In Kisenyi, the largest slum area in Uganda, an organization is saving street children one at a time from a life of crime through an unexpected channel: yoga. The exercise associated with Kampala’s more socialite class, focuses on one’s body and mind through different positions, writes SIMON RASMUSSEN.
While in uptown Kampala trendy women and men walk into yoga classes to mostly lose weight, shed stress and improve flexibility, in downtown Kampala yoga could be what stands between a street child and his/her next meal, bath or even redemption.
Kisenyi Slum Yoga was originally started by Joaquin Galarza, an American, but is today run by Ugandans, mostly from the area. The yoga sessions are done Sunday to Friday, with a break on Saturdays, and have been running for around six months.
The sessions are both for the street children, who have no place to stay, and the community children who come from homes in the slum area. Each day, the street children are picked up from wherever they are.
“I go and pick the street children, but the community children come by themselves,” Moses Ndawula, a project manager for the organization, said.
The project was started by Galarza, who had an idea of starting yoga in slum areas. Ndawula stepped in and found the room where Galarza’s dream could come to life. The workouts are done in a Turkish-blue shed, a small distance from the Kafumbe Mukasa road, and there is barely room for the 18 children that came for Friday’s session that I attended.
During the sessions, the older children help the younger ones when the positions get too hard or if they have not yet figured out how to do the specific pose. Afterwards, the children are offered a hot meal, a shower, and a place to wash their clothes, among other ‘perks’.
That alone, brings them back the following day.
“The children get something to eat, they take showers, and those that have wounds, we can dress them,” he said.
The organization provides more than just yoga sessions and a meal; they are using yoga to impart other means for the children to secure their future.
“It’s not only yoga, we teach them life skills, we take them to school, we teach them music, we try to give them a life,” Ndawula said.
The reasons for the children being there is different. Some lost their parents, some were abused, and others were influenced by other street children to leave home. Ronald Mwanja, a street child that attends the yoga sessions, ran away from an abusive city home he had come to stay in, and ended up on the streets in Kisenyi.
“They took me from the Ssese islands and gave me a very big jerrycan of water that I couldn’t carry. In fear, I ran away,” he said.
Between yoga sessions, the organization helps the children get back to their parents. Faith Maureen, a coordinator with the project, said, “We have taken two children back home. One had left to work in Kampala, but failed to get paid; so, he became a street child and could not afford the trip home.”
Kisenyi Slum Yoga keeps a profile for each child using information gathered from the children. When the sessions end, the children are hard to keep around, because many of them go out to find money. Usually, they collect plastic bottles, scrap metal, copper wires and are paid by the kilo.
“They also they collect old, used boxes and used polythene bags,” Maureen said. “Often, they are sold on by the buyers for a higher price than what they paid.”
A kilo of plastic bottles goes for Shs 400, steel for Shs 1,000, and copper wire for Shs 15,000. Copper is rarely found because of its price. Usually, the children earn from Shs 2,000 to 5,000 a day.
Some of the children arrive for the yoga class with bags of the plastic bottles they managed to collect for the day and place them in the corner. Addiction is a problem in the slum, and some of the children turn to sniffing jet fuel in order to suppress their hunger and be able to sleep when the nights are too cold. They wet a piece of cloth with the fuel or sniff it from the bottle, which gives them a high.
The fuel can be bought for Shs 300 or even less, but is not allowed at the yoga sessions. So, the children give up the jet fuel to the organizers, before entering. For Moses Kisekka, a street child originally from Kasangati, yoga is a way for him to deal with the stress of everyday life on the streets in Kampala.
He explained: “Yoga helps me relax and control my temper, and also, to be part of a community.”
Ronny Lubega, one of the older children that attend the sessions, who collects scrap metal for a living, is doing yoga to relax and grow stronger.
“Yoga gives me strength, and helps me relax my mind,” he said.
The place where the yoga classes are held charges rent of Shs 150,000 a month, but the organization is currently looking for funding for a larger place. Besides, because of the high crime rates in slums, the police often target Kisenyi for raids, which has not made life smooth all the way for the organization and its unusual clients.
“The police have been moving around to arrest people in the ghetto, because there is a lot of them that are thugs. That is how they are forced to live their lives,” Maureen said.
Earlier, the raid came to the yoga shelter’s doorstep as the children were having a session; the social workers stood up for the children.
“A month or two back, the police came here and wanted to arrest the children. But we stood up for them; so, we got arrested instead,” she said.
Police operations like this one are not uncommon in Kampala and other congested urban centres. The organization being based in Kisenyi can only call these raids just another job hazard.
For now, when every thing else has failed with the growing street children problem in urban centres, yoga is what will restore sanity.