Wema Centre, where street children find refuge, hope

Publisher James Chunguli, Mr Stephen Kafwihi,

(From left) Publisher James Chunguli, Mr Stephen Kafwihi, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, Ms Lucy Yinda of Wema Centre, Ms Janet Middah a Wema Centre alumni and Ms Susan Akinyi, a Wema alumni and board member, when Ms Yinda presented a copy of her book ‘Courage is a calling: Saving Mombasa’s Street Children’ to the First Lady at State House, Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Pool

Title: Courage is a calling: Saving Mombasa’s Street Children

Author: Lucy Yinda

Publisher: Crimson Communications Limited

Reviewer: Mbugua Ngunjiri

Lucy Yinda received an anonymous tip about a nine-year-old street girl who had been arrested and was locked up in police cells.

What was supposed to be a routine rescue mission turned out to be a nightmarish episode and a court experience that left her with a bitter taste in the mouth.

When she went to the police station, she found the traumatised girl alone in the cells; she could barely walk. Upon further enquiry, Lucy's worst fears were confirmed; the girl had been raped multiple times.

“Policemen took turns to rape her,” recalls Lucy. “That explained why she was alone in the cells; so that the men could carry out their beastly act uninterrupted.”

What followed was a court case that left Lucy utterly despondent and disappointed. "Despite the fact that the victim identified her police tormentors, the court set them free. The prosecutor - a woman - chose to side with the accused policemen," says Lucy, visibly disturbed by the recollection.

Still bewildered by the outcome of the case, Lucy decided to seek answers from the prosecutor. “When I asked her why she let the men go free she, without blinking an eyelid, retorted that she was opposed to me getting publicity from the case. I was left aghast; the case was not about me, but the little girl,” protests Lucy.

Helpless in the face of such impunity, Lucy did what she had been doing best, admit the girl at Wema, a rescue centre for street children, in Mombasa, which she had been running since 1993.

The above experience is one of the numerous episodes she and her staff undergo in the course of rescuing vulnerable street children, giving them decent shelter, complete with education up to the highest level possible.

She has just compiled and published a book detailing the highs and lows of setting up the rescue centre, from the time she was a naive idealist, to the present day, where Wema has come of age and has alumni occupying prestigious positions in the society.

The book, Courage is a Calling: Saving Mombasa's Street Children, will be launched on July 16, at the Bahari Beach Hotel in Mombasa.

 In the book, Lucy, who is former Coast PC Eliud Mahihu’s daughter, explains that her decision to start rescuing street children was triggered by a family tragedy that claimed the lives of close family members, in an aircraft accident, in 1992.

The tragedy "reminded me that life is truly not in my control or in any one else's for that matter," she writes. "I slowly came to recognise, over time, that my purpose was to serve humanity. More critically, I knew that I could only do this through God's guidance."

She took the plunge in 1993, when she made initial contact with street girls. When some of the children she had kept in touch with indicated a willingness to get out of the streets, she first sought accommodation for them at the YWCA, which later proved problematic, as other guests did not wish to be associated with street girls.

Lucy would later rent a house in Likoni.

While their stay in Likoni was almost blissful for the first few years, little did she know trouble would be brewing ahead.

 Tribal clashes linked to the 1997 elections reared their ugly head, with Likoni being the epicentre.

“Likoni was inaccessible due to the fighting and our children were stuck there," she recalls.

This called for fast thinking and this is where Lucy's husband, tycoon Edwin Yinda, came in.

Mr Yinda made a call to his friend, Gen Joseph Kibwana, who was the then Kenya Navy commander. The General, who would later become Kenya’s Chief of General Staff, ensured that the 60 children were evacuated to the Yinda's compound in Nyali and also delivered a tent big enough to accommodate the children, besides providing them with regular supply of water.

As the Wema family grew, Lucy saw the need for them to acquire their own place and that is how they bought five acres at their present location in Bamburi.

The book also features contributions from other key players in the Wema story. They include her husband, Edwin, staff and sponsors of the facility, including a few of the centre’s alumni.

Now, anyone reading this book needs to be emotionally ready for some of the children's experiences that are heartrending, ever tear jerking. Some of them have undergone unimaginable abuse, including rape, whilst living in the rough streets.

With traumatic experience of the streets behind them, some of the former street children have done well for themselves. Janet Middah graduated from Daystar University with a degree in Business Management and Accounting, in 2009 and is today the Health, Safety and Wellbeing manager at Safaricom.

Susan Akinyi, who lost both her parents at a tender age, graduated from Daystar in 2011 and is a business manager with a leading IT company. Both Susan and Janet are board members of Wema Center.

It is safe to say that former street children who have gone through Wema have a better shot at life than children from ordinary families who struggle with tough economic times and are oftentimes unable to complete their education.

At Wema, for those who are academically inclined, Lucy, her staff and sponsors go flat out to ensure that the children get the best in terms of education.

There are many other Wema alumni who opted for vocational courses and are doing well in various spheres of life, while others are into business.

Though Wema Center has been been largely successful in the 29 years it has been in existence, Lucy Yinda is today a worried woman. A proposed policy move by the government seeks to abolish care institutions like Wema and instead focus on the reunification of children with their families.

Lucy faults this new directive that is a proposal by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for losing sight of the bigger picture in the care of vulnerable and neglected children. “One of our main pillars here at Wema, is the reunification of children with their families,” explains Lucy, who in 2005 received a Head of State Commendation from President Mwai Kibaki. “What do you do when some of these families, for their own reasons, do not want the children?”

Besides, she adds, the same government, through the Children’s Department and the police, routinely bring abandoned children to Wema Centre. “While cases of abuse within institutions cannot be ruled out, the government has the mechanism of investigating, prosecuting and shutting down the offenders,” she adds.

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