Crossing the road to my office from lunch recently, a tiny girl ran after me and held my hand to ask for money. I told her that it is not right for children to beg. She looked at me sternly as if daring me to do anything about it. Looking over my shoulder I saw her young mother sitting by the roadside keenly watching, encouraging her.
This tiny girl in her formative years was being schooled into something that our society will not want to experience in years to come. It upset me for days, reminded me of the pain of some of my own childhood, and prompted me to write a song, as is often the case when words fail me.
Child poverty in my neighbourhood
The roots of child poverty can be seen on my own doorstep. I live two hours by public bus from my place of work in a neighboured surrounded by Kasarani, Dandora, Githurai and Ruiru. Young, and sometimes under-age, girls there find themselves having to single-handedly raise children with little support from family or state. One such girl, just 14 years old, came to me crying one time because her mother was calling her names for failing to bring any money home and yet she had a child. She felt so much pressure but had no skills or education that could secure her a job. This isn't the childhood she and her baby deserve in 2015.
Last year I was involved in research with a group of girls like these as part of the Participate initiative. We grouped the girls in six and made a video of their individual and as group reflections, to try to make meaning of their lives. Our intention was to create a space for them to bring their perspectives into the emerging Post 2015 development agenda- something that seems so far from them and their realities but will directly affect them in myriad ways. In short, without their own voices being fed directly into the new agenda, they risked being left out again.
All the girls in the research indicated that because they are poor their education had ended prematurely after their primary school exams (by14 years). Coming from a free primary education with low quality teaching, many of the girls had poor examination results and could not go on to secondary school because it's fee paying. This is where income poverty manifests its brutality since wealthier girls and boys with equally dismal exam results still find avenues to move up the educational ladder.
For the girls we worked with, a prolonged stay out of the education system was devastating. Many got employed as 'house girls' where they were poorly paid and often mistreated by their employers. The majority of the girls looked for solace by getting attached to a male figure, often with disastrous effects. They became pregnant and those that got married often ended up subject to physical abuse, food denial and all manner of emotional or social abuse.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
So, it is under the care of teenagers like these that a new generation Kenyan children are now growing up. These abused girls struggle to support their own children, they are forced to leave their babies and toddlers in neighbourhood day-care homes, essentially another poor person's living room converted into a day-care centre. A 'house lady' receives these little toddlers in the morning and keeps watch over them as their mothers take to the city for work.
The day care facilities are usually cheap, overcrowded, highly unsanitary and given the very low rates, cannot afford adequate care or diet for the toddlers. However, they provide an essential service for many young women working in the hotel and domestic sectors. Many children end up in this kind of care for long hours, some for as much as 24 hours a day.
The discussions happening right now in the corridors of the UN and at our own government level around the new development agenda, the SDGs, really do matter for these girls. The new goals (SDGs) on livelihoods, poverty eradication, education, gender equality and sexual reproductive health are all aimed (as a holistic package) at the new generation, with a view to finally breaking the cycle of poverty and exclusion.
Telling the story in song
At first I found that the only way I could express myself properly about this burning issue on my own doorstep was to write a song about it. When I got together with my all-male band crew members to record it some of them became sad. One woman who was in the room asked them whether the song made them feel guilty over possible neglected offspring, they didn't say.
We recorded a simple video in my neighbourhood and I hope you will watch it even if it is in my mother tongue. You can see where I live and know the message is for Kenya's girls to have a better future.
I really hope someone is listening.