On almost any major street in downtown Montreal, one can come across a person holding up a sign or putting on a warm smile for donations. The stigma that surrounds the homeless, perhaps stereotyping them as older men with substance addictions, effectively defines them as social outcasts. In Nairobi, Kenya, social outcasts take on a very different form: homeless children, loosely ranging between 5 and 18 years old, addicted to inhaling industrial glue.
Glue addiction and homelessness in Nairobi have a particularly symbiotic relationship. While glue isn’t legally permitted for consumption, it is highly available for children because it isn’t a controlled substance. It can be directly bought from vendors in the form of shoe repair or upholstery, but a full bottle can be too expensive for someone with no formal income. As such, these children turn to what are known as mama pimas – middle men who purchase glue in full quantities and ration it into smaller amounts to be sold for 25 (USD) cents a bottle (Kelto, 2012). The children then roam the streets, bottle in hand or mouth, receiving a powerful high from the neurotoxins that lasts for several hours. This behaviour is highly addictive, causing severe brain damage ranging from speech impediments to heavily impaired rotary skills (NIDA, 2012). In the most extreme cases, all brain function ceases and children suddenly die.
The state of the children’s homelessness is brought upon by several reasons: parents no longer being able to financially support them, infant abandonment, premature death of their guardians, etc. Once on the streets, children enter an unspoken hierarchical order defined by age. Older children prey on the loose money/donations received by younger begging children by beating them. As documented by primary reports, 14-year old glue-addicted John details how “if the [older boys] see a [foreigner] give me something, they beat me and take it. Once someone gave me shoes. [The older boys] beat me and took my shoes” (Wire, 2005). Thus, survival is a continuous struggle. Streams of income are generated through begging, threatening to inject targets with HIV-ridden syringes or throw faeces onto targets, robbery, or temporary informal work (Mwangi, 2014).Muzungus (informal slang word used to denote foreigners) are more easily persuaded to give up their posessions than locals – largely due to language and cultural barriers – but more often than not, are these children are ignored by the Nairobi’s society writ-large.
What few programs that are set in place by the government are both underfunded and ineffective. Despite current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, establishing centres to offer food and rehabilitation programs to street children (Mzioka & Mwaniki, 2008), when US president Barack Obama visited Kenya in July this year, completely ludicrous measures were taken. Investigative reporters had found that the government had employed hundreds of people to fill potholes, plant flower beds, tidy litter, and arrest or relocate all street children in areas in/close to Obama’s scheduled visits (News24 & The Insider, 2015). Among Kenyans this was wittingly referred to as ‘Obamacare’ or the ‘Obama Effect’. These actions trickle a clear-cut message throughout the public sphere: it is socially acceptable to disregard children living on the streets as nothing but outcasts.
There is a systemically obtuse social injustice at play here. Rather than focusing attention on reintegrating these children back into society, the government would alternatively finance services that hide them from the eyes of the public so as to portray an artificial reality. Such a framework of thought is also used when discussing the issue of same-sex relations in Kenya, and has proven to be, time after time, incredibly ineffective. To omit members of a diverse and nuanced society is to ignore the underlying issues that trouble that very society. It is because of this that Kenya’s government, as well as Quebec’s, should seek to redefine their notions of social justice and install effective programs to help these people.
Kelto, Anders. "Nairobi Glue Pusher Preys on Addicted Kids to Feed Her Own." PRI. N.p., n.d. Web. <<http://www.pri.org/stories/2012-10-29/nairobi-glue-pusher-preys-addicted-kids-help-her-own>>.