Feature

Famine is forcing rural children into the slums
Irish-founded diocese fights to keep children safe on harsh Kenyan streets, writes Chai Brady
Jessica Lomongin stands with street children Alan Ewesit (13), Itabo Esinyen (10), Marcus Eka mute (12), Francis Eskiru (11), Washington Esimit (14), Mark (12) and two unknown children. Photo: Chai Brady
Jessica Lomongin stands with street children Alan Ewesit (13), Itabo Esinyen (10), Marcus Ekamute (12), Francis Eskiru (11), Washington Esimit (14), Mark (12) and two unknown children.

When there is tragedy anywhere in the world, it is usually children who suffer the most. Although the Catholic Church and Trócaire are helping to keep children in Kenya from disease, starvation and abuse, it is a problem that has deteriorated due to severe drought.

The Diocese of Lodwar was established in Turkana County, Northern Kenya in 1978. Before this, Irish missionaries were creating parishes, health centres and schools since the 1960s.

With poverty devastating the region – 80% of the one million strong population earn less than 90c a day – education has played a huge part in saving children from lives of destitution and crime.

Lomali Iria Charles Namorupus (36) works for Caritas, and has laboured for years with Trócaire to help the street children of Lodwar (the largest city in Turkana).

Charles was raised in a Catholic family from “a humble background” and was put through school and university by Fr Con Ryan of the Kiltegan Fathers, an Irish missionary who worked in the diocese.

He was educated in the first mission in Turkana in Lorugum, which he described as one of the “greatest schools” in Turkana. It began as a relief centre founded by the first bishop of the diocese, Bishop John Mahon from Ferbane, Co Offaly, whose main focus was education.

Catechetical services

Charles went back to teach in his primary school in Lorugum after completing secondary school. When he had free time, he would do catechetical services and catechism and taught people the Bible.

He studied Social Work and Administration in Makerere University in Uganda. He told The Irish Catholic: “I used to work in a children’s institution, again supported by the diocese, that is the Street Children Programme.

“So I did my social work there which was more geared toward child protection. Aimed at the withdrawal of street children from the street, as well as child labourers from child labour.”

The Nadirkonyen Street Children Programme is supported by donations to Irish aid charity Trócaire, who help the diocese with its duty to these vulnerable children. HIV is an issue amongst the children, many of whom are orphans.

Charles said that while working there the children regarded him as their teacher. There are success stories of children going on to university and work after being reintroduced to education, but not all of them are so lucky.

Due to drought, many are not able to stay in school, as their parents are pastoralists who move too far away in search of water and food with their herds, and subsequently can’t access services. 

Trócaire have been planting livestock fodder to stop pastoralists moving too far from cities, and to stop conflict occurring due to scant resources.

Unlucky

 “Most of them had to go without school, those who are unlucky become cattle rustlers, and some of them have perished in the battlegrounds while raiding or protecting their livestock,” said Charles.

“There are those who are survivors of raids, some are lame now and they stay in the village doing nothing, and some of them have resorted to drinking the local brew and becoming alcoholics.”

 “There are times even now I’m personally down because I’ve not been able to realise 100% of the dream, especially for children, so the only thing is to resort to prayer.”

Charles seeks guidance as to how they can respond as a Church to combat the crisis, adding: “Prayer as we know, can change a lot, and change things even in a direction that we could not even imagine.”

He thanks Trócaire for helping in the formative stages of their emergency appeal in February, in which they helped supply clinics in Kalokol and Lokori, which a Unicef report found was where the acute malnourishment of children was most prevalent. 

Things are set to get worse for the children of Turkana as the drought, caused by unpredictable weather patterns over the last number of years, shows no sign of stopping.

Data from a local weather station shows the temperature in Turkana has risen by 3C on average since the 1960s, compared to the global increase of 0.7C.

Climate change has been cited as the major contributor to this hike in temperature according to Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch.

Disease and poverty in Turkana is much worse than anywhere else in Kenya: HIV is twice as common, and the average household size is 6.9 people, which is 1.6 higher than the national household size, according to a report by the Kenya Inter Agency Rapid Assessment.

Pastoralism

The most common economic activity is nomadic pastoralism, where farmers bring their cattle, goats, or camels across the arid land in search of pasture and water – both of which are becoming almost impossible to find.

The Turkwell river flows across Turkana through Lodwar and is relied upon by many people as a failsafe in times of drought, but for the first time since Charles was born, it is dry. This has led to livestock dying – even resilient camels – leaving pastoralists with no livelihoods.

“So many people have been rendered very poor and unable to meet their daily food needs, and most of them have moved to urban centres to look for jobs to be able to get something to support their families,” said Charles.

Those who have lost their livelihoods resort to means such as charcoal burning which requires chopping down trees that are integral to the eco-system.

“I know those who are young will resort to stealing, and it’s one of the reasons we have people getting involved in highway robberies, whereby they stop cars and steal money from travellers,” added Charles.

The Turkana people have also begun sand mining from river beds for use in the construction industry. The consequence is rivers are unable to absorb water and subsequently dry faster due to increased evaporation and soil erosion.

These activities are known as negative coping mechanisms, and humanitarian agencies are working to help people move away from these desperate choices.

Shock

Trócaire is helping pastoralists develop better mechanisms of survival so that when a “shock occurs” such as this extremely severe drought, they don’t have to choose between a slum and starvation, according to the Country Director of Trócaire in Kenya and Somalia, Paul Healy.

“For example, chickens who will produce eggs, they’re more resilient and more hardy won’t need as much water, and so they may get people through a crisis,” he said.

“Goats will survive longer than cattle, so we try to encourage that, we try to do kitchen gardens and rediscovery of wild nuts and fruits that may be available, so building alternative responses. But when things get really really bad people will resort to negative coping mechanisms just to survive.”

Paul continued: “They will also migrate to urban slums, like here in Lodwar you see for yourself the number of street children, their parents have given up hope, the parents can’t look after them, they’re arriving in the streets and they’re open to all sorts of abuse, including sexual abuse. And we’re talking about children from the age of eight to 13, 14. They just can’t be supported, they’re coming into town, hungry, they have nowhere to stay.”

Lives saved

Trócaire also funds supplementary feeding programmes in clinics run by the diocese across Turkana for children between six months to five years old. 

Thousands of children’s lives have been saved as a result, many of which could have ended up in horrific conditions in slums, but due to a lack of resources the centres can’t cater for all the children that are eligible for the programme.

Paul added: “As a Catholic Church and a Catholic agency our faith demands an appropriate and just response to this, it is not as if this is a separate community living halfway around the world, we are as Christians bound to one another by our identity as the Children of God and our faith demands that we respond to this in a very proactive way, and the Irish Church has always expressed its faith in this matter.”

Basic essentials

Many street children still have to leave rural parts of the county in search of basic essentials.

In Lodwar a group of street children told The Irish Catholic about daily life.

Many of them are orphans, and live in Lodwar’s slums. Alan Ewesit (13) is an orphan and has never been to school and smiles when asked questions, he says: “no one cares for me”. 

His friend Marcus Ekamute (12) is in school, he says “I am struggling to get materials”, because there is no one to support him. He said that they get food by waiting at dumps for trucks with leftovers from hotels and restaurants. They can’t afford a football so they make balls out of polythene bags.

The children try to make money doing petty manual labour such as sweeping or moving things, and sleep rough in dangerous areas.

Others have been forced into the child sex trade in the city, with some parents even encouraging the practice.

Jessica Lomongin is the Child Protection Officer in the Diocese of Lodwar, and has rescued 38 children – 35 girls and 3 boys – from sexual exploitation so far. Some of the children were as young as 11, and would charge between 50-500 Kenyan Shillings, the equivalent of 40c-€4.20.

She was granted some space for these children for three months in the grounds of the Diocese of Lodwar’s education centre for deaf children, with the support of the parish priest.

They are given psychosocial and trauma counselling, they also do health screenings as the children have been sexually active, and try to introduce them to education.

“So we are introducing something called back to school programmes, because some of these children have never been in school,” said Jessica.

 “They can’t just be at the centre for three months and then we take them to the school, we need to introduce them to the system of education, at least to allow them to get used to the education system…” 

Obeying rules

Jessica explained how they approach these vulnerable children: “It’s a bit tricky, what we normally do is we create a rapport with them, so we do something called night street walks at around 10pm, that’s when they’ll be out on street”. 

They are often mistaken for policemen and women, but a trust is generated after a few visits, with Jessica adding that they realise “we are here to protect them and we’re here to safeguard their needs”. 

Upon arriving at the centre, the girls and boys stream towards the jeep when they see Jessica, shouting “mother”.

The girls are jubilant, and seeing their smiling faces, it is impossible to comprehend what they have been through.  

Jessica is hoping to continue the programme, and extend it for another three months, but currently resources are low as she looks for more sources of funding.

Already over 60,000 children are at risk of death in Turkana unless they receive life-saving aid; 17,000 of these children are severely malnourished.

The suffering of children in Turkana is a symptom of severe weather and depleting emergency resources. They are exploited and abused, and there is little repercussion for the perpetrators. Humanitarian agencies such as Trocáire are fighting to give them the choice not to live a life of suffering to survive. 

 

*To make a donation or to find out more about Trócaire’s response to the food crisis in Africa visit www.trocaire.org/east-africa