Interview with a Mobile School All-Star / Janet Otien

Every day of the year, the street workers of our partner organisations take out the mobile school to unlock the potential of street-connected youngsters. In the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, the street workers of Glad’s House hit the streets on a daily basis to build a relationship of trust with the high number of youngsters living and working on the streets.

Janet Otieno is a street worker and the coordinator of Glad’s House mobile school project. She is very passionate about her job as a street worker in Kenya.

How did you get involved in the work of Glad’s House? 

I was part of the Coastal Queens, a football team for girls that was supported by the Mombasa Olympic Youth (MOYO, which later became Glad’s House). Since a lot of youngsters in Magongo were getting involved with drugs and other stuff, MOYO organised all kinds of sports activities in order to give them something positive to do in their free time. That’s where I met Bokey Achola for the first time, the Kenyan director of the organisation. Later, I decided to volunteer at Vipingo, a golf course close to Mombasa. Street-connected boys are referred there to work as golf caddies. It was my job to guide and monitor them, so they could find their way around.  After a while, they asked me to become a fulltime street worker for Glad’s House. I immediately liked the idea since I really loved my work at Vipingo with the boys, so in April 2013 I started to work for Glad’s House as a street worker.

Why is it so important to invest a lot of time in street work in Mombasa? 

It’s extremely important to do street work in Mombasa since there are a lot of children on the streets, from all ages. These youngsters can’t count on anyone. They really need a trustworthy adult, someone they can count on while they are living on the streets. That’s why we do street work. It’s essential that they can share their stories and that people just listen to them as a first step towards self-acceptance.

How do these youngsters end up on the streets?

Some of the boys end up on the streets because of peer pressure, others leave home due to divorce or conflict within the family and others go to the streets to look for opportunities. ‘Mombasa Raha’ is a local saying, which literally means ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ (referring to the city as a place of enjoyment), so a lot of youngsters want to come here. Therefore, we meet a lot of children coming from other Kenyan cities such as Nairobi, Kisumu, Kakamega and so on. Some boys also come from the area around Mombasa. They roam the streets during the day, they try to earn some money by begging, by washing or parking cars or by selling small things and after a day of hard work, they return home for the night.

Mobile School Glad's House Kenya

Why is it so challenging for the youngsters to be on the streets? 

Competition is fierce on the streets. The little boys are often mistreated by the older ones.

In addition, most of the police in Mombasa don’t want the youngsters on the streets, since they say they give the city a bad image. The police think they are criminals and that these children make the streets dirty.  Very often, the police also round up the street children. The small ones are placed in the remand home and the bigger ones go to the adult prison. Sometimes they stay there for up to 3 or 4 months. They don’t have the right to defend themselves and no one listens to them. That’s why we go there to support the youngsters and to make sure their rights are respected. Glad’s House is trying to stop this cycle of arrests and violence by organising workshops with the police. It’s not always easy, but we’re really trying to change things around here by involving all the different stakeholders.

Why did you become a street worker? Where do you find your motivation to work with street-connected youngsters on a daily basis?

I find motivation in the children, since they really appreciate me being there for them. They always share what affects them. If you work with them, you notice that the negative image people have about street kids simply isn’t true. I also get a lot of motivation from the management of Glad’s House – from the managers Bokey and Liz and our CEO Vicky – and from my amazing team of colleagues. They always motivate me even if I’m in doubt or when I think I’m not reaching any results. They encourage me to continue when the going gets tough. There is a lot of street work experience within the organisation, which is really valuable.

What else is Glad’s House doing for street-connected children in Mombasa?

We also run the Papasa programme, during which we invite the children to Magongo to meet the staff and social workers. This is the perfect time to counsel them, organise some classes, play games and sports. Here, they also have the opportunity to wash their clothes, since it’s not easy to find a decent spot to do so in town. In fact, Papasa is all about respect. We offer the children a place where they don’t need to worry about the daily hassle with the police. Our work is all about creating safe spaces for young people living on the streets. As mentioned earlier, we also work with the children that are arrested and are staying at the remand home in Likoni. We follow up on them to make sure their rights are respected and we give them care packs. Otherwise they don’t have anything. We are there with them when they are in trouble.

In July 2016, the organisation started to do interventions with the mobile school. Do you think the mobile school adds value to your work on the streets? 

Sure! Before the start-up of the mobile school project, we were in contact with children on the dumpsite of Kibarani who came all the way to Magongo. Since the mobile school started going to Kibarani, we can reach the children in their own environment, where they feel most comfortable. They really appreciate it. The mobile school also works really well in the remand home because we find that most children who stay there are bored since there is nothing to do for them. We came up with the idea of opening a library and we take the mobile school there to do educational and recreational activities. We try to rebuild the self-confidence of these kids by organising all kinds of activities. Most of the youngsters don’t have access to education and nobody cares about them. Glad’s House gives them the opportunity to feel like other children and to develop essential skills.

What is your best experience with the mobile school?

One day, I saw children who were trying to teach their parents, but at first the parents were saying: “you’re too young to teach us!” However, when I interacted with all of them, I noticed the children were right and they were showing the adults how the exercises were done. Because the youngsters we work with need to contribute to the family income, education is perceived as less important. Thanks to the mobile school sessions, we can spark their interest in educational activities. Thank you Janet, you are our superstar:-)