Their clothes are filthy; they do not wash; their hair is matted; their smell is rancid. Their eyes are slightly blood-streaked because they smoke bhang (cannabis) and sniff glue. Their look is pitiful, sometimes deliberately so. They usually group into gangs and can be found close to the city centre to collect parking money from motorists, or in the suburban shopping centres. These are the street children of Kenya.

They scavenge for food from the rubbish heaps of restaurants, or municipal rubbish dumps — and young boys surviving like dogs is never a pretty sight — and sleep wherever they can find: the entrance to an office block, under a bridge or, if they are lucky and a nightwatchman pities them, in his shelter. They say the freedom of the street is "sweet" — no school, no parental authority, not having to wash, put on new clothes or do homework. For most boys, a dream!

And they travel to Nairobi from all parts of the country, often as stowaways on a lorry or other large vehicle. They fight among themselves, steal money or mobile phones sometimes, but they look after one another with a rough kind of camaraderie. When one falls sick or is injured or knocked over by a car, they get a handcart and, all of them, take him to the nearest hospital and wait until he is treated.

Most members of the public find them an embarrassment and try to ignore them or wish they were not around. Some, unwisely, give them money, which they are likely to spend on glue or bhang, because the craving for these is greater than for food. It is more advisable to give them food, engage them in conversation, or persuade them to go to a private reception centre for street children, or even take them to one.

As the definition of a street child is not precise and as many Kenyan boys run away from home, it is not easy to assess their number. But they are in the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, at any given time. How did the phenomenon emerge in the first place?

It is thought to have begun during the Emergency in the 1950s, during the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule, when most Kikuyu families in and around Nairobi and in Central Province (the area between Nairobi and Mount Kenya) were displaced to concentration camps, and families were split up, and family members scattered.

Glue sniffing (ExpandingOpportunities.org)The number has increased during the last 20 to 25 years owing to the effects of and the increase in unemployment and poverty among the less educated, to the AIDS epidemic, and to the high incidence of single mothers. Because of a somewhat depressed agricultural sector, and the low pay of unskilled — and even of some skilled — workers in factories or the export-processing zones set up by multinationals, or as watchmen, many families and single mothers are barely able to survive.

In desperation many men turn to alcohol, and even some women. In such circumstances fathers, or still worse stepfathers, can be very cruel with their sons or stepsons. Most street children run away from physical, sometimes sexual, abuse at home, seeking the shelter, anonymity, companionship, and perhaps the "bag of gold" in the cities.

The Kenyan Government and the corporate world have been slow to react to the problem. It was not until recently that action was taken, and then not altogether prudently. The work of seeking the boys out and taking them to shelters, contacting their families and helping them adapt or readapt to a normal, stable life has been done — and is admirably being done — by faith-based groups, mainly Catholic parishes or religious communities.

The approach of the Government was simply to assemble the boys in large social halls and send them in batches for a kind of military training — called National Youth Service — where they would learn a trade or acquire some skills to apply once they finish. The training has been successful for some but not for all. Well-intentioned as this scheme was, it did not take into account that to take large groups of boys addicted to bhang and glue straight from the streets and put them all together, only for meals and sleeping, with few unqualified people to look after them, could not work.

At the first opportunity, boys would escape back to the glue and the drugs and the "sweetness" of the streets. The response of the corporate world has been in the form of sporadic donations of money and food, with their staff spending a day, once or twice a year, with the boys, treating them to lunch and playing sport with them. Certainly better than nothing, but basically a gesture.

On the other hand, when the religious take them into their care, they try to create a more homely environment, appoint "house fathers" to follow up each boy and get in touch with his parents. The boys follow a daily or weekly plan, including prayers and catechism, sports, and meals as a family, and most will attend a nearby primary school. It has been found that sports, drama, art, musical and acrobatic training and performance help considerably in detraumatising the boys and restoring them to normality.

One such centre called Shangilia Watoto Africa (Rejoice, Children of Africa!), not run by religious but by citizens with Christian principles, and which specialises in acrobatics, has had some of the children travel abroad to perform. Imitative and performing talent is latent in these children, unspoiled as they are by mass-produced entertainment, and flourishes when triggered off and fostered. For some of them it could be their exit from poverty.

Those children who are more severely addicted to drugs and glue need special rehabilitation, and this is difficult, given the expensive treatment, at about US$27 per day, continuous for at least three months. (Kenyans below the poverty line, as these are, survive on a dollar a day, or less).

Some, despite assistance, are beyond repair. Their physical growth is stunted; they drift from one casual job or place of training to another, and then to another; they lose mental and psychological focus; they may die young. Others, also despite assistance, will drift into crime and prostitution, peddle drugs and weapons and use them, and will end up in prison or shot down by police.

The luckier ones will return to their families, settle down and perhaps, with help from here and there, even reach university, or train as social workers and return to the Centre that helped them, or will go to other institutions that improve the conditions and living standards and hopes of the disadvantaged. In Nairobi there is at least one association of former street children whose aim is to assist the unemployed former street children they know and who have not had the lucky breaks they have had or have not known how to use them well.

Until agriculture is better organised and more profitable, and until poverty, corruption at the highest levels, and unemployment, and the social problems these give rise to, begin to disappear; and until the Government addresses the street children question with commitment and seriousness, the only solution seems to be this: the disadvantaged will become more advantaged, and help those a few steps behind them out of the pit of misery. They are also advantaged in that they have suffered themselves, have learnt the tough lessons of life, and are grateful for the help they received along the way — and want to give it back, and this is the way they know.

Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist for local publications , commenting on social issues -– particularly disadvantaged youth.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.