From street child to manager

By: ROSE ODENGO

David Kariuki, 38, is unbothered by the boisterous chatter around him, in fact, he seems content to be amongst these happy-looking children.

Unlike them, his childhood was far from happy. It was one characterised with neglect and violence.

“My childhood was not good I have no happy memories to talk of,” he begins.

He is eighth in a family of 13 children. He has never met his father, and all he knows about him was that he was once a loader with a cereals company.

“I grew up in Kamukunji, an informal settlement in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County. We were so poor, by the time I was born, two of my elder siblings had left home to fend for themselves on the streets of Nairobi.”

The family also moved a lot since they could not afford to pay rent.

His mother worked as a maid in Asian homes and also sold vegetables on the side. In an effort to make more money, she at some point started to brew illicit liquor.

He says,

“I was raised by one of my elder sisters, Rose, since my mother was away most of the time.”

His mother, he says, beat them too much, something he now puts down to the frustration that comes with struggling to feed 13 children on a little money.

His earliest memory of his first beating was when he was six. She held him upside down on one leg and beat him with the flat side of a slasher.

“When she tired of beating me, she let go and I hit my head on the ground, injuring my neck,” he recalls.

Later on, he discovered from his elder siblings that the man he had thought was his father was not his biological father. Being a curious child, he started asking questions, but instead of getting an answer from his mother, he was punished.

“She got hold of me and literally threw me out of the door, and dared me to go look for him.”

BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

That day, he slept outside, afraid to go back home.

School was on and off, since his mother could not afford the school fees. When he was not in school, he would spend most of his time fetching water that his mother would then use to brew Chang’aa. His day started way before dawn, when he would accompany his stepfather to ferry the liquor to various drinking dens.

“We would leave home at around 3am and make the deliveries until 6.30 am,” he recalls.

He points out that his life was no different from that of many other children in that area. For instance, most of his friends came from dysfunctional families, in fact, his best friend’s father was a well-known bank robber who was eventually gunned down by police. This friendship would later cost him.

“Unknown to me, my friend and several other boys had robbed the home of one of my teacher’s. Since everyone know that he and I were friends, I was summoned to the staffroom – the teachers wanted to know the whereabouts of my friend, and where he had taken the stolen goods.”

Kariuki had no idea, and told them as much, but they did not believe him. One of the teachers ordered him to lower his shorts, and when he hesitated, he grabbed him and forcibly pulled down the shorts.

“The only reason I hesitated was because I had no underwearI was embarrassed of exposing myself to them.”

For this hesitation, his teachers took turns to cane him, a canning he says was worse than any his mother had given him.

The following day, two policemen came for him, together with several other boys. One of the policemen hit him with the butt of a gun on his head, and then demanded that Kariuki confess to taking part in the robbery. When he said he had not been there, the policeman suddenly reached into Kariuki’s shorts and grabbed him by his scrotum and squeezed. Hard.

“The pain was so excruciating, I passed out” That was many years ago, but whenever he relieves that incident, his eyes well with tears, like they do now. He was only eight years old at the time.

When he came to, the policemen were still in the room, and one of them was smoking. He also noticed for the first time that there was blood on the floor. On seeing the alarmed look on his face, one of the policemen casually told him that they had castrated the other boys, and that that was their blood on the floor.

Out of panic, Kariuki confessed that he had taken part in the robbery, hoping that this would spare him further torture. Later that day, he and his friends, who had been tortured into confessing to a crime they had not committed, were handcuffed and paraded in their school and neighbourhood as “robbers”.

The boys were then bundled into a police car and jailed for a week.

“After I was released, I felt that I could not go back to school and face my schoolmates. Also, all my neighbours believed that I was a criminal, so there was no going back there too.”

Instead of going back home, he left for the streets of Eldoret, hoping for a better life. It got worse. That first night, he was beaten up by the older street children. Three days later, with the hunger pangs almost killing him, Kariuki, who, in spite of biting poverty had never eaten discarded food, rummaged through bins looking for leftovers.

He made a few friends who had been in the streets longer, and they readily imparted survival skills, the most important being befriending age mates, especially since sodomy was common.

It is here that he learned to pickpocket. One of the ‘lucrative’ hunting grounds was congested waiting areas in hospital. He and his friends would feign illness and steal from patients waiting to be attended to.

Unfortunately, most of the money they made went into feeding a drug habit – Kariuki sniffed cobbler glue and petrol, smoked bhang, and tried heroine. He only stayed away from taking heroine after watching a friend have a seizure soon after taking it. In spite of becoming assimilated into street life, Kariuki still dreamt of a much better life, one that included going back to school.

“I yearned to go back to school, but I was convinced that this yearning would remain just that – a yearning.”

For the five years he lived in the streets, he had been to prison several times, escaped a juvenile detention centre, survived mob justice four times and watched one of his friends burned alive. By: the time the first miracle happened, he was on the verge of suicide, desperate for another life. A different life.

One day, a woman drove up to where Kariuki and some of his friends were seated and offered to buy them breakfast.

“Her name was Helen Yego; she told us that she worked for the Anglican Church – I will never forget her.”

Once she paid for their breakfast, she told them that whenever they were hungry, they were welcome to go to the church for a meal. She also occasionally bought them clothes, which they would sell instead of wearing, but she would still buy them more.

That same year, a man driving a “greenish” Mercedes Benz pulled up to where Kariuki and other boys were warming themselves by a fire. It was late at night.

“He alighted and sat down next to us but didn’t say a word. We were scared.”

The man, they would later learn, was Charles Muli, the founder of Mully Children’s Family (MCF), a home that takes in and educates needy children.

The next day, Muli returned to the same spot, and told them that he wanted to take care of them.

“He told us that God had called him to be the father of the fatherless, and promised to protect us, offer us shelter, and educate us.”

Kariuki says that it sounded too good to be true, and suspicious of his intention, they rejected his offer. It took two months of this gentleman buying them food, clothes and soap to bath with, for them to be convinced that his intentions were pure.

“When we got to Mr Mulli’s home, his wife served the four of us food with a fork and knife – it was really confusing since we had never used such utensils to eat – we struggled with them until we gave up and used our hands instead,” says Kariuki, chuckling at the memory.

Muli and his wife accommodated them in their home and made it their duty to encourage and guide them through their rehabilitation process, which included music therapy.

“We joined the home choir and would perform as a group in various churches. We were also taught work ethic through doing various house and field chores, with occasional short academic lessons, to gauge their progress.”

Two years after joining the home, he and his friends were ready to start formal schooling. It took time to adjust though, and learning was a struggle for all of them, even though it was modeled to suit their learning capacity, combining technical and conventional learning.

“He [Muli] did not strictly expect us to be in class from 8am to 5pm, aware that our attention span was lower than that of the conventional learner.”

At the home, Kariuki and his friends were exposed to a whole new world that bolstered their confidence and self-worth. Perhaps due to this, his performance was so impressive, that Muli enrolled him in a private school, Kaptagat Preparatory School, where he was among the best performing pupils.

Kariuki scored 525 marks out of 700 in his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, and proceeded to Kabaa High School, still sponsored by Muli’s foundation.

Kariuki now has a degree in sociology and anthropology from Catholic University of Eastern Africa, a master’s degree in counselling psychology, and a diploma in project management, all possible through his foster family’s help, as well as friends.

Kariuki has been married for seven years now. His wife, Keziah, is the niece of one of his former teachers at the home. They have two daughters, six and two years. Kariuki is a program manager with Bright Point for Children, an NGO that links childrens’ homes with sponsors who specifically fund education for needy children.

His life’s mission is to offer a better life to as many needy children as he can, just as someone once reached out to him.

“Look at where I came from and where I am today; I am alive because someone was compassionate enough to take me in, love and educate me, and offer me a decent life. I am grateful, and that is why I have dedicated my life to improving the lives of children who have nowhere to call home.”

Kariuki has since reconciled with his mother, who he takes care of.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION