A refugee family living in the streets of Nairobi
(research for a TV-reportage, January 1998)
It’s hot in the capital of Kenia, eastern Africa. Anne Wachira puts her two year old daughter Naomi in a kanga on her back. With another kanga she makes a package of all their belongings and gives it to her daughter Mary (eight) . Anne takes her oldest daughter Rose (thirteen) by the hand and vanishes silently with her family into the noisy streets of Nairobi.
We just had lunch together at Wimpy’s, a hamburger chain. Chicken, pommes frites, Coke. The other guests starred at us. At me, because I am white. At them, because they are homeless and dirty.
Unfortunately I forgot that rural-side Kenians don’t know how to use knife and fork. They looked around, shy and unsure what to do. All of a sudden hunger won over correct behaviour: Mary took the chicken, broke the bones and shoved everything in her little mouth, smiling. Anne couldn’t smile despite herself. Rose was embarassed by the situation and saved her chicken for later into one of her many plastic bags. While eating Anne tried to describe their circumstances: one year ago the family flew from Molo in the western part of the country because of ethnic clashes. Annes four sons were killed by another tribe. In 1997 the state finally helped the survivors to escape. On the run her husband was killed, too.
We are back on the streets. It’s sort of an adventure to cross the roads in Nairobi. Nobody stops for you, nobody cares for you. It’s chaotic. And when you are homeless it’s even worse. When the president of the state is on it’s way to the airport, escorted by policecars, you’ll better leave the place – their huge mercedes benz cars are belting along the boulevards without any respect of human beings. I’ve heard that there is an ambulance following the vehicles picking up the run over bodies.
Mary doesn’t have to sleep in the streets tonight. Consolata, a christian streetworker, takes her into a home for girls where she can wash herself and will get something to eat – at least for today. Anne wants to show me where she’ll stay the night. It’s a place close to the luxury Serena hotel, central business district. She points to a laundry. The 41 year old mother knows the guard who keeps a close watch on it when it gets dark. For one € he would not banish the famly and let them sleep in the entrance outside the shop. Anne feels secure here. At least she is not alone. Streetkids surrounding her, guards with nightsticks. Even though deep inside she knows when it comes to worst nobody would help her. That would cost one € more.
We cross Uhuru park quite fast, not the safest place in town. Everybody knows someone who was robbed or beaten up. Even beggars get killed here for some shillings they asked for during daytime. But Anne gives me a wink, I shouldn’t be afraid at this tiem of the day. Still, I don’t feel that I should stay here. At the western end of the park there is a sundried small path leading us into a huge field of mais and wild bananas. For a moment the scenery seems almost idyllic. On our way we pass tumbledown kiosks and women doing the washing in the dirty little river we are following. Children playing joyfully, colourfull dresses are drying in the bushes. Our way becomes a densely brushwooded trail. Obscure men passing by starring at us. Dogs are barking. It’s already 4pm, the sunlight turns warm and red. All of a sudden a certain anxiety arises in me: what the hell am I doing here? I put my life into the hands of a homeless mother that lives in the slums of Nairobi. Anne immediately realises my worries and takes my arm, giggling. After 10 more minutes she points at the little shack in front of us. “That’s it” she says “our home”. I am standing in the middle of a little muddy watered place, rubbish everywhere. There are 5 humble cottages made from clay with a corrugated iron rooftop. 2 men are sawing a tree, examining me. “Hi there” Anne says and opens the heavy locker of her shack. I am irritated. 9 square meter. The bottom is a big puddle. Clothes to dry on the various lines across the room. A shelf full of canned beans, plastic bags and holey t-shirts. Where does the family find it’s place to sleep? There is a wet, old mattrass on the rooftop, smelling like hell but it would have never been fitting into this cottage. Anne grabs some soap and takes her daughter Naomi down to the runlet next door. The girl is chuckling and seems to be happy to get rid off all that dirt. “I pay 200 KES (15,-€) per month. But we don’t sleep here anymore. We just store our belongings. Too dangerous. They already tried to rape my oldest daughter. Men in the neighbourhood. They just come at night and enter the shack. I could not save her anymore. I decided to go downtown and sleep in the streets”. Rose starts taking clothes from a line and puts them in her plastic bags. Just next to the bag with the chicken that waits to be eaten. “The guy who owns this land is a psychotic. And he drinks far too much. At night he sometimes stood in front of us waving about with his machete, impending throwing us out or even killing us”. I nod my head, bewildered. But I am sure I don’t really understand what it means to them.
On our way back it is almost dark night. I just follow the family, hope noone will recognize me as a white person. Nobody is out on the streets in Nairobi after 6pm, especially when you are not black. It’s simply too dangerous. (I myself made bad experience with drugged streetkids, but this is another story. But if Anne wouldn’t have called the police, who came with fire arms to rescue me – I would not be here anymore).
“God bless you for what you’ve done to us” she says. I am about to cry. Helpless. “Please visit us again. You know where you’ll find us”. She takes Rose by the hand and gives me a smile. Naomi is already sleeping at her back. Anne turs around and together they disappear in the capitals traffic. On their way to the laundry, the safest place in town.
(see “Other films” “Anne Wachira – portrait of a homeless mother “).