Andy McCullough, Railway Children’s Safeguarding and Policy director, recently visited Africa to work with our teams there on safeguarding as well as catch up with our projects, see the impact of what we’re doing and meet some of the children we’re helping.
‘Flying in to Kenya it is obvious why Europeans settled here to establish their plantations in colonial days – the countryside is rich and fertile with lush green hills, abundant crops and forests of alpine trees. So it comes as a shock to see the contrast in the city of Kitale itself where the poverty is mind-blowing. People are living side by side in mud huts or shacks with tin roofs, all desperately trying to scrape a living however they can.
Despite the chaos, as I wandered around with the Railway Children team everyone had time to wave or nod at us. Large groups of children, some as young as seven, came over to shake hands, bump fists and ask who I was and where I was from. These young people had no shoes and wore filthy rags. It was impossible to guess at the ages of the older ones as they were so ravaged by a lifetime of malnutrition and glue sniffing, with no teeth and an empty stare. But they all responded well to our workers, who they clearly trust, laughing and joking with them and letting them know about any children new to the streets.
‘An oasis in the chaos of the city’
Next we visited Street Safe – an inspirational project that provides the next step for the children our outreach workers find on the streets. It is made up of three rooms with mud floors and offers lessons in social studies, maths and English as well as looking at options for the future of the children whether that means reintegrating with their families or finding long term homes. There is a place where the children can wash and get clean clothes and it provides an oasis in the chaos of the city.
I was able to join our partners at Child Rescue Kenya to visit a family they have been working with - I was welcomed into their very clean mud hut and they talked about how they were struggling to start a charcoal business. The team talked about various options and explained how they wouldn’t just step in and rescue the situation as it would only make the family dependant rather than teaching them the resilience necessary to weather the tough times. Instead they’ll keep working with them and help them develop those skills into the future.
Different stories, same sense of fun
Next we visited Birunda, a short term residential centre Railway Children operates with our partners in Kitale. It houses around 50 children and on the walls inside there are rotas for cleaning, washing and cooking – all useful skills for them growing up. I met children who all had a story to tell.
There was a 15-year-old boy who left home as his mother was too poor to support him and a 14-year-old girl who had been found beaten up on the streets. I saw seven and eight-year-old siblings who had been brought to the shelter after their mother had been jailed. Despite their pasts and their difficulties they all had a child’s natural curiosity and sense of humour. I’m pretty sure I was the butt of their jokes but they were intrigued by my beard and tattoos and we laughed and had fun together.
Part two of Andy's blog is now available: 'Lives being changed and lessons being learned'