I finally got a chance to look at the Africa Action blog after months of a nearly unbelievable lack of internet access. As I was reading the recent posts, the piece about the kids sniffing glue in Kenya was heart wrenching…especially after seeing children just like them firsthand. At the time, I had no idea what could possibly be done about it, but I felt very inspired to write something of my own. Here goes:
I recently visited Kenya for the first time and, as someone originally from the United States, it was quite a different situation from my usual experiences. In some cases, the subtle cultural differences were so profound and complex that even now, almost three months after leaving the country, I am still wrestling with the little things – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the hardest things I had and still have trouble processing is an issue that’s really no small thing at all – kids inhaling glue in Kenya. It’s still difficult for me to find the right language to describe how it makes me feel – how depressing and sickening it is to me. First of all, coming from the U.S., I had never seen street kids before. Then, while in a matatu [a form of public transportation in Kenya] in Nairobi, we passed some kids lying flat out on the sidewalk. The first child I saw was wearing black pants that were completely torn up, and a shirt so ragged and filthy that his looks went far beyond what I considered poverty to be like. It was his shoes that really struck me though. I just remember the one, because his other foot was under his leg, as he lay corpselike, completely passed out. Where the sole meets the part of the shoe that usually covers and protects the toes, about one-third of his foot was totally exposed – like someone had put a firecracker right there and just blasted out the end it. My first reaction was that he must be a homeless orphan, and his state was so rough that I was beyond speechless – I could barely comprehend what I was seeing. And then I saw the other kids who were with him:
They were on the sidewalk too. One was sitting up, bottom and legs on the ground, propping himself up with his arms just behind his back, almost like he was lounging. His clothes were in a little bit better shape than the boy I saw first, but not by much. He wore a sweater or something like it, which was filthy and gray. His signature feature, though, was the small, empty liquor bottle that hung down from just below the tip of his nose and upper lip, so the bottle’s opening would rest just millimeters from his nostrils. It just hung there…emitting a constant flow of glue fumes so he didn’t even have to force himself to huff it. The intoxicants just flowed into his lungs with each breath he took.
It’s strange, because the only reason I even knew it was glue was because, a day or two earlier, while sitting outside an internet café in Kiserian, I was approached by an adult who had been sniffing the same substance. The man who came toward me staggered heavily, as though each step he took was a struggle to keep from crashing to the uneven dirt and rock between the shops and the street. And he had one of those small bottles in his hand, and between each lunging, staggering step, he brought the bottle to his nose for a sniff, as if he were taking drags from a cigarette. He said angrily, “Give me ten bob!” [like asked for ten “bucks” in the U.S.; bob is slang for the Kenyan shilling, and the amount he asked for was worth about 12 U.S. cents at the time] Not knowing if he might attack me because he was so high, I said “NO!” stood up, and quickly retreated deep into the internet café.
When I finally went back outside, a guy was sitting nearby and said that the man who had been accosting me was “really a great guy when he’s not on that glue. He’s a really great guy. You’ll see him in the market and talk to him like any normal person. But once he starts on that glue, it changes him completely.”
I believe this glue abuse is a symptom of deeper problems in the country, but it’s so difficult to figure out such complex and dynamic issues when you’re an outsider, who lived there for only three months. At first glance, I thought those kids were orphans, but some of them have parents at home who would take care of them, but they get in with the wrong crowd and go down the wrong path. At least, that’s what I was told. A solution I often heard was that more people needed to pray to God – I even heard that Kibaki got the police to round up a lot of those kids and put them in school. I don’t really know what happened. I was in Kenya to volunteer in a small, primary school on Maasai land - just passing through.
Now that I’m back in U.S., I am amazed sometimes by the order and calmness with which everyone proceeds about their day and work. When I saw homeless people in D.C. my first reaction was to stay away – what if they tried to rob me? – but then I realized that they probably had some access to food. And then I remembered those kids on the streets of Nairobi who were starving – desperate; I had even heard of instances where they would threaten to throw human feces at passerby, if they were not given money. It’s such a terrible situation but I know that it’s impossible to focus only on the negativity. I just keep reminding myself of the words of an old Sowetan Tswana man I met named Daru, his eyes getting milky and blind, whose son died in Tanzania in exile during the war against the apartheid regime in South Africa…He said, “Khotso (a name given to me in Lesotho meaning peace)…Khotso, you must go home and write about this. Educate the children…We want food man, not guns.” And it’s all true.
I hope that in writing down my experiences, more people will seek to understand and try to help not only the children who are abusing glue, but also look to address the conditions that make sniffing glue an attractive escape.
Those street kids in Kenya need so much more than the glue they have – and they deserve more too.
For more information on what can be done, check out The Advocacy Project’s webpage on the Undugu Society of Kenya, an organization that seeks to influence legislature to address such issues as the sale and use of inhalant drugs.