George Ochieng is a former No Strings workshop participant in Kenya. This month, he’s been asked to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York as one of just four grassroots representatives from Africa. The theme is close to former street child George’s heart: drugs. Here, he shares the story of his life’s work through Slum Child Foundation, the organisation he founded to help children growing up in poverty and hopelessness.
George Ochieng was the youngest of all our workshop participants back in Nairobi in 2010, and undoubtedly the most enthusiastic. When we visited a local primary school, he and his little yellow hand puppet needed rescuing as we said our goodbyes as he’d got hundreds of children beyond themselves with excitement.
That’s the power of puppets – treat with caution in crowds! But it was also George’s power as this smiling young man with a huge heart who genuinely wanted to make a change to children’s lives, and children saw that. We all did.
It’s now six years on and George is a 30-year-old with an unexpected gravitas to his voice when I call on Skype to his little office in the heart of Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s biggest slums where George grew up, and where he now dedicates his life to running a centre to support vulnerable children and young people. He is as friendly as ever, but I get the feeling life has demanded a lot of him.
A few months ago, he says, local dealers jealous of his work highlighting the dangers of drug abuse forced him out of his original premises by demanding thousands of dollars to keep the place going. He’s been able to set up elsewhere, but the street kids he supports aren’t able to take showers, and the available safe space to talk and to play is scarcer. Little things that are very significant in their lives, as George well knows.
He was just 13 when his mother, a single parent, was taken ill and he found himself sole carer for his little brother and sister. To feed them, he regularly scavenged for food in the middle of the night so people wouldn’t see and the family wasn’t stigmatised. Life could be brutal and the world a very cruel place, but when he was 14 he met some Catholic sisters who were working in the slum and they took him on as a trainee peer educator, eventually giving him full time work.
“One of the people I remember most is a lady called Sister Gill Horsefield,” George says. “She really inspired me and totally turned my life around. When she retired back in England, I used to cry because she was gone. She made my life great. She was one of my best role models, people who see a problem and they bring change. I love them very much.”
His daily struggles became easier as he took on increasing work, helping the sisters bring friendship, hope and comfort to traumatised children like himself who could see no future for themselves. As he says: “If you give them a chance to play, children become children again.” They became the focus of his world.
Now married with a seven-year-old daughter, George has to take additional work (very dangerous work) as a motorbike taxi driver to put food on his own table while he continues to bring positive change to Korogocho children’s lives through the Slum Child Foundation he set up several years ago.
Puppetry is part of the approach he uses. “No Strings trained me as a puppeteer,” George says. “It’s a very powerful means of communication and children love it. They say, ‘why can’t we do puppets every time?’
“I divide them into small groups and tell them to go and make a short skit. Then they come back and perform it to the other children, and through their stories I’m able to understand their thinking and the problems that concern them. Most of their skits involve alcohol. A drunken father or neighbour who wants to fight with them. Or HIV. Or the importance of education, mostly for girls.
“They do some really good presentations. It makes it easier for children to communicate about the challenges they face and what they want to happen. Otherwise, it can be hard to really know what’s going on in their lives. In follow-up sessions, we recap and look more deeply into the issues they’ve identified and how they can do things to help themselves. Currently, I’m looking for resources to allow me to train teachers and young people who can support this work.
“Drugs are very common in the Nairobi slums,” George adds. “They destroy children’s futures and every day we hear about tragedies. There’s a lot of illicit alcohol and solvent abuse, and marijuana is also everywhere.”
Sharon, now 16, is one of the 2,000 children Slum Child has helped. A child victim of rape and physical abuse, she grew up determined to avoid common Korogocho pitfalls of teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and prostitution, but her dream of attending secondary school was never to be as there simply wasn’t money to put her through.
“Sharon caught our attention when she joined our Toto Club and began encouraging other girls to sing and dance and take part in art work activities,” George says.
“Then one day as the kids were drawing pictures of how they’d like their world to look in the future, I gave Sharon a piece of paper and a pen to write anything she feels is good for her. She finished by saying: ‘My dream is valid no matter what. I am a change maker I know I will change my family and the entire Korogocho slums’.”
George was able to source funding to put Sharon through a hair dressing course and create an income while she continues to help his work with Slum Child Foundation.
He talks about life as a street child being a kind of hell on earth, and I ask what he means. By this time the connection’s gone and we’re reduced to Skype texting each other.
George writes: “Hell on earth meaning you have to feed from the dumping site, with never a decent meal, you lack basic needs like decent clothes, shelter, no room to go to school so there is no way you can work towards your talent, I mean a lack of equal opportunities like any other children. You are stigmatised. You are a victim of violence-related incidents and so on. Drug and substance abuse are the order of the day.
“Today, it is probably worse again. So many young people have had to grow up without parents because of HIV / AIDS. Luckily, I did not get into taking drugs despite the many avenues that were around us and peer pressure from other street kids forcing children like me to use. I was so focused on my brother and sister and what to eat, what to wear and where to sleep. Other children are not so lucky.”
He adds: “My goal is to see children from the slums live a better life. We need resources to make that happen and I hope that we will receive some donor support once I’m able to finalise the foundation as an NGO. My ultimate dream is not just to help children here, but in other slums too.”