, but also to overcome the frequent addiction many of the boys have to glue or ‘musi’, a petrol-based drug. In the longer term, the ICC also provides education in various forms, from the more commonly seen English, Maths, Ki-Swahili and Science, to the lesser seen but, for street boys, equally important, dancing, acrobatics, drama, music and martial arts.

On the whole, my experience with these boys was hugely positive and, as they graduated just before Christmas last year, everyone was very hopefully that these boys would be a success back with their families, with whom AfCiC had worked in the intervening period, and would be able to strive back in school, albeit to varying degrees given the natural swing of educational capabilities.

At the same time, I was also working quite closely with a lot of the boys who were currently on the street at that time, and was particularly excited when many of these boys were selected in the new intake for the ICC, just before I left for Burundi. It was exciting to see these boys who I had seen on the streets, addicted to glue, come to the ICC, put on a new uniform, get their haircut, get clean, and I particularly remember on their first day being with them when they saw their beds, complete with 3 blankets each, and the excitement plastered all over their faces.

It was easy from this first 5 months in Thika working with these boys to see what a difference AfCiC, and thereby street-child focussed organisations, can make in the lives of children so different to the ones I see each day in the UK, as well as my own.

Fast forward 3 months and I have returned to Thika and have been struck by some startling revelations – revelations that many have probably had before, but only now make sense to me having seen children I grew close to affected.

One example that illustrates this is a boy called Matthew (not real name), a boy I first met at AfCiC’s OPVC (Outreach Prevention for Vulnerable Children), and outreach centre in the heart of one of Thika’s poorest areas. It was in my first week in Thika, back in October, and whilst I didn’t really relate to him more than any others at that particularly time, I remember more vividly the time he was subsequently admitted to the ICC as a rescue case, it having later emerged he had suffered some quite serious sexual abuse from a member of his wider family. He was quite visibly traumatised and shaken, with one out-playing of his internal pain being a very tactile behaviour towards me (I can’t speak for any other staff members here), something I remember being very uncomfortable with and made an effort to curb.

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Over time, and with rehabilitation and a lot of care from staff, he grew back into a more confident and happy boy. He was clearly very intelligent, extremely helpful around the centre with cleaning and cooking, and I grew particularly close to him when all the other boys from the ICC went home to families for a week at Christmas as a trial period, whilst Matthew stayed at the centre, and I went and saw him and another boy every day, if nothing else just to stay busy as I also found being so far away from my own home at Christmas quite hard.


It then gave me great pleasure when just before I left to travel to Burundi, Matthew was admitted into a school near his home, and with some of the problems with his family seemingly fixed, it was on my return to Thika 3 months later that I looked forward to seeing him again, visiting him at his school and maybe seeing his home.

However, what I found on my first morning in Thika town was that he had very recently gone back to the streets, had started taking glue, and was looking quite ill looking worse than I had seen him for many months.

Having met with him and another two members of AfCiC staff, it turns out that whilst he very much enjoyed being at school, it was when he returned to his home where he had problems, and it was this breakdown in his family, caused by a new relationship his mother was having, that saw him return to street life.

In a similarly disappointing vein, I also returned to Thika to see a collection of the boys who were admitted to the new intake at the ICC back on the street, back taking glue, and many seemingly in an even worse state than they were 3 months ago, even before they were admitted to the ICC.

As I previously said, the revelations I got from these experiences were ones many people have had before, and it is on this foundation that much of the work of AfCiC is based. The revelations I had pointed me to the fact that however much work you do with the child, and however much work you put into their rehabilitation and education, unless the families and communities to which they are returned are able to positively cope with them, the work you put into the child is rendered useless.

Similarly, particularly in respect of the boys who left the ICC, largely due to withdrawal symptoms to glue, the boys and girls we work with need to be active participants in change. Change doesn’t just happen to these children – we cannot just turn a switch on and they are suddenly changed – they need to want to change. They need to be active participants rather than just passive observers.

A positive example of a boy who wanted to change is Antony, a member of the last intake at the ICC, and now living back with his mother and new fiancé, whilst attending school every day. Antony was always visibly bright and intelligent, and even though he lives in an unbelievably tiny two-room home with his Mum, Mum’s fiancé and young baby, he is determined to have a better future – a future intimated to in a video put together by AfCiC centred on Love and Forgiveness. Even with that determination to not return to life on the street, it is still the responsibility of AfCiC not to see Antony as a ‘success story’, but rather as a work in progress and someone with whom we should be working, like many others, for many years, rather than just seeing a return to family and school as the end of the process.

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What this past week, and the preceding months on which I have reflected, has done is show again that these individuals stories are just small symptoms of a much wider issue. In a meeting before Christmas, the AfCiC Director, John Muiruri, pointed to the analogy of a tree in explaining that street children are simply the fruit, albeit tainted in some way, of a rotten tree. Even the tree itself, representing the families and communities from which they came, is sometimes powerless to control the fruit being produced, as it is at the root where the damage is done.

This root is the same root that pervades developing countries throughout the world, and for me makes it easier to understand the role that global organisations like the UN have to play in tackling what for me seemed like a million miles away from New York or Geneva or London. How could an organisation like the UN really have an impact on Matthew’s or Antony’s future? Do Matthew and Antony really see a difference in their lives when somebody in the US or UK goes before a meeting of wealthy businessmen and talks about the importance of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’?

But the answer is in some way, yes, as much as it’s very hard to see in the day-to-day life here in Thika, and for these boys. What I have found hard to get my head round is that there are thousands of Matthew’s and Antony’s all across Africa and Asia and South America, even in Europe, Australasia and North America, and whilst I would love to see the UN come down to Thika, spend lots of money and time on ‘fixing the problem’ here, it really isn’t conceivable or practical!

To get to the root of the problem, thereby preventing boys and girls down the line from even coming to the street in the first place, organisations like the UN have to mobilise important people, whole countries and other global organisations, to agree to tackle global issues on health, education, ‘poverty’, hunger, and the environment, which in the long-term will see a difference for future Matthew and future Antony. I, like many, often struggle to see the effect of long-term goals, and often prefer to see the short-term gains which are easier to comprehend though, in reality, are often without substance and long-term benefit.

There is obviously no reason why AfCiC and similar organisations cannot also look at the root causes of why children come to the street, and many, including AfCiC, do exactly that. Increased training and dialogue with the community these children come from and a family sponsorship programme, designed to give families a means to provide for their children, are both important tools AfCiC uses in focussing on ‘prevention’ of street children rather ‘reaction to’ as the key to keeping children in prosperous family units and schools, and its only really now that I begin to understand how important these long-term plans are.

In the future, AfCiC want to be able to train and educate more people; children, families and communities alike; in issues such as Child Rights, in HIV/Aids awareness, in understanding the role of Government and the Constitution, and in many more similar areas. This training will, in the long-term, build the capacity of these individuals and groups to care for their children and not just relinquish responsibility to concerned individuals and local NGO’s to do that job for them. It’s been an interesting 9 months; hugely valuable and eye-opening, but certainly not one with a short-term happy ending.