“Give me! Please give me now!”
The boy’s eyes were glazed and his limbs limp as he moaned and yelled at me from the middle of the dirt road.
“Glue! Give me glue!”
A group of four older Kenyan street boys watched and laughed from atop a trash mound nearby. Each held their own bottle of adhesive substance, occasionally dangling the open container below clenched teeth to inhale its potent fumes. Their rolling eyes and slurred speech made the effects tragically apparent, yet a part of me still wondered if sniffing glue was any worse than breathing the stench of rotting trash that filled this lonely slum in the city of Kitale.
There are moments in life that leave us utterly lost, like a hapless actor stumbling through a scene written for someone else, and this was one. The boy’s pleas continued to pierce the overall soundtrack of the scene, composed by the voices of some 40 other street children that had gathered to receive a rare lunch that afternoon. Their ages ranged from just four or five at the youngest to twenty-something at the oldest. Few had shoes or half the clothing they needed to keep them warm during the cold nights. But all wore the same poignant signs of need.
There was only one condition for the children to receive a free meal at the local church ministry that afternoon: no glue allowed. At one point the pleading boy moved closer to where I stood at the entrance of the small church that was little more than a shack. “Just give me glue, no food,” he whimpered with his dirty hand outstretched. The intoxicated youngster couldn’t have been more than 11 years old.
In that moment, I found myself at a loss. A swollen belly, thin wrists, and yellow eyes screamed of the boy’s need for food, something he could freely receive in that rare moment. Yet the only one unable or unwilling to see it was the boy himself.
I realized then that a meal simply reminds a street boy of what he goes without most days. But glue lets him forget.
Such is life for so many boys and girls that fill Kitale’s streets and slums each day: desperate to survive without the consciousness of what it takes to do so. There are hundreds of them in Kitale and nearly all come from the wreckage of a broken family in one way or another. Some are orphans due to AIDS or similar tragedies while others come from desperately poor families where parents or relatives send them to beg on Kitale’s dusty streets.
My friend Mike is one who remembers that life all too well. For four years, from the age of eight to the age of twelve, Mike called the streets of Kitale home while he lived with his alcoholic aunt and cousins in the nearby slum of Kipsongo. They were all he had in this world after Mike fled his home in Turkana to escape from his oppressive father. That was nearly 10 years ago but the memories are still fresh for Mike.
“It’s a life of struggle on the streets,” he told Andrew and me one day over lunch. “It’s a life of fighting your own fight.”
Hunger and cold are the struggles Mike remembers most and it remains the same for all of Kitale’s street children today. Life quickly becomes an unremitting battle for food and warmth, and when they aren’t to be found, the next best thing is glue. “We sniffed glue so it wouldn’t be so bad,” Mike remembers with a sad grin on his face. “When we sniffed glue it would kind of comfort us.”
That reality makes it difficult to help desperate kids like the one Mike used to be. Whether it’s forgetting the cold or forgetting the garbage a child has to choke down to survive, glue soothes the pain and becomes a necessity for survival, often at the expense of greater needs. Two years ago, a local ministry in Kitale gave out 2,000 pairs of shoes to those living on the streets, but it wasn’t long before the children were shoeless again. As it turns out, most sold their new footwear for a 25 cent bottle of glue.
But cold and hunger aren’t the worst of it. Abuse becomes a normal part of life for most street kids, Mike says, whether it be police beatings, sexual abuse, or harassment from older street dwellers. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the streets is that they turn innocents into victims. It’s a reality that Mike knows all too well. He grimaces as he struggles to remember things that no ten-year-old should ever experience in this life.
Mike’s words came rushing back into my head one week later as I sat in the slums with two 13 year old street boys named David and Simone. Lifting up their shirts and pant legs, the two youngsters showed me the scabs and deep scars on their legs, arms and chests. When I asked what happened, all they would say was “police.” Mike says the streets of Kitale have actually become even more dangerous since he was little, but kids like David and Simone know that already.
Many street kids never make it to the age of 22, much less graduate from university with a degree in business like Mike has. This year he hopes to have the necessary funds to take the CPA exam to become an accountant. “God is good,” Mike says with his thick African accent and a wide grin. “God helped me survive out of it all.” His journey from the streets to today is truly a miracle that Mike credits to God’s faithfulness and a number of people over the years that decided to fight on his behalf.
Mike’s story leaves me wondering who is fighting for kids like David, Simone, and that 11-year-old boy begging for glue in the middle of the road. Kids like that don’t just need someone to scold them or hand them a meal. Boys like that need someone to engage with them, heart and soul, to look them in the eye and be their advocate. Because during those weeks in Kitale, I saw that there is no easy answer for the street kids there. There is no feel good ending or neat solution, just a very real battle with far too few people willing to pick up their swords and fight.
Mike’s story tells me there is very real hope for these boys and girls that wander the roads of Kitale and those like them all around the world. I hope and pray that you and I have eyes to see them, hearts to engage them, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to fight for the least of these.
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Please pray for the children that fill the streets of Kitale. Pray for their safety, pray for their innocence, and pray that their needs for food and for warmth would be met. And most of all, please pray that the Lord would raise up people who will fight for these precious kids. Maybe that’s you. And if not in Kitale, I know there are kids just like them wherever you might be. Fight for them.
To read more about the difference real investment is making in Kitale, click here