By Carol Kamau
‘Children committing crime. Children should be described as innocent, faultless, little angels that should be shielded from the harsh realities of life. But like everything else in life there is always an exception to every rule.’
I walk into Dagoretti girls’ rehabilitation center in Nairobi’s Kikuyu area. I am not sure what to expect. Growing up I had heard about the infamous ‘Wamumu’, school in Mwea, Kirinyaga County. As a young girl, Wamumu was a place where ‘bad’ children went to. It was a place for children who stole, those who refused to go to school, and all those who disobeyed their parents.
My idea of “Wamumu” was a detention centre where children were subjected to hard labour and savagely beaten to conform. This distorted my perception of a correctional school.
I was nervous when I walked into Dagoretti girls rehabilitation center, one of the 11 rehabilitation schools in Kenya.
As I walked into the center, I kept glancing at the surroundings. To my surprise the center is just like any other ordinary school. The beauty of manicured lawns, trimmed hedges broke down every negative thought I have held over the years.
But what is not ordinary are the stories behind every one of the 49 girls committed here. ‘Regina Nyawira’ not her real name is 14 years old and in class 7. She joined the center in 2015.
”I was brought here by my mother because of stealing, keeping bad company and refusing to go to school,” she said. Nyawira tells me she was introduced into crime by a friend. “I was in a gang, we stole money, DVD’s, handbags anything. The gang had people of all ages, even adults,” she says.
“Bridgit Mwihaki” also not her real name came into the institution this year. She says violence at home made her seek refuge at the house of her mother’s friend. She however could not support her and soon she was taken to the local chiefs office and since she did not want to go back home, she found herself going through the juvenile justice system. The court ruled that she be taken to Kirigiti rehabilitation center.
“If my father was still alive maybe my life would be different“
Her life in the hands of her alcoholic grandfather and violent mother left her no choice but to seek a peace of mind elsewhere.
For “Lydia” her mother gave her up soon after she was born. “My mother did not want me since birth so she gave me up to her mother. My grandmother, a prostitute died of HIV when I was aged eight years after which I went to the streets where I began doing drugs. My mother found me and took me back home.” Lydia’s life with her mother was not easy she says.
She did all the house chores, was not allowed to have friends and had to withstand insults from her mother. And like the proverbial stroke that broke the camel’s back, her mother’s decision to marry her off to an older man sent her over the edge and she ran away from home.
“I ran away from home and went to my uncle’s place who took me in as a house help. Soon I could not withstand the harsh environment and I got a job in another home as I house help,” she recounts.
She found herself back on the streets and after a few encounters with the law enforcers, she was arrested and taken to a remand facility in Nyeri.
She would later find herself at Kirigiti in 2012 and then at Dagoretti rehabilitation center. She has served her time at Kirigiti but since her mother cannot take care of her, she has to live here.
Ivy who is 18 years old and wants to be a musician ran away from home due to what she says was constant fighting with her guardian. While she admits she was naughty sometimes, she says her wrongs did not warrant the punishment she got. Her stay at the institution has been life changing. She is now confident and of good character.
Bridgit who has not seen her mother since she joined the institution hopes to reconcile with her some day. Her wish is that adults can be more responsible in raising their children.
“When parents drink and fight there is no peace in the home, the environment is sad and makes children very unhappy,” she quips.
The decision to send a child to a rehabilitation center in Kenya is based on the circumstances surrounding the child and the offense committed.
Not only children found guilty of committing a crime will be sent to approved schools, but also those in need of care and protection.
Before boys are placed in the rehabilitation centers, they must first undergo an assessment programme at Gitathuru Rehabilitation School in Nairobi area. From there, they are sent to various schools based on whether they are high, medium, or low-risk cases. Girls undergo a similar process at Kirigiti Girls Rehabilitation School. Dagoretti is categorized as a low risk school.
According to the Dagoretti school manager Clara Kirui children who are committed here are in need of counseling to reassure them that they are loved and can be successful in future.
Most of them come from broken or abusive homes. However they are not the only ones in need of counseling.
“I think parents need more counseling than these children because most of the children turn to crime, drugs and bad company because they have been neglected by their parents,” Kirui says.
Like any other child in Kenya, the children undergoing rehabilitation go through the 8:4:4 system of education. For some of them their commitment into this rehab center is their only guarantee that they will ever get an education.
Silently, they hope that life would have been easier on them, that their parents would have played their role of loving them, protecting them and supporting them to pursue their dreams.