Photo Essay: The Homeless Children on the Streets of Kitale, Kenya

It’s five o’clock in the morning, and a cold mist lies upon the small Kenyan town of Kitale. Only if you walk around the empty town at the break of dawn will you notice the part of life that society is hiding. On cold, concrete floors, all over the city, lie hundreds of children fast asleep.

Their skinny bodies are covered in plastic bags or blankets as they sleep right next to each other to escape the cold and rigid nights. As the first rays of light are sipping through the trees the town is slowly awakening. Some children are running into the damp and misty fog while a young boy brings out an old t-shirt and starts cleaning up the children’s urine and dirt from the concrete floors.

There is a silent agreement with the city dwellers, that the street children are allowed to sleep on the cold floors of the town, as long as every trace of them ever being there is erased in the morning. Nobody wants to know where the homeless children sleep at night.

They are forgotten by people. Ignored in social debates. Through police raids they are forced to their deaths. The homeless children are a common sight in the modern Kenyan society. During the 20 years I have been travelling between Kenya and Finland the number of street children has increased rapidly. Today, I find them in the smallest of cities, including the village I grew up in myself.

My name is Sofia Jern. I am a Finnish photography student at UAS Novia in Finland. In April 2016, I had the honor of accepting a Sony World Photo Award when winning the Student Focus competition with my photo series “Glue Boys”. The past year I have repeatedly returned to Kenya, my second home. I have spent my days and nights documenting the lives of the street children in town of Kitale.

I felt like flipping a coin when deciding to pursue a career in photography. It is safe to say that it was a passion of mine, but that is not why I chose it. Photography is my way to communicate inequalities, or in this case, give the street children of Kitale a voice.

In Kenya, there are 250,000 to 300,000 children living and working on the streets. The use of psychoactive substances, or in this case glue fumes, among street children for survival has been a prevalent problem in most urban centers in Kenya. This is also why they are called the Glue Boys.

Street children is a global phenomenon. In Colombia they are called ‘mariginais’ (criminal), in Rio de Janeiro, ‘polillas’ (moths) in Bolivia, ‘bui doi’ (dust children) in Vietnam, ‘saligoman’ (nasty kids) in Rwanda, ‘moustiques’ (mosquitos) in Cameroon and ‘chokora’ (garbage picker) in Kenya. I know them by the name ‘glue boys’.

Most street children reflect an image of misery, suffering and neglect. They are viewed by society as being dirty, dangerous, unhealthy thieves and so are consequently treated with apathy and disgust. The social stigmatization directed at street children is based on their appearance.

But the children I met go under the name Shidriki, Kevin, Brian and Shadrak, and I can not ask this question enough: who will take care of you?

About the author: Sofia Jern is a photographer based in Finland. Having grown up in Kenya, she became aware and interested from an early age in the issues of social inequality and human rights. You can find more of her work on her website.