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© UNICEF Kenya/2008/Otieno
Maria, left, with her tutor helping her examine her paper pattern for a dress, in her dressmaking class at the Christian Industrial Training Centre, Mombasa.

By Juliett Otieno    

Mombasa, Kenya, October 2009 - It is very easy to mistake Maria Mbesa for a 13 year old school girl, as she sits in her uniform on the benches of the Christian Industrial Training Centre (CITC) in Mombasa. Hungry and tired, she been in class all day, and still has the afternoon classes to attend. It is 34 degrees; she readily admits she would rather be sleeping.

Still, she resolves to attend the rest of her classes, for her life, and family, depends on it. With her tiny frame of 4”9, 19 year old Maria is a mother of three boys, the youngest of whom is 14 months old. That is another matter that preoccupies her mind, her baby Mwongela has had diarrhoea for two days, and she needs to bring her to the doctor. She speaks with the voice of great experience and a maturity far beyond her age, and displays familiarity with hardship.

“I need to take time from school tomorrow so that my son can see the doctor. I don’t know what he ate, but the last two days have been hard, he diarrheas day and night,” she reports to Edward Wanjala, Social Worker at Tononoka Drop-in Centre in Mombasa. Edward acts as a guardian for Maria, one of 492 former Mombasa street children and has since been rehabilitated by the Kenya Street families Trust Fund. Since the UNICEF Kenya/Barclays drop in centre was opened in November 2008, street children and families have been streaming in steadily. He comes to the centre from time to time to check on the progress of the rehabilitated children, another point of contact with them besides the counseling and meal times at the centre.

© UNICEF Kenya/2008/Otieno
Maria at the end of ther day, narrating her story as she waits for her sons to come from the nursery school.

They have a programme where the rehabilitated children have their meals at the centre, and those who are already in school live together in rented rooms in surrounding residential states. Maria vividly recalls her life on the streets where she lived for most of the last five years, but is quick to point out that it was never her choice to be there in the first place. Hers is a heartbreaking story that is characterized by tragedy as well as pleasant surprises that she thanks God for.

Life was blissful growing up in Machakos in Eastern Kenya. She was part of a big, happy family, she and her siblings all went to school, and had all they needed. She had just finished primary school when her father died, and the next thing she knew, he uncles arrived to forcefully demand their share of their late brother’s property. Nobody could stand in their way.
Her mother was taken ill suddenly, making her and her eight children defenseless as Maria’s uncles threw them out of their own home. Her older brothers ran away, and she tried to care for her sick mother and her younger siblings for a few weeks until she decided to run away herself. That was her first stint at street life. She was fourteen years old, homeless and all alone.

“I had found life at home to be unbearable, our uncles made it so hard. I thought that anything was better than having to bear with their greed. I was unable to give my mother adequate care without any money, so I left. On the street, we called each other ‘survivors’, because that is all we did. We went from day to day just trying to survive it,” she said.

Then unthinkable happened, Maria was raped by one of her ‘survivor’ companions. “We went about in groups, there was never a definite number of people, and every now and then new people joined us. He was a stranger to me, and the first night I saw him he attacked me,” she said, the emotion still raw in her eyes. To date she still does not know the name of her attacker, or where he had come from.

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