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Saved from the slums

BY her own admission Jane Alfayo was once a bit of a bad girl.

Children living in the slums.
Children living in the slums.

Born into one of Nairobi's most notorious slums, it was always going to be an uphill battle for her to stay on the straight and narrow let alone survive the gang culture into which she was thrown at an early age.

"I smoked bhang (marijuana) drank, snatched people's phones and ferried guns for the boys," she freely admits, as we sit talking in her tiny ramshackle hut of corrugated tin and wood that sits lost in the labyrinth of coffin-wide alleyways that make up the Mukuru slum in the east of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Jane's story is all too familiar here. Her parents divorced while she was still young, and she found herself living with her mother and mixing with the street kids before becoming pregnant when she was only 15.

It was around this time that, along with a group of other girls, she became a sex worker, part of what was locally called the "Bamba Bau Crew".

Their name came from slum street slang and was a take on a Kenyan mobile-phone advertising slogan that enabled customers to buy airtime, the suggestion being that in this case customers could buy time with the girls.

The activities of the "crew", however, went well beyond the commercial sex trade. In the back streets of Mukuru they were used by male gangs as lures.

"We would call out to men on the street to come with us and take them to a quiet place and the boys would be waiting to rob them," recalls Jane. Such violence on the streets was a constant threat. Once, after setting set up an unsuspecting customer to be mugged, Jane was spotted and chased by a mob.

"I jumped on a passing truck to escape but was almost killed," she says. Death, though, was to take many of the other gang members she had come to know.

"One boy who I used to ferry guns for was killed in 2009 in a shoot-out with the police," Jane said, as we sat in the tidy but spartan surroundings of the tin and wood hut in which she now lives with her two young children.

Everything within this one room, which the entire family uses for eating and sleeping, is immaculately tidy, the few meagre possessions they own in their place.

Utterly dilapidated as the hut is, Jane has covered them with curtain material that gives the place a soft, homely quality that blots out the filth and open sewers just a few yards away outside.

In all, while growing up, Jane was to see 36 friends, 33 boys and three girls, killed in slum violence. This, along with a year she spent in prison and the fatal shooting of a friend in the city's Mombasa Street, made the young woman think again about where her life was heading. On leaving prison and with the help of a local police inspector and the slum-based Wajukum Arts Project, Jane's life was set on a new path.

"We formed a group of sisters, many of them old gang members, and registered as a self-help group," she told me. Today, the group weaves mats, makes beadwork products, organises garbage collection and raises chickens and rabbits.

Jane is now a mentor and community activist. She scripts and performs community-based dramas, often in the slum's streets, to raise awareness of the dangers of crime, drugs and the problem of HIV/Aids.

"Gang rape remains a great danger to women here," she says.

"Girls as young as 13 have been victims and one woman was raped nearby here not so long ago when she and her husband bumped into some gang boys on the street," Jane continues.

She tells me that, faced with such threats, local people often take the law into their own hands.

"The boys who raped that woman alongside her husband were caught and killed last November by the mob before being burned," she says.

Across Nairobi's slums, a generation of young women like Jane face tremendous hardships and dangers in their lives.

Some of these are clear and present, others hidden and lurking.

At the Lunga Lunga Health Centre in another district of the slum, I was to see the work done by teams of nutrition specialists, who screen and treat cases of malnutrition and other conditions afflicting the children of young mothers.

"The numbers vary but the cases are always present, certainly we see five to 10 cases of severe malnutrition every week, but a local flood, fire or political unrest can quickly result in a spike of numbers," one of the health workers tells me.

Other health threats are always present. During my last day in the slum I was to meet a woman called Layla. Living in the most tumbledown of huts, Layla has already been diagnosed HIV positive, after contracting the disease from her husband. Today, she struggles to survive and make do for her four children managing only through the support she receives from The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) and its local partners working in Nairobi's slums.

Layla's youngest daughter, Jasmin, cries wearily in her mother's arms as we talk. Barely 11 months old, Jasmin has had two tests for HIV. One was positive, the other negative. Only time and more tests will tell whether this toddler and child of the Commonwealth has suffered the same fate as her mother. Either way, Jasmin faces a tough life in the slums of Nairobi.

All names have been changed in this article to protect individuals

THE Sunday Herald and The Herald's Children of the Commonwealth Appeal is supporting charity Unicef to save and change children's lives.

To donate, you can send a cheque or postal order to UNICEF Children of the Commonwealth Appeal, Freepost RTCU-SJSX-KCXA, UNICEF House, 30a Great Sutton Street, London, England, EC1V 0DU, call 0800 044 5777, visit unicef.org.uk/herald or text 'CHILD' to 70111 to give £3.

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