In the Westlands suburbs of Nairobi, across the road from rejuvenated Sarit Centre mall is a messy road intersection. Matatus routinely tie up traffic to a knot, honk loudly and cough thick exhaust fumes from engines that have seen better days. In the midst of the commotion around the commuter terminal, a woman stands with a bucket at her feet selling boiled maize. Clifford Chianga Oluoch, a Mathematics teacher at Oshwal Academy in Parklands stops to buy some boiled maize. He is soon joined by two street urchins. They want to buy a cob of boiled maize too, but they don’t not have enough money for more than one and an argument ensues over who gets to eat it.
A common Nairobian would have minded his own business. Street children are a nuisance on our streets as it is. They yank side mirrors from motorists in standstill traffic, snatch handbags and cell phones from city yuppies, prowl the streets relentlessly begging for alms (if you meet the polite ones) or using hostile extortion, threatening to smear your body with feaces if you do not show cash. It was in late November 2014 when this incident took place. Clifford reacted to the two street kids as any father would to his own boys and settled the score by buying each of them a cob of maize. What followed is that one of the boys went away and returned with twenty other street kids, all pleading for a cob. He ended up buying boiled maize for all twenty of them.
“I do not quite remember why I even did it,” says Clifford, “but then after they were finished eating, one of them asked me ‘utarudi kesho (will you be back tomorrow)?’” He said yes and made a promise to come back the following day with more food.
From that random act of kindness, he began feeding that lot of street children daily on milk and bread buttered with Blue Band and Zesta jam. Every day after work at the Oshwal Academy, he would go to the supermarket to buy loaves of bread. Back at his residence in Parkland’s 2nd Avenue, he would sit down with his wife and children to package the food and then at around 7.30pm leave for Westlands. Usually, he found them sitting in line waiting to be served. The numbers grew! At start of 2015, Clifford was feeding 50 street children. His services extended to include street families (mostly women and children) to roughly 65 people.
When Clifford talks about his feeding program, he keeps things casual, never overstating anything. His generosity and compassionate spirit is exceptional in a city that views its downtrodden homeless population as an eye sore. Those who know teacher Cliff are hardly surprised.
His wife, Bernadette Rajoro admitted as much to film producer Simiyu Barasa, “This feeding program has not changed Cliff. It has just revealed to others who he has been for the 28 years I have known him.”
Clifford remains aware that the sustainability of the feeding program rests a great deal on generosity from strangers. The moment he began sharing stories of the homeless children, their struggles and aspirations, his project began gaining some traction. Some sponsors responded to his call. Most of them friends and family sending in Mpesa contributions. He got a big breakthrough when DPL Festive Limited, makers of Festive Bread, agreed to donate crates of bread every day. That eased his budget a bit.
But it was not always dandy. “There were days when someone promises to send you money and then they go silent. That is really frustrating bwana”.
Nairobi after all is the capital of sympathy scams. Enterprising scam artistes commonly use pictures of famished and abandoned street children to draw sympathy and cash from the public which makes most people distrustful of do-gooders. Nonetheless, what keeps the feeding program going are donations. In one month alone Clifford incurs a bill of Ksh. 75,000 ($ 830) feeding the homeless families. There is rent to pay and kids to take to school. The needs are lot more than he can manage by himself.
Sometimes the donations are generous, sometimes they are absent. For the month of March 2015, Kibali Mureithi and I teamed up to cater for the expenses. Social media contacts helped us raise the Ksh. 75, 000. Volunteers have been instrumental in the success of his program; volunteers like Simiyu Barasa who is documenting the initiative and Peggy Mbiyu who both come daily to help.
For about a month, I joined Clifford in feeding the street families of Westlands and Parklands area of Nairobi. I would meet him at his house in Parklands, 2nd Avenue, to prepare packed dinner at around 6pm. We would take turns spreading the bread with margarine and jam, eight slices for each person with a packet of milk. Sometimes we were joined by other volunteers, his wife, two daughters and the family dog Bella – a white, happy Japanese Spitz with a particular fondness for my feet.
I was not completely inculcated into the program until I did the weekend shift. It involves serving as waiter on Saturday/Sunday during the weekend special. Ugali, Nyama and Mboga. A welcome break from the weekday bread and milk diet. The children came in shifts. My job was to wash their hands, serve them food and answer every question. This mostly consisted of requests for extra portions.
A program that began as mercy feeding exercise has organically grown bigger. Clifford started off providing food and soon realized that these kids needed more than just feeding. They also needed clothes on their backs, shelter and most importantly an education.
Clifford would later connect with another humanitarian pursuing the same goal, Shamit Patel of the Homeless of Nairobi fame. They decided to merge their programmes. Homeless of Nairobi (HON) is an initiative fashioned on Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York style, which is a photographic catalogue of the lives of people, in New York and the the rest of the world.
Shamit Patel, like Clifford responded to the desperation of Nairobi’s street families by picking up his camera and sharing their stories. Those stories made their way onto a Facebook page that challenges the consciousness of those who still believe in shared humanity and dignity for all. Shamit is on a mission to break the stereotypes of the homeless one photograph at a time.
Whereas Shamit and his crew track street families in the entire city, Clifford is mostly focused on the Westlands-Parklands area.
Clifford and Shamit have since leased a few rooms in Deep C (an informal settlement bordering Westlands) where they house the young ones that Clifford has been feeding. It is a first step in getting them away from the streets and from there, half a dozen have found their way back to school – courtesy of sponsors solicited by the two.
It is working out, Clifford’s optimism is paying off and lives are getting changed despite the numerous challenges such rehabilitating drug addicts and dealing with medical emergencies.
“One day, as I went to feed my people, there was one who was clearly very sick, unable to move. They had carried him to the feeding base so that I could do something (whatever it is that I do). He was unconscious. They just lay him down on the ground before me. I had no idea what to do. So we organized for a taxi to take him to Kenyatta (National Hospital). He was accompanied by two other street guys. Well, they made it to Kenyatta and the patient was admitted after almost 24 hours. The guy had to undergo tests and he was later found to have pneumonia plus a number of other ailments.”
Sammy is one of Clifford’s success stories. Before the two crossed paths, Simon was a drug addict on Mogotio Road, a backstreet road off swanky Parklands avenue that houses the street families in derelict conditions. Sammy, like most boys his age was holed up here smoking crack and weed laced cigarettes before Cliff helped him into rehab. Sammy is now on his way to recovery at the Turning Point Rehabilitation Centre in Limuru.
For the remaining boys, Clifford encourages a code of discipline and general hygiene. Neatness is non-negotiable. At 6’6”, his sheer presence must have helped enforce a new standard of cleanliness. Every child in his program has clean shaven hair and clean clothes. During the festive season, Clifford got generous donations from well wishers, mostly clothing, which he distributed to the kids but behaviour change is not something that occurs overnight.
On one occasion out with Cliff as a helping hand on his charity rounds. Simon, one of the kids, came to collect his ration. Cliff stared at Simon dirty clothes and asked what happened to the clean ones he gave him just a month ago.
“Wasee hawakupei doh kama wewe ni msafi. (people do not give you money when you are clean.)”
You win some and you lose some. Looking back now, it is amazing how all this happened. It all started with a single cob of boiled maize and a man who gave a damn and gave his word to a bunch of hungry street kids. He kept his promise and he has not stopped giving since.
“I have three plans that will take this initiative to the next level; First, to begin feeding centres in the slums, serving soup and bread to the homeless. Daily. This is something I have been meaning to do with my daughter, Elsie, way before the feeding program began. Second, start a community with a library, movie place plus other income generating activities. And finally get 100,000 families in Kenya each to adopt a street child.”
With these intentions, there is little wonder why Abigail Arunga, in her Nation Blog column, commented thus; “As a country, we could do with more Cliffords. Not just in Nairobi. Everywhere. That way we won’t even need politicians.”
Clifford has hope that a day will come when Nairobi will accept street children, not as a stain on her fabric, but as a part of her. That they Nairobians will give these kids their dignity back, because it is not just their due. It is their birthright.
When he started, Clifford did not have much to go with – just an empty pocket and a heart full of love. So far, he has been blessed with beginner’s luck on more than one occasion, therefore he remains cautiously optimistic.