Across the world, COVID-19 is challenging the way we live our lives and make decisions about the future.
The country of Kenya is no exception.
As of November 3, 2020, COVID-19 cases in Kenya have reached almost 57,000. Of these, over 1,000 have reportedly died and almost 38,000 have recovered.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified Kenya as high risk. This is largely due to Kenya's limited resources for testing and treating illnesses like coronavirus, particularly in rural areas. To attempt to reduce infection, the Kenyan government closed all institutions and introduced a dusk-to-dawn curfew across the country.
Kenyan Culture and Street Boys
Kitale, Kenya is an agricultural town in northern Rift Valley with a population of about 100,000. In Kitale, street children are a particularly vulnerable group affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
The majority of street children are boys. Kenyan culture emphasizes that circumcision marks a boy's transition from boyhood to manhood and is typically performed between the ages of 13-14. ASEC alumna Sr. Winnie Mutuku, who works with street boys, explains,
“Culture over here dictates that after circumcision, a boy becomes a man and is therefore not allowed to continue sleeping under one roof with their parents. The belief is so deep that those who come out of the initiation and find no houses of their own decide to run away.”
Because of this culture belief, many boys are forced to leave home and live on the streets, as they have nowhere else to go. Poverty and animosity among families also contribute to the street child population.
Street children in Kitale experience much mistreatment, which has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people struggle to understand why these young boys "choose" to live on the streets, and thus, treat them poorly.
But some Kenyans, like Sr. Winnie Mutuku, are making promising efforts to assist them.
Sr. Winnie is a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (DC) sister who serves the poor, including street boys in Kitale. She earned her Diploma from Tangaza University College (TUC) through ASEC's Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) program in May 2016. She also went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree in Social Communication, also from TUC.
Filling Service Gaps for Kitale's Vulnerable
Following her education, Sr. Winnie was able to conduct a research study to determine where she could fill a service gap for street children in Kitale. Utilizing a feasibility study, she found that boys ages 15-18 were not receiving assistance. It's a common conception that boys of this age are too deviant to help. Many also find it easier to convince younger boys to return home. So, this age group is underserved.
So, in January, 2020, Sr. Winnie founded her own organization, Upendo Street Children (USC), to reach out to this vulnerable group of adolescent street boys.
Run by Sr. Winnie and the Daughters of Charity sisters, USC strives to restore dignity to homeless children and assist them in going back to school. USC also reunites boys with their families and helps with constructing homes for them. Sr. Winnie’s inspiration for founding USC comes from her congregation’s emphasis on charity work and her own desire to impact the lives of youth in Kitale. She views street boys as having the potential to become responsible men and have their own homes as they mature into adults.
Prior to the pandemic, USC served as a safe haven, allowing boys to drop-in and shower, obtain clean clothing, eat meals and make friends. Over 30 boys regularly received services at USC center prior to COVID-19. 23 of these boys were even reunited with their families.
But everything changed when coronavirus hit Kenya in March, 2020.
COVID-19's Effects on Homeless Boys in Kenya
Kenya's COVID-19 curfew lasts from dusk through dawn and has been especially troublesome for street children in Kitale. Those violating the curfew may be arrested and put in mandatory quarantine for 14 days. Police officers engage in physical violence and brutally beat any boys out during curfew hours. So, many street children flee to the forests and railways for overnight protection.
The Daughters of Charity were also forced to close down the drop-in center because of the pandemic. Recruitment of new children was put on hold.
But Sr. Winnie didn't give up hope.
Sustaining the street feeding program during COVID-19
The sisters have found ways to continue to provide food to street children throughout the pandemic. Adults and boys who were not in the USC system continued to show up for food. Sr. Winnie could not simply turn them away. So, she serves the boys outdoors. It’s frequently raining, but it's better than nothing.
Despite all of the challenges, Sr. Winnie and USC have continued to persevere. Since the drop-in center’s closure, USC has secured space at a cathedral where the boys can now eat and interact. Sr. Winnie and other USC staff provide food to the street children three days a week. The boys are encouraged to take leftovers, so they'll have meals for the remaining days.
Due social distancing regulations, the sisters are only able to conduct biweekly home visits. USC provides food, soap and bedding to homes in need during the visits. Home visits also allow Sr. Winnie and USC staff to see how the boys are adjusting to being reunited with their parents.
But Sr. Winnie has also seen a silver lining to the pandemic, albeit temporary. Several parents recognized the increased danger of living on the streets during the pandemic and have invited their children to come home. Other boys have been taken in by relatives or neighbors.
USC and the Daughters of Charity continue to provide essential services despite uncertain times. And their dedication is paying off. Since January 2020, more than 10 USC boys have re-enrolled in school, including primary, secondary, technical and vocational education centers.
Recognition of Service
In June 2020, Sr. Winnie was recognized by Kenya for her commitment to service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sr. Winnie was among a list of 68 winners, including doctors, nurses, and journalists, who were recognized for their commitment to leadership during the pandemic. The Presidential Order of Service, Uzalendo Award, was given to Sr. Winnie in recognition of her distinguished and outstanding service in Kenya to help the country through COVID-19.
Sr. Winnie’s outstanding work with USC certainly shows. Armed with an education, she was able to identify AND fill service gaps in her community with confidence and compassion.