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Kenyan Nun Braving Harsh COVID-19 Times to Sustain Street Feeding Program

Sr. Winnie Mutuku of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, founder of Upendo Street Children in Kenya's Catholic Diocese of Kitale. She is overseeing the feeding of street boys amid COVID-19 restrictions

The streets of Kitale, a town located in the western part of Kenya have been unusually quiet at night from the time the country enforced a dusk-to-dawn curfew towards the end of March, requiring people to be away in their homes during curfew hours to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Many children who loitered on the streets before the enforcement of the curfew have been reunited with their families, thanks to organizations working in the town, including Upendo Street Children (USC) Project, a charity organization founded by a Kenyan nun in the Catholic Diocese of Kitale to restore dignity to the homeless children, to empower them in education and to finally reunite them with their respective families.

Out of the 33 boys that consistently reported at USC before Kenya ordered closure of all institutions in the country following the outbreak of coronavirus, 23 have been reunited with their respective families; 10 who have nowhere to go are forced to brave the harsh street life where they are always on the wrong side of authorities enforcing the curfew.

The 10 boys, according to Sr. Winnie Mutuku who runs USC, are now spending their nights in forests away from Kitale town and its surrounding villages.

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“No one wants to see the boys on the streets. When the police on patrol see them on the streets at night as they (police) enforce the curfew, they beat them very badly. Many street boys I know now retire to forests and railway centers for the night and only show up on the streets at daybreak,” says Sr. Winnie, a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.

“Last month, I was notified of a boy who was beaten so badly he couldn’t walk. The boy agreed to be taken to his family in the village even though he had always sworn that he would never go back home,” she says, adding that the civilians are not any nicer to the street children.

According to Sr. Winnie, people in villages are less accommodating to street children in smaller towns.

“Villages find it difficult to wrap their heads around a boy who has a good home close to town and chooses to live on the streets. They say children in Nairobi have better reasons to be on the streets because living in Nairobi is expensive,” Sr. Winnie attempts to explain.

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It is a myth that Sr. Winnie, a graduate from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) seeks to demystify.

“I have been to homes of some of these children,” she says, adding, “Some of them actually come from well-to-do families but with many negative stories. In some, fathers are married to multiple wives and the animosity in such huge families drives the children away. Still others are victims of step mothers who force their husbands to send the children away. No boy is happy to live on the streets.”

Having interacted with the street boys for months, Sr. Winnie further explains what she has gathered.

“When the first wife dies and leaves behind children, and remarries, the new wife is expected to take care of the children she finds in the home. This is not always the case. In this latter case, these children who do not find love and care from their step mothers prefer street life to staying at home and experiencing hate,” Sr. Winnie narrates, adding that in most cases, “the fathers are irresponsible.”

“When a man marries a second wife and abandons the first wife,” Sr. Winnie explains a second scenario that is behind street boys in Kitale, “being the sole bread winner, the children of the abandoned family are rendered miserable and end up on the streets.”

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According to Sr. Winnie, there is another scenario. A number of boys on the streets in Kitale are those from poor backgrounds who underwent traditional initiation and on coming back, did not find houses of their own put up for them and so, they chose street life over having to stay with their parents under one roof.

“Culture over here dictates that after circumcision, a boy becomes a man and is therefore not allowed to continue sleeping under one roof with their parents. The belief is so deep that those who come out of the initiation and find no houses of their own decide to run away,” she explains.

It is a major challenge that USC seeks to fill by constructing houses for the street boys as a way of reintegration in the families. Those who show the desire to go back to school will also have houses of their own so that they do not sleep on the streets when they go to school.

The COVID-19 turbulence has not stopped Sr. Winnie from reaching out to the boys who are still living on the streets as well as conducting home visits for those who have been reunited with their families.

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Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are days when staff at USC take food to waiting street children at the Kitale showground where the boys like hanging out. Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for conducting home visits to check on the progress of the boys in their homes.

“We encourage the boys to carry food containers where we serve them food on three weekdays. After eating the meal together, they take the rest away in their food containers,” Sr. Winnie says.

For home visits, USC brings foodstuffs to support poor families where the street boys come from. In the past, the boys have been given new beddings to use at home.

“When we started, we used to have the boys come to USC drop-in centre where they had a shower, put on clean clothes before they shared a meal and engaged in interactive activities. Then corona came. We hope that we can go back to normal after the disease is done. But meanwhile, we’ll keep doing little things so that we don’t lose touch with the boys completely,” she says.

Sr. Winnie conceived the idea of USC early last year soon after she graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Social Communication from one of the Constituent Colleges of CUEA, Tangaza University College (TUC), which is jointly owned by 22 Religious Orders.

She went on to conduct a feasibility study in Kitale to identify the gap she could fill among street children, given that many organizations were already engaged in some form of projects around street children in the Western Kenya town.

“I conducted a lot of research, engaged the county government and other stakeholders and concluded that there was this one group on the streets that no one was interested in. These were adolescent youth between the age of 15 and 18,” says Sr. Winnie.

She adds, “This was the most vulnerable group on the streets. No one wanted anything to do with them. Even non-governmental organizations preferred younger street children who are easier to talk into leaving the streets. But the older ones who were probably in the adolescent stage were dismissed as too deviant. I decided that this is the group I wanted to work with.”

What inspired Sr. Winnie to work with the boys, on top of the Charisma of her religious congregation that moves her to engage in charitable activities, she says, is her desire to impact lives of youth.

“I love to do things for young people especially those who no one listens to in society. It can only get worse on the streets. But here, I see vulnerable boys that have a great potential of becoming responsible men with their own homes,” she says.

Starting off in January this year with a cook, a laundry person and four social workers at the newly constructed drop-in centre, Sr. Winnie had a budget for not more than 25 street boys.

“I knew only boys would come because there are no girls on the streets in Kitale. It is something I plan to look into, just to find out why,” she says, adding that on the actual launch of the project on January 28, more than 40 boys showed up.

It was the day that the staff at USC started taking records of the street boys to establish the consistent ones. From the 46 that attended the launch, 33 had remained consistent at the centre. From these, a 16-year-old has already been enrolled in Secondary School, Form 2 while a 15-year-old has been enrolled back in Primary school. 10 other boys were about to join different Technical and Vocational Education Centres before the country announced closure of learning institutions.

All the COVID-19 inconveniences notwithstanding, the Daughters of Charity nun foresees a society that will respond to the plight of the street children by the time the disease is contained.

“This disease will surely end and by the time it is gone, we shall have families that will have accepted their children who have for long suffered on the streets. Then, the integration process will be easier,” Sr. Winnie says.

She adds in reference to the 7 p.m. – 5 a.m. curfew, “When the curfew was announced, the families understood the danger on the streets and so, most of them didn’t require a lot of convincing to take the children back. But at the moment, we continue to monitor the boys in the families during the family visits.”