The glue bottles and the children holding them up to their faces are a common sight in big Kenyan cities. Walking in a high fog, these children hold on to their bottles with their teeth, keeping the poisonous fumes close at all times. The thick orange glue stains the rims of filthy bottles, cans, mouths and noses.
Glue is a drug of choice; cheap and easy to get, it quells hunger pangs and keeps the cold at bay. One child reported that it gave him the courage to eat garbage. The fumes are highly addictive and the effect almost instantaneous. On the other hand, the glue carries with it a high risk of brain damage, respiratory infections and other diseases that will almost certainly remain untreated on the streets. The children get hallucinations and delusions, lose their appetite, lose weight and can even die. Instances of paralysis have been reported in children who have used the glue either for a long period of time or in large quantities. This paralysis can be reversible if the children immediately stop sniffing; otherwise the paralysis will travel to the respiratory tract, causing death. In Kenya, children as young as five have been reported using glue. Street children scavenge, beg, steal and prostitute themselves for the ten cents it takes to buy a hit from the women who sell it from large barrels.
A Kenyan group that rehabilitates street children estimates that 52-90% of Kenyan street children are addicted to their glue inhalation habit. According to a government estimate, there are 50,000 street children in Nairobi and 300,000 living around the country; the number of children addicted to glue has the potential to be astronomically high.
This is just another example of what crushing poverty will do to the priorities of a family, a government and a society. While Kenya is not the poorest African countries, there are too many in these countries who live in garbage dumps, slums with open sewers running outside their doors, huddle in doorways or out on the muddy sidewalks. In light of this, abandoning children to their fate on the streets of the city may seem like a necessary option for families stretched too thin; but how can this option by tolerated by society at large? How is an 11-year old girl prostituting herself for the glue it will take to forget her hunger and cold not considered a priority for any government?
It is easy to forget children; they won’t raise a militia, they won’t vote you out of office, they won’t affect general productivity if they die their small deaths in their filthy slums. This is what happens when families cannot cope and governments cannot or will not react; society accepts that children and their potential are allowed to wither away, drugged, abused, uneducated, unloved and forgotten.
It is uncomfortable to see these children. They are dirty, high, with little of that charming innocence that softens our shallow hearts. But these children will not grow out of this phase; adulthood will not automatically bring with it sobriety and responsibility. These children will be forever damaged physically and emotionally by their experiences on the street and their addiction. They will not, for the most part, be able to contribute to their society even when they are older. They may not make the perfect poster children for a campaign that will appeal to American suburbia, but that does not make them any less of an important and tragic aspect of the poverty that ails some African countries.