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Feb22ThuSalvation Army program offers safe space and education for street youth in Kenya. February 22, 2018 by Brianne Zelinsky
On any given Monday morning in Kakamega, Kenya, Edwin Shem wakes up, throws on his backpack and goes to school. After passing through the city’s bustling marketplaces, he walks along a red-dirt road as food transport trucks, motorbike taxis and tuk tuks (Kenya’s version of the rickshaw) speed by. Edwin’s destination is Martha’s Boys, a Salvation Army outreach program that provides education, safe space and social assistance for boys on the street.
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Some boys ditch their packs into nearby bushes before entering the Army compound, but Edwin keeps his strapped on since it functions as a laundry hamper and the water pump behind the school doubles as a laundry facility.
When he arrives at Martha’s Boys, an old house-turned-school on the same property as the Army’s Kenya West Territorial Headquarters, class has begun and many boys have already started working through math problems. The instructor, Lumumba Lusine, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, scribbles a math problem onto the chalkboard. One student stands up to solve the question. “What do you think, boys? Is he right?” asks Lumumba. “He is. Clap for him.” All six students clap in unison and “clap for him” becomes the response to every correct answer.
All of the boys who come through this ministry are invited to participate in class, though many are only here to rest and clean up. Some arrive and walk straight to the back fence where they bask in the shade of a water tower. Others find rest under the canopy of avocado trees, but most wait their turn at a single water pump to rinse their bodies and scrub their clothes in a plastic basin.
Edwin began attending Martha’s Boys in 2009. Now 17 years old, he considers himself a leader among many of the younger boys. “I want them to know that they are important,” he says. “They only need hope to change their lives.”
As with many boys his age, Edwin has been self-reliant for most of his life. When he was eight years old, his parents divorced and his father remarried, leaving Edwin with a stepmother who didn’t want him around. He eventually fled home and ended up on the streets, finding a new family with the street boys.
There are many gang divisions among Kakamega’s homeless youth. While many suffer the associated consequences of living on the streets—including inadequate housing, hygiene, health care and education—the biggest threats are gang violence and police brutality. Many street boys say getting arrested or beaten by local authorities is one of their greatest fears.
When the boys are not studying or socializing at The Salvation Army, gambling is a popular pastime. Kevin Isunta, a close friend of Edwin’s and, at 27 years old, an elder in their street group, demonstrates a common card game used for gambling between gangs. “One time, I was accused of cheating and my opponent’s gang beat me,” recalls Kevin. “You can still see the scar.”
For Edwin, Martha’s Boys is more than a hang-out spot; it’s a safe space, away from distractions on the street, that allows him to explore his interests beyond gang activity. Edwin writes rap songs and has recorded one with help from staff and teachers at The Salvation Army.
“I write rap songs based on people in the Bible,” explains Edwin. “I have performed them at two radio stations where I was interviewed.” His passion for pursuing a career in music landed him a scholarship from the Army to attend classes at a music school in Kenya where he is learning to be a DJ and composer.
Edwin has learned to navigate life without a family or home. At Martha’s Boys, he found more than an education and a laundry facility; through the support of staff, teachers and his street family, Edwin has learned to rely on his faith as a source of hope. “I love God,” he says. “I’ve learned to leave everything with him.”