Street kids finding strength through art

Above: Nicholas painting Zebra

Published The East African Nation newspaper 22-28 October 2022

Canvases of different sizes are being hung up in the art gallery of the Nairobi Museum that are powerful in composition, drawing the viewer to stop and study them. Lydia Galavu, the museum’s curator of contemporary art executing the exhibition that will run in October, enthuses, “This collation is the best so far.”

Tree in space by John Cahna

The ‘best so far’ is a selection of works by street boys – some still living on the streets which they refer to as ‘the base’ and others who have returned to families or found their own place in life.

This is the fourth exhibition by the Alfajiri artists from the Alfajiri Street Kids Art nurtured by the Alfajiri Resource Drop-in Centre based in Kasarani. “The first collection was rejected because it was not up to gallery standard,” states Galavu.

That was in 2017.

Since then, Galavu has watched the artists grow. “Today they have as much potential as any other artist in Kenya and possibly more because of their experiences in life. Their paintings show the beauty of life and the worst because artists work from emotions that run deep.”

Curious, l drop in at the Alfajiri Resource Centre where a dozen boys of varying ages are going through a dance repertoire. The Centre is their safe space where they have the opportunity to be nurtured in art, music, dance, the martial arts and the digital world.

“Dance puts a smile on their faces,” says Kevin Mwangi the dance instructor. “It takes their mind off drugs and harmful substances. My journey with Alfajiri has been awesome where we can help the kids get off the streets.”

I join the boys going through the steps after which we’re treated to a hot lunch of freshly cooked beans, cabbage and rice by the kitchen staff called Hope and Grace.

art workshop

Meeting the Artists

The walls of the resource centre are filled with the boys’ paintings, each with a story to tell of how they landed in the street and found hope through Alfajiri which in Kiswahili is the word for dawn.

Most are from one of Nairobi notorious slum called Mlango Kubwa near Eastleigh in Mathare. Slum life is not a bed of roses and many a traumatized child has only the street to run away to.

I start off with Juma – only Juma as he wants to be known. A long scar runs on the side of his head, the result of a drug fight. He ran off to the streets in 2013 as a ten year old, influenced by his friends. “They told me street life was good. But living on the streets is not good. Every day you get beaten and bullied. Every day you beg. And every day you take drugs. The street taught me many bad things but Alfajiri has changed me. In the streets I didn’t know I could paint.”

Today, Juma rents his own ‘house’ in Mlango Kubwa, paints twice a week at Alfajiri and the rest of the days engages in garbage collection to make a living.

Then there’s Yusuf whose enormous canvases are filled with natural streams and forests. He grew up living with his grandmother in the slum, begging for food as a kid. Today he’s studying statistics and programming at Kenyatta University helped by Alfajiri. Dressed in a denim jacket and wearing a hat, he recounts his encounter with Alfajiri early this year.

“Somebody had a radio and there was Nick talking on the radio about Alfajiri. I was so interested that at the end when Alfajiri’s telephone number was read out, I called.”

It’s changed his life. “I didn’t have hope before I came to Alfajiri. When I came here, Ann gave me paint and asked me to paint. Now I’m an artist and no longer idle on the streets.”

Amongst his colourful scenes of nature, is a stark one in black and white of a woman holding her baby, a dead lifeless one in moon light. “There are many girls on the streets and they give birth but the streets are not healthy and the baby dies.”

Yusuf with his landscape

And then Nick comes in…Nick of the radio interview whose full name is Nicholas Maina. His landscapes are stark on large canvases like the acrylic in two colours – the lone tree against yellow and the zebra with the yellow background.

He had a short stint of street life that lasted two months in 2019 because life was hard at home. His base was the CBD. “Ann helped me get off the streets and now I’m back at home.

“I did want to go back to school and repeat a class. So Ann sent me to Kuona Trust to learn how to frame, a three-month course.”

While there, the soft-spoken 19-year-old sold his first painting for Ksh 5,000. “I told God thank you and continued.” His next client was a Swiss art dealer from Diani, South Coast. He bought ten.

“Alfajiri has changed my life. In two years I want to be a famous artist from Kenya. I put God first in everything I do and everything is possible with faith.”

Last, I meet Ian Mwangi the gentle one. Now 22, he’s been with Alfajiri for seven years. From Nyaharuru, he lived on the streets for two years after his mother died leaving him with her friend. Unfortunately, she was violent and one day scalded him with hot tea. That’s when he ran away. But life was hard and the boy thought of ‘trying another city’

Hiding in a lorry, he arrived in Nairobi where he scavenged in the streets for five years, often beaten and sleeping hungry until he met Ann in 2015. “I saw hope in her,” he puts it simply.

Today, he’s the gardener at Alfajiri and paints in his spare time. He only has one painting – a vibrant sunset on display.

“My hope is that all street kids can get off the streets and have a great future,” he says.

Make it about art

Lenore Boyd, an artist and volunteer who came to Kenya working with the Missionary of Charity Fathers of Mother Teresa in Pangani, hails from an artistic dynasty that has contributed to the arts in Australia. The kids call her Ann because Lenore is a bit of a mouthful.

In her 60s, the tall soft-spoken sculptor has been involved with street kids from the Mlango Kubwa slum. When she first ventured out there, she was horrified to see their living conditions and hear their brutal stories. The plan to found a rehab centre was never there.

“All I wanted was to put these kids in safe spaces,” she recalls. To do that, she needed funds which required registering a CBO (Community Based Organization).

In 2015, while volunteering at the mission in Pangani, it was a friend who suggested, ‘why don’t you use art to engage the kids?

And so was the start of the art workshops. “We facilitate the art workshops and that’s why their work is so original,” states Ann. In 2018, the present site was rented where youngsters come of their free will. Here they shower, put on clean clothes, are fed and spend the day in the activity of their choice including meeting visiting artists.

Dancing at alfajir

The centre has a team of visiting in-house and visiting counsellors like Dr Bobby Legg, a trauma therapist with 25 years’ experience. “These children go through unthinkable horrors in the street including being sodomised. Many are unwanted by their family so they have to deal with hate and violence. The best you can do is be there for them with an open heart even when they reek of jet fuel. You have to make them feel they are wanted, they are worth something and that is why art is best for trauma because when they can’t speak about something, they express through art.”

There’s a full calendar of activities: dancing once a week, art twice, and daily availability of paint and canvas, martial arts four times and so on.

“Martial arts is a whole approach to life, learning skills for self-defence. One of the boys told me about a street fight and he did not get involved. Asked why, he answered that the ‘mwalimu’ has said never to act aggressive.’

“Learning martial arts encourages new neuro-pathways in the brain. It encourages creativity, gives them a new vision and the mental state to get the mind off the street even if they are still on the street. In that, Alfajiri is a unique organization in the world.”

More on Alfajiri

Street Facts– according to a UN statistic, there are 60,000 street kids in Nairobi.