African Medical Research Foundation, AMREF, is creating 21st century “Black Pinocchios” from the street urchins of Nairobi. Wanjiru Kinyanjui caught up with one of them and reports on his life.
The boys are all stiffly lying on the hard concrete floor. One by one, they “wriggle” out of their comatose positions, stand up, ease up, wave their passports to the audience and announce their names. The 20 young men have been transformed from disobedient wooden puppets into real boys as butterflies metamorphose from caterpillars. Looking at one of them, 17-year-old John Kavoo, one can’t imagine that he was once a filthy, unkempt, glue-sniffing street-boy who, like the Italian puppet Pinocchio, has had his dream of being transformed from a wooden piece to a real boy, fulfilled. Kavoo narrates his story without embarrassment in fluent Kiswahili. For him, it is necessary to reach out to others who are in the same situation as he was, and he wants to be an example to them. “I have now come to learn that everyone gets a second chance in life. Today, I am a mechanic and a theatre performer!” he says.
Kavoo, his mother and his two younger siblings lived in a mud-and-stick house in Nairobi’s Dagoretti area. His mother eked a living from collecting firewood in Ngong forest, which she would sell in neighbouring Kabiria estate. The children slept on the cold earthen floor, and went hungry often. Even the thought of going to school was a far-fetched dream. Their poverty seemed permanent.
Kavoo soon started roaming the streets where he met street-boys who introduced him to glue sniffing. By the age of 10, he was hooked to the habit. Kavoo envied the street-boys’ freedom. “They had their own money and could spend it on glue, alcohol, food or whatever they chose,” he says, adding that life at home seemed a lot harder.
“I had had enough, and that is why I went into the streets to look for some money so that I could help my mother out,” he says. He soon learnt that, despite the perceived freedom in the streets of Nairobi, life was not exactly easy. “I became a beggar in town and for a while things went smoothly. I discovered that I didn’t have to work to make money. All I had to do was sit down and beg. Sometimes I would make up to Sh500 (US$6.7), which I would use to buy food and drugs,” he says. Two years later, street families had increased tremendously, and begging was no longer lucrative because of the stiff competition in the streets.
“I was sleeping on the cold pavements of Nairobi and eating from the garbage dump. Sometimes I was forced into stealing to survive,” he says. Kavoo started missing his family and at this point decided to go back home. But only for a short while. Within the two years Kavoo had been away, his mother had found employment as a gardener at a Jockey Club and had rebuilt their house with iron sheets. His siblings were now going to school. Life had changed for the family. But Kavoo had changed too, and it was hard for him to re-adapt into a sedentary life. “After a while, I could not eat, I could not sleep, I was scratching myself all the time and I was always uneasy and tense. I needed the glue and I had no money,” he recalls. This time, Kavoo joined a gang of 50 street-boys in the nearby Kawangware estate who called themselves the “Katanga Base Boys”. It is here that he was nicknamed John Kavoo (his real name is Nahashon Mbugua), the name now popular and which he prefers. Like the other boys, he collected and sold firewood and scrap paper and, when the worst came to the worst, he broke into houses and stole household items.
Just when life was becoming harder, two AMREF social workers, John Muiruri and Nicholas Kiema, appeared carrying two foot balls with them and asked the boys to a game of soccer. The boys accepted. On that day, they got lunch and supper. The two promised the boys that they would soon set up a centre at a place called Waithaka within the area where the boys could be assisted. The workers kept returning to play football with them, feeding them and talking to them. AMREF organised a tournament in the new centre in Waithaka. Some of the boys refused to play at the tournament, but some, including Kavoo, took part. They were surprised when they won the trophy plus school uniforms. Nicholas Kiema, a medical counselor, explained to the boys that drugs have a very bad effect on their health and that he would help them stop the habit. But the boys would hide gum in their clothes and go to the toilet to take it, get high and return to their desks. But the teachers remained gentle. “I did not like the project at first since the social workers used to confiscate my glue and I therefore thought going to the project was a waste of my money,” he recalls. In his bitterness, Kavoo and the other boys approached Kiema and told him of their addiction. After a talk, the boys were taken for a two-week camping at Rowallan Camp. There, they played football during the day and held discussions in the evenings on life with AMREF workers.
‘Our glue stocks ran out the next day,” Kavoo recalls, laughing. “There was no shopping centre, houses or people we could buy the drug from. By the fifth day, we were reflecting on our past and future and how we wanted to live in it. I remember this was when I decided to change my life.” With the help of the social workers, he was re-united with his family and now lived with them. He started to spend less on glue and drugs. “Instead of Sh50, I started spending Sh40, then Sh30. I would stop puffing for one day but by the next day, I just felt that I was lacking something. This “something” would come back after sniffing. But I did not break my resolve to continue reducing. Soon, I found that I could buy myself a pair of sneakers and this drove me on,” he narrates.
The classes at Waithaka were designed to teach the boys to sit still and concentrate, to read, write and count, and to gradually re-adapt to the formal public school system. Out of the 50 boys, only 21 were attending classes.
One day, Kiema introduced a new project: an Italian theatre director was coming to train the boys in drama. Only those boys who stopped taking drugs would be allowed to take part. That project would be the turning point in Kavoo’s life. At a remote camp near Magadi, Kajiado district in the Rift Valley province, Marco Baliani, a theatre director from Italy, introduced his project to the boys. He told them the 19th century Italian story of Pinocchio that was to later act as a catalyst in their transformation from the much maligned and loathed Nairobi street “chokora”.
In this fairy-tale, Pinocchio’s lonely father who wanted company carved Pinocchio out of wood. As soon as he had finished, the boy came alive and started cursing him. He did not respect any one. Instead of going to school, he went off with circus people who turned him into a donkey. Pinocchio was always telling lies, but every lie was detected because it made his nose grow longer. But Pinocchio got a chance: if only he would reform, he would be transformed into a real boy. At last, he changed his attitude, stopped lying, was good to his father, and, to his delight, he became a real boy!
The story touched the boys: they too, were disobedient, were stealing and lying all the time, their life was getting harder because they did not listen to any one. Baliani drew the whole story for them and told them that they would perform it. He began to train them. At first, he had to get them to “open up their minds and bodies”, as they were tense, suspicious and stiff. The effects of glue reflected on their physical and mental ill health.
Although the boys had never done anything like this before, they were amazed to find that they were having fun during rehearsals. They became “addicted”. Pinocchio was their story, and the ending was their goal: to become “real boys” again. Soon, their own version of the story emerged. During rehearsals, they learnt self-discipline and confidence. They gradually learnt to fight off the urge for drugs through theatre playing! Today, the 20-man troupe who now live at the AMREF rented villa in Dagoretti, have performed at Dagoretti, UN headquarters in Gigiri, The GoDown Arts Centre in Industrial Area, and in Italy. “We did not believe it when Nicholas Kiema told us that we were to tour Italy. Imagine us, mere street-boys, going to a place where even many rich people have never been,” he says incredulously.
The boys performed in the Grand Theatre in Rome to thousands of theatre lovers and later toured Palma, Palermo, Milano and Bologna, among other cities of interest. In the last scene of “Black Pinocchio”, the boys are all stiffly lying on the floor. One by one, they “wriggle” out of their stiff positions, stand up, ease up, wave their passports to the audience and announce their names. John’s turn comes and he rises: “I am John Kavoo, Kenya!” Kavoo and the other 20 boys have achieved something they had never dreamed of, a sense of belonging, of identity, and of pride
After a few years at the centre, John opted to train as a mechanic and was attached to different “Jua Kali” garages. Recently, he has been training under the famous Kenyan rally driver, Anzar Anwar, at his garage. He even has a dream of owning his own garage! Since Kavoo’s mother died, he has taken over as head of the family, and motivates his siblings to do well in school, citing his own life as an example of what not to do.
At the Dagoretti centre, Kavoo mixes with the 100-150 children who are all beneficiaries of the AMREF “Child in Need” program of rehabilitation. Some have been re-integrated in formal schools. Afternoons are reserved for activities including: counseling, theatre, video filming, art & craft, karate and just plain play! Kavoo also persuades street children to join the project. It works often because they know him and can see what he has become, “a real boy”. Wanjiru Kinyanjui is a Nairobi-based filmmaker