A pandemic atlas: Kenya's youth suffer collateral damage

Tom Odula
Associated Press

Nairobi, Kenya — The accepted wisdom was that young people had less to fear from COVID-19. But in Kenya, youth suffered from the pandemic in other ways.

Children have been forced into hard labor and prostitution. Schools are largely closed until 2021. Babies have been born in desperate conditions.

Youths in an apartment look out of their window as residents below protest on the streets, asking the government to supply them with food and to be allowed to leave, in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, May 11, 2020.

Until recently, Kenya had hardly been mentioned among the ranks of countries suffering in the pandemic, with infection numbers far below countries in Europe or Latin America or even elsewhere in Africa. Only now is the East African nation facing a surge that has drawn continental concern — four doctors recently died in a single day.

By mid-December, the country reported 178 cases per 100,000 population.

Kenya's COVID-19 numbers

For months, the daily restrictions inspired by COVID-19 were the more immediate danger, as millions of informal workers lost the ability to go out every day to make money to feed their families.

At times, a curfew was harshly enforced. Thirteen-year-old Yasin Moyo became one of the early victims of the pandemic, not from the virus but from a bullet fired as he stood on his family’s balcony watching the chaos of police officers chasing down people still on the streets.

Irene Wanzila, 10, breaks rocks with a hammer at the Kayole quarry in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, as she works along with her younger brother, older sister and mother, who says she was left without a choice after she lost her cleaning job at a private school when coronavirus pandemic restrictions were imposed.

The family is still in shock. “When I got to hospital, my son was alive and he spoke to me,” his father, Hussein, said. “He opened his eyes and he told, ‘Dad, please pray for me.’”

Outrage over the incident led President Uhuru Kenyatta to apologize. But the boy was not alone. Watchdogs say that by the end of October, police had been accused of killing at least 24 people while enforcing pandemic restrictions, and three police stations had been burned in protest.

Traditional birth attendant Emily Owino massages a pregnant woman before assisting in delivering her baby, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday, July 3, 2020.

The growing economic pressures — and Kenya’s intention to close schools for almost everyone until 2021 — has put enormous pressure on children suddenly left to drift by the millions.

Their future has been endangered as their parents cannot make enough money for school fees. No one knows how many Kenyan children will not return when schools finally do return to normal.

Residents desperate for a planned distribution of food for those suffering under Kenya's coronavirus-related movement restrictions push through a gate and create a stampede, causing police to fire tear gas at a district office in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday, April 10, 2020.

Many children instead have turned up on the streets, in quarries wielding hammers, and in vast dumps picking through garbage in the hope of turning trash into a few shillings.

Some girls well below the age of adulthood have turned to prostitution, with some telling The Associated Press that they had been raped and abused.

Residents of an apartment building look down as police and protesters clash in the Kariobangi slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday, May 8, 2020.

The United Nations children’s agency has said the world could see the first rise in the number of working children since 2000.

Even entering the world and taking a first breath has become a challenge. Pandemic restrictions left many women in labor desperate to reach a hospital or midwife in time, especially with many taxi drivers afraid to operate after curfew.

Children run down a street past a mural warning people about the dangers of the new coronavirus, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

But out of the crisis has grown a glimmer of hope: A local doctor created an ambulance system, Wheels for Life, to give safe passage to women in the final hours before giving birth. The system has now expanded from one ambulance to five and has been highly praised.

Still, for Kenya and for the African continent of 1.3 billion people, the promising news coming from vaccine trials remains distant. It could take years for a vaccine to be widely available here.

Graffiti artist Elegwa Wycliffe, known as "Swift9," stands next to his coronavirus mural in the Huruma low-income neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.

It can be difficult for Kenya’s youth to find hope, even for the ones who were at the forefront of helping trying to curb COVID-19.

Street artist Elegwa Wycliffe, who painted the walls of Nairobi’s slums with colorful messages promoting public health measures, now watches as his friends turn to theft to feed their families.

A teenage girl who became a sex worker after schools in Kenya were closed in March due to coronavirus restrictions, sits in the rented room where she and others work, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.

Some had been working multiple job to feed their families, he said, but Kenya’s curfew has caused incomes to shrink or vanish altogether.

With the country’s widespread corruption often in the news, Wycliffe said young people in the slums are starting to believe that the only way they can prosper in the new world of COVID-19 is through crime.

“It will take generations to wipe out that mindset,” he said.