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Street Children in Kenya: Voices of Children in Search of a Childhood. Philip Kilbride, Collete Suda, Enos Njeru. Westport: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, 2000. Pp. 184.
Street Children in Kenya provides an in-depth examination of the experiences of street children in Nairobi, Kenya. Drawing from participant observations, individual and focus group interviews, the authors, Kilbride, Suda, and Njeru allow readers to confront the harsh realities, suffering, and survival skills of nearly 400 of the over 40,000 homeless children in Nairobi. These children are part of the over 110,000 children described by UNICEF as "in need of special protection" (GOK/UNICEF, 1998). Reflecting the anthropological and sociological backgrounds of the scholars, the book's initial chapters introduce the methodology and background for the study, including a description of the study's setting, Nairobi, and relevant information on the communities studied. The text also provides information on social and cultural issues affecting families (e.g., the weakening of family structures due to poverty, the impact of AIDS, and government sanctioned ethnic conflicts), which have contributed to the rapid rise in the number of children living and working on the street. Even though only one chapter is solely devoted to the narratives of the children, most chapters are infused with humanizing accounts and perspectives on the children's lives. A unique contribution of the study is its methodology, which involved giving older street children cameras to document their daily life, thus greatly personalizing the book, since the children were allowed to tell their own stories. A more traditional scholarly analysis is presented in the final chapter, which addresses policy implications, particularly with regards to long-term, culturally framed solutions to this complex and growing problem.
Street Children in Kenya addresses a critical, global issue that is, in many ways, a by-product of rapid globalization, structural adjustment programs, and increasing poverty and urbanization. Street children and young mothers have become part of the landscape in most Kenyan cities and towns. Many Kenyans are fearful of street children and look upon them as criminals, due in part to their increasingly bold begging and extortion techniques. Those who combat this situation often feel helpless when confronted with the enormity of the problems and the lack of infrastructure and policy initiatives designed to alleviate the crisis. A recent UNICEF program however, has targeted more funding toward this issue and some, often ineffectual, government actions have begun to address it. Government responses have included large scale round-ups and arrests of street children on vagrancy charges and holding them in remand homes without provisions, to funding more vocational training and housing programs, many run by churches and NGOs. This book's publication is well timed then, given the urgency of this issue and the fact that there is a growing number of organized initiatives, as well as increased media attention.
Professor Philip Kilbride is one of relatively few researchers who has done sustained research on homeless children in Kenya. This book thus builds on his earlier anthropological work (Kilbride & Kilbride, 1990), which investigated the impacts of social, economic and cultural change on family life in Kenya. The earlier work examined changing family roles, the increase in single parent families, and impacts of dislocation, urbanization, and austerity measures on families living in poverty - all of which bear responsibility for the rapid increase in street children. In his writing, Kilbride conveys humor and humility in describing his initial experiences with street children in Nairobi, as he tried to build rapport and find informants to assist him in the research. Not surprisingly, many of the boys he initially befriended viewed him primarily as a tourist, and, as such, someone to "hustle" for resources.
Given the paucity of authentic cross-cultural collaborative research, we considered the Kenyan-U.S. research team a strength of this study. We found that this "insider-outsider" collaboration helped give an accurate representation of the issue of street children in Kenya, which is often lacking in work done by foreign authors. Such efforts contribute to the long and complex process of decolonizing (Gandhi, 1998, Smith, 1999) research in Africa and to the quality and depth of the research. Although it may not explicitly draw from cultural geography, much of the book brings readers into the hidden spaces as well as the public places inhabited by the street children. We gain access to their temporary "housing," recreation, daily rituals, and work in a wealth of details that interviews alone would not have provided.
Another strength of this volume is that it portrays street children not just as hapless victims and objects of pity, but as children who possess hopes, dreams for their future, and feelings of responsibility for each other. Although it does not turn away from the harsh realities of the street-the beatings, rapes, prostitution and drug use (particularly glue sniffing)-this book makes it clear that in most cases, street children are both proactive and resilient even in the face of these extremely difficult circumstances.
We found very little to critique in this book, and consequently, we have only a few minor quibbles. Considering the personal nature of the book, we were a bit surprised that it did not include any photographs-particularly some of the pictures that were taken by some of the children who participated in the research. Given that this study frequently refers to street children in Westlands, an affluent suburb, we also would have liked to have seen a discussion of whether there might be any differences between the survival skills of these children and those who beg in downtown Nairobi. Although the authors acknowledge crimes committed by street youth, they clearly are more concerned with the human rights violations committed by Kenyan police, reservists, and askaris (guards). While we agree with this well documented critique (Human Rights Watch Africa, 1997), it should have been noted that the rationale for these police actions against street children is the threat they pose to Kenya's number one business: tourism.
In terms of the recommendations made in the final chapter, we found many familiar themes. However, in practice most, if not all, of the proposed solutions have been tried and few have worked. This is likely due to the overwhelming impact of persistent poverty and lack of sustainable, structural solutions. Universal education, for example, is a fine slogan, but in reality, most families cannot afford to educate their children beyond primary school. Youth with only a primary education are ill prepared to compete in the rapidly changing, globalized job market, particularly given the high rates of unemployment, impacts of imposed austerity measures, and other economic factors.
This book will be of interest to researchers in several disciplines, including African studies, cultural anthropology, family sociology, education, and childhood studies, as well as to a wide array of readers, including human rights advocates, and policy-makers. The examination of the gritty everyday lives and mapping of the urban terrains or "geographies of exclusion" (Sibley, 1995) inhabited by these children make for compelling reading and calls upon the reader to take action or become more involved in advocating for the rights of all children.
Patrick Wachira and Beth Blue Swadener
Government of Kenya (GOK) & UNICEF (1998). Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Kenya 1998. Nairobi: GOK and United Nations Children's Fund Kenya Country Office.
Human Rights Watch/Africa (1997). Juvenile Injustice: Police Abuse and Detention of Street Children in Kenya. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Kilbride, P.L. & Kilbride, J.C. (1990). Changing Family Life in East Africa: Women and Children at Risk. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Sibley, D. (1995). Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. London: Routledge.
Swadener, B.B., Kabiru, M. & Njenga, A. (2000). Does the Village Still Raise the Child?: A Collaborative Study of Changing Child-rearing and Early Education in Kenya. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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