Malindi is a coastal town known for the beauty of its beaches, as well as for the unconventional delights it offers many of the tourists. Behind the sexy and carefree facade, however, there is the sad life condition of many children and young adults. Poverty and unawareness compound to create the breeding ground for exploitation. As in many other areas in Kenya’s coastal region, most are uneducated and belong to poor family. Often children are left to tend to themselves, and there are no many occasions of employment in the area.
I meet Father Muli Kilonzo, Eva Monyany and Francis Mpeh in the office they share at the Catholic Secretariat. They are the core of the Education department of the diocese of Malindi. “We are concerned with all education matter within the diocese. Anything that pertains to schools – be they Catholic, private or public – sees us as stakeholders. At the moment, we follow 22 schools, some Catholic and other sponsored (in Kenya, Churches and approved organizations can sponsor a public school committing themselves in providing financing for development of their structures, editor’s note)”, Father Muli says.
The department is active in three programs: the ABY (Abstinence and Behaviour change for the Youth), the national primary schools program, and the child protection program. “ABY targets youth but it is also reaching out to parents. We make the youth aware of the importance of making the right choices in life, especially when it comes to sexuality, abuse of alcohol or other substances, and constructive behaviour. We ask parents to help their children to make responsible choices, especially when we deal with drug abuse, sexual matter, HIV/AIDS. We also ask parents to pay attention to the behaviour of their children, and to lead lives that are a good example for them. We work like in a triangle: parents, their children and the local administration. These tree realities must work together to support children and youth, so to support them and not be a hindrance. This is a way to empower local communities, to make them self reliant”, says Eva.
The school program aims at reviving the tradition of the Church in schools. This means offering in-training to teachers of religious subjects; prepare and distribute literature and teaching aids; but also assist in civic education. “I am much involved in civic education of youth and adults, especially about the issues of governance and the election process. Among the youth, we try to impress the need to have identity cards. Often youth do not vote, they do not have the ID and then do not go to vote. We try to make people aware of the importance to make their vote count”, Francis says.
One of the scourges of Malindi is the sexual exploitation of children and young adults. Many children try to work to pay school fees. When they do not succeed, it is easy to fall prey of unscrupulous middlemen, who use the lure of easy money to direct children to the world of prostitution. However, sexual exploitation is not the only problem. Often children are left to their own devices, and receive little support in their growth. “Because of the lack of parental care – says Eva -, we look after children, teach them their rights and responsibilities. We see that many do not understand themselves, especially when it comes to adolescence. If we look at children in the last classes of primary school we find that there are many drop outs. In our project, the first thing we tackle is prevention. We teach children that adolescence is normal, everyone has gone through it. We also suggest way to deal with the many questions arising in themselves in this period”.
This program is also looking into the question of abused and trafficked children. The diocese is about to open a home for abused children. While this is prepared, children in need are directed to government social services. “On the question of human trafficking. We inform children how trafficking happens, how false promises can turn into a nightmare for them. We also work with the police and the children office. We intervened in cases of trafficking and were able to bring some of the trafficked children back home. The police was supportive and we were able to take people to court and send them to jail”, Francis says.
At this point I cannot but ask if their work is social or pastoral, if it is to help people or to proclaim the Gospel. “We do a social work – they say – but it is clearly also a pastoral work. Through our work we enact what Christ has taught us, but also we wish others to come to know Christ. We do this work not as a job, but as representative of the Christian community, the Church. Some consider us a NGO, or confuse us as a government office. We make sure they understand we work as Church. We do not give hand outs, which only perpetuate poverty. We try instead to empower people to become self sustaining. We do not distribute food, we promote proper agricultural practices instead. All our work goes hand in hand with catechetical classes. We do not indoctrinate, but offer the people we meet the opportunity to understand more deeply why we reach out and help”.