A Discussion with Moses Aboka, Co-Founder and Communication Manager of FIKISHA Kenya
November 14, 2014
Background: Located in Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s slums, FIKISHA was founded through a local Lutheran church to help give street children a better life. Moses Aboka, FIKISHA's communications manager, met with Crystal Corman and Elisabeth Stoddard on November 14, 2014 to discuss how FIKISHA works to transform outcast youth into loving individuals with futures. His experience began with the realization that many street children were essentially excluded from Nairobi’s faith communities. He reflects on the push factors which lead these children to leave their families to live on the streets and the hardships they face, particularly drug addictions, once independent. FIKISHA’s model involves mentorship and spiritual counseling along with scholarship programs that give these children the best chance of staying off the streets. He discusses the challenges involved in working with street children and the difficulties of tracing and reuniting families. He articulates strategies for preventing children from going to the streets at the same time that he works to meet the needs of the current street children in Nairobi.
How did you get involved in FIKISHA and what is your role today?
In 2000 I was a youth in the Lutheran church and became a youth leader. As a youth leader we are always looking on different ways we could reach the young people and engage them. During that period we came to realize that the majority of the youths who are not part of the congregation, like street boys, were left out when it came to matters of faith.
So we came up with the idea of an outreach program for street boys. We brought the idea back to our committee of leaders. They agreed and allowed us to pilot the program. We say street boys, by the way, because the majority of them are boys rather than girls.
Then in 2005 we started a broader outreach effort for street children. On Sundays we would meet with them, share the word of God, have some fellowship, sing together, and give them a cup of tea.
Around 2009, a group of guests came to visit our church. They saw we needed more support to expand our program so they sponsored us. At that time we took the first kid into our program and enrolled him in school—Isaac.
Working with street children presented challenges that we were not tackling. We really had only the fellowship on Sunday—mostly tackling the spiritual part. These children needed more than that. They needed clothes. Most of them already were out of school. A number of them were already sexually active.
Had a lot of the children dropped out of school?
Yes. They were also not living with their families, so there was more to do than just coming on Sundays and singing and having a cup of tea. That’s why in 2009 we began officially expanding.
You said that street children were not welcome inside a church on Sunday. Why?
I think it’s based on perception. When you see them outside of the church they are beggars—they beg for money. When they are not within the church compound, you find drugs; they take a lot of drugs, mostly glue and other sniffed drugs, but also marijuana and harder drugs. Some are very cheap. They buy them for five schillings, 10 schillings and inject them.
You see, once they are in that drugged state, when they come inside the church, people are not comfortable with them because first of all they are smelly; they have very bad odor. And then people know that they are junkies and thieves. So when they come to the normal congregation, most of the congregants—I’m not saying the pastor, but most of the congregants—will not feel comfortable with them on the same bench.
Street children are very vulnerable. Most other vulnerable children can get some things from their family members, but the street children are often completely cut off. You need to go out and find them in order to help.
Is that part of what you do? You go out and find the street children?
Yes, we do. We have to visit them in the streets, even at night. We have to visit them and make them feel loved.
Each boy in the program has a mentor, a person who is dedicated to working with them. So, if the boy misses a meeting, the mentor has to go to the street and look for them, talk with them about what they are going through. We also do random visits just to make sure they are okay.
Why do they end up as street children?
Before, I thought it was poverty. Recently, I came to realize that most of these families are broken. Once the father and the mother have troubles at home, it filters down to the children. A number of them branch away from home because there are some domestic problems.
Some have been beaten several times by their stepfather or their stepmom. Ninety or 95 percent of them are from single parents in our assessment. Some end up in the street because at home they cannot find food. They have to look for other ways of making money.
If they stay two or three days at home without food, they have to start working with their friends in the neighborhood to look for money. They end up in the streets after a certain time.
For a number of them, their parents were unable to pay their school fees—uniforms, supplies. Because while school is free, because they do not have a uniform, they feel out of place among the students and they drop out of school.
Even though school is free they need to buy other things?
They need to buy other things, like school uniforms, stationaries, pencils, pens. When they go to school in tattered clothes they feel so bad about themselves. The teachers often don’t understand. So, many have dropped out of school because of that.
Within the community, there is also a big peer influence. If the street children are living near your house, it’s a big possibility that your kid would become friends with them and fall into that group.
So poverty is not the main push factor for street children?
I don’t say that it’s poverty. If you ask me, after working for some time, I say that it’s also broken families. Families are not responsible, or willing to assist one another. If one of my family members is having a problem, it is right for me to assist them, especially if it’s a problem with the kids.
A number of the street children come from mothers who are prostitutes. I do not like to say poverty is the main cause. If you fix the families, then you fix the problem of having kids go into the streets. The families would be able to work together to get food on the table and support each other.
Do you try to reconnect the street children with their families?
We do, but it’s difficult and varies from one kid to another. The street children have a sense of community in themselves. Some of them don’t want to be reconnected. But we first reach out to the mom, dad, and close family members like grandfathers and sisters. After reaching them, we talk with them and try to understand what led the child to go to the street.
After some time, maybe we find out the reason. For example, maybe the kid stole 200 schillings. Or, maybe it was frequent disobedience that caused the family to not tolerate it any more.
We have traced families as far as 700 kilometers away. Sometimes we have been successful in finding them, but connecting the children to the families is difficult.
What are some of the challenges when trying to reconnect street children to their families?
The main challenge is that when the kids go to the streets, they completely hide their identity. They change their name and everything. One time we went to Mombasa, 500 kilometers away, for a week to connect one of the kids with their family. Then on the evening before our trip, we realized that their family was not even in Mombasa. They were just 3 kilometers from Nairobi!
The kid stayed for a very long time in Mombasa with his uncle and then he was arrested and taken to juvenile court and rehab centers in Mombasa. But, his mother was living 3 kilometers away. Funnily enough, we realized that even the name the kid was using was not his real name. Their parents and family members, if they go looking for them, will not find them because they change their names.
Why do the street children try to hide by changing their names? Is it shame?
I don’t want to put it as shame, but maybe it’s a way of helping themselves. Once they have decided that they want to be on the street, they do anything possible not to keep connections with their families. Many things happen before a child goes to the street. Maybe something happened in the family. They just want to break the link completely.
How do you get them to the stage where they want to reunite with their families?
It’s a process. We first of all show them that we love them. Then we show them a lot of examples of kids who have gone back to their families and it has worked out. We also show them the importance of being close to family members and friends. For them, we are their friends.
We use a lot of bible examples, for example, the story of the prodigal son. They like that story a lot. But the most important thing is showing them love and bringing them to accept that it’s better to be close to a family member than maybe a friend. And also making them understand that it’s difficult, because they are still kids. Some of them are 8, 10. They are not 18. They cannot take care of themselves.
What are some of the youngest kids you come into contact with and how do you remind them to be kids again?
The youngest that we come across is 6. They are almost independent on the streets, at 6 years old. We came across two of them that are 6. On the street, they do what they want; they smoke, take drugs, don’t go to school.
But, we talk to them about their futures and show them the benefits of being a part of a family. Slowly, they start appreciating.
So it works in two ways. It cannot work unless we inform both parties—the families and the kids. And, even working with the families can be hard. Many of them try to avoid us. It is a long process. But, we continue to support the children in the meantime through scholarships, foster families, counseling, or living here at the church dormitory. Some of the street children who are now in boarding school and doing well come to talk to the new boys. They are more influential than us most times. They know what the boys are going through. They can relate. We facilitate these meetings as well as support groups for the families.
How do you get the street children back into school?
We offer scholarships to cover tuition and school fees as well as mentorship. We have one-to-one mentorship. Through the mentorship we can identify their needs and what grade they need to be in. Before they start school, we need to make sure that they are off drugs and clean. We have a preparation house that they go to for one month to get clean. After that, we get the permission from the family to enroll the kid in school. We don’t like to give scholarships without consent from the families because a lot of the kids go to boarding school.
We prefer boarding schools to day schools because when they live at school, they are dissuaded from the temptation of going back to the street and using drugs. Also they get a lot of time to concentrate on their studies. When it comes to the street children, not all schools are willing to take them in. The schools know about the drug problems and worry that they will bring that influence into the school. A number of the kids are slow learners too and some schools prioritize good grades. But, we have relationships with a few schools who are willing to assist us and help the boys get back on track.
We always enroll the boys in private schools so the teachers have more time for the kids. They need support in order to be successful.
Can I ask about some of those harder things that kids get involved in? You said some are sexually abused. Is that because when they are on the street they are more susceptible to these things, or does that happen in the home?
It happens two ways; sometimes it is in the home, but more often they are abused in the street. This is the most common with the young kids. There is a lot of bullying in the streets as well. Some are forced to take drugs by their friends. The street children form groups, almost like gangs.
Do you sometimes partner with them to share skills or find families? Do you work with the government agencies?
We partner with some organizations that are doing similar work. In our constituency, which includes probably 20,000 to 50,000 people, four organizations are working with street children. Even before offering any kind of assistance, we have to confirm that the other organizations aren’t working in the same area, within the same locality. We need to make sure that we aren’t duplicating. We also do a lot of referrals to other organizations or the government.
The government has a desk for children that offers some small assistance programs, but it is pretty minimal. The drug issues are hard for the government to fight. It’s such a huge business. We report drug sellers a number of times, but sometimes no action is taken.
Do some organizations work more with the girls?
Yes. Most organizations have an outreach program for vulnerable children and since street children are also vulnerable children they are included in those programs.
We have seven girls in our program and the rest are boys. But it’s because there are generally more street boys than girls. The Central Business District and Mathare areas have more street girls and even street families. But, the street boys, they migrate and move constantly. It is rarer for girls to move around the city.
A lot of the street girls get pulled into prostitution because it is an easier way to make money, rather than collecting bottles or scrap metal like the boys. The girls make money and then can afford a place to live. We also reconnect some to their families and they go back to live with them.
What is the spiritual component of your programs?
We meet with the boys on Tuesdays and Fridays and teach them from this book, 12 Steps for Christian Recovery. It is based on the AA recovery and has a lot of biblical references and verses. Then, the boys also come on Sundays to share a cup of tea and pray.
The spiritual component helps build their faith and makes them believe that something good is possible. Also, once they know that they are part of the church, they are part of a big community which loves them. Some of the boys have wanted to be baptized. So, we connect them with the pastor for baptism preparation.
But we also have some Muslims on scholarship. We put good work first; it is our foundation. We are sensitive to different faiths as we talk and discuss the spiritual aspects of recovery. And, the boys are not required to participate in the church components. That is optional.
Once the boys are in the program, do they still live on the street?
No, they stay in one of four places; a number stay at the church dormitory, some stay with host families, some live with their actual families, and others live at school. We try as much as possible to reduce the chance of living in the streets. We have to find a place of love for them.
To wrap up, can you talk about your challenges and your hopes? Thinking long term, the hope is to have no more street children. How can you make that possible?
It’s possible. But we have to put a lot of focus on families. Developing families is key. There is great importance in understanding the value of having a child in your family and raising them in a healthy way. If you put a lot of focus on the family then you will be able to reduce the number of kids who will end up in the streets.
For the rest of the kids who are already on the streets, I think some of the responsibility belongs to us. It doesn’t have to be the efforts of one person. It falls to the community. Because if this kid ends up in the streets, they will start up a lot of criminal activity and no one will be safe. You lose so much.
We have targeted two bases where the children sleep in gangs and small groups. By engaging these base camps, we have rescued a number of them. But if the community could come in and contribute, many many more children could be off the streets.
When they are on the street, they feel that they are not needed. No one loves them. By bringing them into the community, showing them love, and valuing them as people, you can bring about great change in their lives. It will motivate them to accept help to get off the streets and have a future. We just need to give them the opportunity.