The documentary film clip before the show gives a flashback of the first encounters with the boys in their habitat. They were nesting in garbage heaps of Nairobi's dumping site in Dandora, with dirty clothes and unkempt hair, walking barefoot and sniffing glue: the trademarks of a chokora (Swahili for street kid). Their voices were croaky and speech distorted as a result of repeated drug use. Glancing at them now, you realise that all this has changed and they exude confidence as they rehearse for the next show.
In early September, this group of 20 former street children from Nairobi performed "The Black Pinocchio" to a sell-out crowd at the Globe Theatre in Villa Borghese. To the ordinary eye, one would have thought that the actors were an impeccably groomed professional theatre group on a performing tour. For them, performing at an international level was a dream come true and the culmination of a rigorous and innovative rehabilitation programme guided by Italian actor-director Marco Baliani and John Muiruri under the sponsorship of African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), an international non-governmental organisation.
According to Muiruri, a social worker for over 20 years and currently the project manager of "Dagoretti child-in-need" programme, the problem of street children in Kenya poses a big challenge both to the government and the non-governmental sector. The chokoras lack basic necessities and a sense of identity, which eventually leads them to desperation, drug abuse, petty crime and rejection by society.
The programme initiated by Baliani is called "Acting from the street." It aims to improve the communication skills of the street kids, develop their self confidence and enable their smooth integration into society and their ability to address key issues such as HIV Aids, environmental conservation, domestic abuse and basic human rights in their neighbourhood.
Baliani, a well-known Italian actor and theatre director whose work includes leading roles in "Il pi bel giorno della mia vita" (The best day of my life) and "No man's land", has been involved in the initiative for two years. With funding from AMREF, he volunteered to go to Nairobi to run the theatre programme for the child-in-need project. "His original idea was to do something for Palestinian children but now he is having big success in Nairobi," says Pietro del Sold of the AMREF-Italy communications department.
Just what do these kids think of their new acting experience? Each boy has a different story to tell. 16-year-old Kevin Chege from Nairobi's sprawling Kawangware slums had been on the street for seven years after finishing his primary education. "I now know what it means to be loved," he proclaims. He goes on to say that life on the street was all about looking for food, money and somewhere to sleep. "It was very tough and the police did not want to see us as we were considered criminals," he adds. Now he goes to school and his dream is to be a theatre director just like Baliani.
For Patrick Kamau who also lives in Kawangware, things couldnt have been worse. Born 15-years ago, he took off with his brother and ended up on the streets because of a combination of heavy domestic chores and constant caning by his mum. "Life was very tough on the streets and one day I almost got knocked down by a car while the police were chasing me for stealing a gold chain from a tourist," he recounts with a flash of anxiety. The situation changed when he met "Kiama," the nickname for Muiruri among the boys, who has helped him grow into a God-fearing, drug-free and committed student. He now attends Waithaka primary school and his dream is to be a medical doctor. Meanwhile his brother is also in another street rehabilitation programme in Kibera, the biggest slum in Kenya. Kamau advises other street kids he knows to join any of the many rehabilitation programmes in Nairobi so as to make something meaningful out of their lives.
Onesmus Kamau, the 13-year-old star who plays Pinocchio, is visibly vocal and a talented actor. He was on the street for a year but his cousin decided to take him to the project after seeing the suffering he was undergoing. While at Wakwer, Kiserian's bus terminal on the outskirts of Nairobi, his biggest problem was bullying from the older kids and illness. "Pinocchio's" confidence and determination is well above his age. As he puts it, "I have come a long way, thanks to Marco and "Kiama" and I am working hard to shape my life so as not to let them down." His view about Rome? "Everything is wonderful about this city. I got a chance to see the Vatican City, and also to meet the mayor of Rome. The mayor is a very good and kind man and he was very happy with our performance. He gave us free cameras to take photos," he said.
Asked whether he would like to live in Rome, he said, "No! I need to see my parents once in a while, but the people here are very kind and jovial and he would love to visit Rome again."
Judging from the performance and the drive towards a better life, one can only say that for these boys, the sky is the limit.