Photo by Rand Pearson
For most of us, getting high is a matter of choice and preference, like, “Hmm, do I want to smoke weed and watch The Incredibles tonight, or would I rather get a bag of coke and go talk shit with my buds?” When your nights are spent sleeping on cold concrete and your whole family is dead or missing, however, you take what you can get to reach oblivion asafp. For thousands of children living on Nairobi’s streets, a few shillings worth of shoe repair glue makes the nights a little less frigid and an empty stomach a little less insistent.
The glue is typically huffed out of empty plastic water bottles. It’s highly addictive and a powerful neurotoxin. Kids get hooked as soon as they hit the streets, some as early as eight years old. Five years later they are babbling and foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs.
Local rich Indians in their new Mercs avoid them like the plague and white tourists act like they don’t see them. To fight back for their lost place in the world glue kids hold up passers-by with human feces. They are prepared, if you don’t pay them, to wipe it all over you. A new trick they’re developing is the threat of throwing battery acid on your face.
Feel bad for them if you want, but steer clear of these little fuckers, ‘cause they won’t have mercy on you. The local press refers to them as “street urchins.” That might sound charmingly Dickensian, but just look at them. Their clothes are coal black from dirt and diesel fumes. They walk around snot nosed and bare-foot in a crazed glue haze. Street urchins? More like the living dead.
John, 14, has been on the Nairobi streets and hooked on the stuff—affectionately called “gum” by the kids—for four years. On glue, John explains in his native language of Kiswahili, “You’re not hungry so much. You feel better. If you’re beaten, it doesn’t feel so bad.”
John’s story is emblematic of most of the glue kids. Their parents die or abandon them, or they’re spit out by poor families and teenage mothers and told to fend for themselves. As John puts it, “First my mama died, then my father died. I went to live with another mama, but that mama didn’t like me, she liked her own [kids] better, so I left.”
John wakes at dawn after maybe three hours of sleep. He will devote most of the day to begging for handouts to fund the next hit. “Muzungus [white people] are the best targets,” John said, as all white people in Nairobi are perceived as being rich. “Sometimes I park cars [for spare change] if a big boy is not there.” Yeah, sure you do.
The street-kid social structure resembles wild dog packs. Several of these packs gang up and claim territory, and often they turn on each other and even themselves. The older-boy alpha males are those who, at 16, have lived long enough to claim their position at the top of the glue-sniffing food chain. Using their advantage of age, size, and street smarts, they search and feed on the younger, street freshmen (like John).
John has yet to arrive at the top of the street-kid hierarchy. He hasn’t reverted to desperate measures such as robbery or even murder. “If they [older boys] see a muzungu give me something, they beat me and take it. Once someone gave me shoes. They [older boys] beat me and took my shoes,” John said.
After a morning devoted to begging, John will have enough money to re-up on his glue supply. Shoeshine vendors that line the streets of downtown Nairobi are the principle suppliers. The vendors will make them pay five Kenyan shillings (Ksh)—roughly one seventh of a cent—for an ounce of the yellowish goo.
John fills in the rest of the afternoon rummaging for food in the refuse piles behind downtown restaurants. Around teatime for most other people in Kenya, the street kids gather in a culvert next to a downtown park celebrating the nation’s independence. They share the day’s news and wash their clothes in the putrid water that flows like a river from the city.
John’s best friend, Peter, is also 14 years old. They partner to protect each other. Peter’s story is equally tragic.
“I was in St. Austin’s [school], then my father died,” Peter said. “My mother did not have enough money and we had to move. We did not have money for school fees. Then we did not have money for our home and we moved again. [There was] no money for food, so my mother told me I have to look after myself. So I came here.”
By nightfall the kids recede into the darkness and try their best to stay alive until the next morning. John and Peter huddle together on a slab of cement behind a steak house in an alley in downtown Nairobi.
When they find the extra money, they give a local askari (night watchman) 20 Ksh to check on them. Without the protection, John and Peter are vulnerable to being robbed and even raped.
So, want to dish some blame? Look no further than the white man and America’s brutal foreign policy—just kidding. Kenya is fucked because of Kenya’s incredibly corrupt government. In the scheme of pan-African governmental-ranked corruption for 2004, Kenya comes in third place behind Nigeria and Cameroon, according to the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Transparency International.
In general, the Kenyan government turns a blind eye to John and Peter. Through the late 1990s, the estimated number of homeless kids on Nairobi’s streets neared 60,000. Now, there are no accurate statistics to calculate the city’s persistent problem. We do know that at least 50,000 children within Nairobi’s city limits do not attend school, according to the Irish-based NGO GOAL. Fortunately, Nairobi hasn’t unleashed death squads to quell the problem, like they have in Rio de Janeiro. Without a governmental partnership, aid agencies capable of rehabilitating the street kids flap in the breeze. Meanwhile, local authorities do not crack down on glue sales, nor is sniffing it against the law.
The statue symbolizing Kenya’s independence casts an ironic midday shadow in Nairobi’s Uhuru (Freedom) Park. It was, at one time, a symbol of hope. Nairobi is now a place to be survived, leaving little room for thoughts of a brighter future. But despite their circumstances, these are still kids and kids daydream. Since seeing planes take off from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as a little boy with his father, Peter has dreamed of going back to school and becoming a pilot. But does he really think he’ll get there? No. Peter smiles and matter-of-factly says, “Chakara [street kids] can’t be pilots.”
The glue kids fulfill their last and greatest service to their country by dying quietly, their stories and dreams dying with them. And maybe that’s the kindest way. The path they follow inevitably leads to a day when friends awake to find that Nairobi’s streets have claimed one more life among them. The gum that makes life bearable also makes life really, really short. The lungs of habitual users become scarred and begin to fill with fluid. A chronic wet cough precedes a slow death from pneumonia. John has seen this with his own eyes again and again.
“First they cough a lot. Then later, they get tired and sleep a lot. Then they go to sleep and can’t wake up.” But John is not afraid of dying. He’s resigned to his fate. “You die. Lots of kids die. Monkey [a friend] die. Kimau [another friend] die. Ben die. A little gum makes you not so scared.”
[We put “Nigerian Orphans” on the cover because everyone hates Kenyan orphans. It was the only way to get you to read this article—Ed.]