Children under the sun

Not many people would give a street kid banging an empty drum a second glance. But when the Jua Kali Drummers started doing just that at a recent music extravaganza in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, it had everybody beating to their tune.

Jua kali — Swahili for ”hot sun” — is an informal industry in which artisans use mostly recycled material.

With instruments made from waste material, the youngsters had the crowds dancing to the beat of their tin and plastic drums. Their costumes were stuff that’s called showbiz, again self-made and adorned with anything from recycled cutlery to brushes and other throwaway plastic material.

The youngsters are former street children who have been rehabilitated through music and placed back in school under a project developed by the African Medical Research Foundation (Amref).

”The Dagoretti Child in Need Project came about through the young friends of Amref at the turn of the millennium,” says Rosemary Kamanu, the project officer at Amref. ”They brought back reports of youngsters from the streets and from very poor backgrounds in need of help.”

Dagoretti is a slum area in Nairobi where Amref has its children’s centre. At any time the centre is jammed with kids ranging from three years to early 20s getting their musical band ready for the day’s practice.

Elizabeth Nyawira is a tall, lanky girl in the Jua Kali Drummers. About 15 years old and from a poor family, she took to the streets a few years ago, rummaging through bins for food and to salvage what she could to sell to the scrap buyers. ”That’s where Amref found me,” says the budding musician.

On the streets the children used waste material for survival. Now their musical instruments, made with recycled material, depict the courses of their lives — how they have been recycled­ back to usefulness. Where possible the Dagoretti project reunites children with their families.

For many street children, their first day at the centre is an awakening. The first thing is a cold shower to get them out of the drug stupor. It also helps the aid workers to get hold of any smuggled drugs. The youngsters are given fresh clothes, provided with a meal and then introduced to sports.

During the week many are at school. Those not at school are involved in activities ranging from lively debates to soccer, film shooting to editing, beadwork, fashion design and cooking.

Daniel Njoroge (23) was an angry, aggressive youngster when he came to the children’s centre. His survival during his life on the street sometimes meant feeding on cat carcasses. He was also on a constant high from drugs. Now he’s not only back at school but also training 15 street kids in music.

Despite a cold, grey day, the little kids are ready for the music lesson from the older peers in the open courtyard. It’s a group of 24 children between the ages of six to 10 being trained by eight tutors from the first batch of admissions to the centre. Beating drums and shaking tins, they create a symphony of sounds to complement the lyrics of the older budding musicians.

”It’s untapped talent,” says Paul Njoroge, the music teacher and the Jua Kali trainer. ”Street children are exposed to a lot of experiences, which comes out in the music.”

The teacher and his learners are preparing for next year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, and working on a catalogue featuring their musical instruments. This has a new addition — a tuberphone made of recycled pipes.

A garage at the centre has been turned into a studio, complete with soundproof walls using cardboard eggs trays. Two unassuming teenagers­ morph into sophisticated anchors interviewing former street children on a topic they are now conversant with — the Millennium Development Goals.

The studio has MN plastered on the walls, standing for Millennium News, and Stephen Maina (14) and Monicah Njeri (17) are the interviewers from Ghetto News. They ask each participant what word they would use to describe what’s needed to achieve the millennium goals. The responses from the four are ”communication, peace, partnership and love”.

”There’s a lot of negative press reported by outsiders about Africa,” says Kamanu. ”The Millennium News is a chance for the youngsters to talk about themselves.”

Rupi Mangat writes for the Nation newspaper. When not travelling, she is based in Nairobi


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