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Children of the
bomb blast:

The youngest victims
of the Nairobi bombing

by Grace Chepkwony
On 7 August 1998, a terrorist bomb ripped through Nairobi's downtown business district, killing more than 200 and injuring 5,000 people. Nearly a year after the tragedy, many Kenyans still struggle with the consequences, including 800 children who lost one or both parents.

Having lost one or both parents,
these children are the hidden victims
of the bomb blast.
Winnie Wambui sits outside an iron-sheet shelter, holding her three-month-old baby. Her future is uncertain. She is a mother at the tender age of 16, and she doesn't know where the money will come from for the next packet of milk. How will she provide for her son's basic necessities? Will she manage to feed and educate him?
The odds are stacked against her. Winnie dropped out of school last year when she got pregnant and shortly afterwards, her mother, the family breadwinner, died in the blast. Her son's father is unemployed and gives her little support, and her remaining family have their own problems. Elder sister Alice is jobless, and seven-year-old sibling Caroline requires money for school fees. Inexperienced and without prospects of work, Winnie will have to bring up her child single-handedly.

There is some comfort. The teenage mother and her sisters are beneficiaries of a comprehensive Kenya Red Cross programme of social and medical assistance for those seriously affected by the bombing. Launched soon after the blast, with the support of the Federation, it provides food to families of the dead, counselling for the traumatized, surgery and medical care for the injured, support for the blinded and disabled to help them deal with a new reality, vocational training for widows and others left without an income, and a three-year school-fee programme for children who lost parents and whose education is threatened.

The plight of the youngest victims
Although the bombing affected all age groups, it left an indelible mark on the lives of 800 children. The death of a parent brought trauma, and deprived them of vital support for their social, emotional and intellectual development. The story of seven-year-old Calvin Biko and five-year-old Michael Ngeto illustrates the dreadful situation in which children find themselves. Their mother died of disease in July last year and when their father, Elijah Ngeto, was killed in the bomb blast a month later, they found themselves alone in an unfriendly world. Left with few choices, they had to move from Nairobi, where they had lived since they were born, to stay with their uncle in western Kenya.

The immediate needs of these children are food, education, love and care. Says Anthony Gitahi, a Red Cross social worker: "Children like Calvin and Michael have been rendered extremely vulnerable by the bombing and, if they are not helped, will sink deeper into problems. Some may become completely disoriented, having to live in strange circumstances with people they may not have seen before."
Picking up the pieces
Of all the problems facing the children, poverty is the harshest. The blast ruined careers and left many families without a livelihood. Languishing at home because their mother cannot pay school fees are Esther Kaswii's two children. Esther used to work in a city pub - where she earned the equivalent of US$54 a month - until her eyes were lacerated by flying glass in the bombing. Her sight seriously impaired, she subsequently lost her job.

Since she divorced her husband in 1997, she has been living with her parents in a slum village called Matopeni. She needs money for school fees. The US$ 28 she must pay per term for each of her children - Eugene (6) and Hedson (3) - may seem little by affluent standards but for Esther it is now a fortune. Her retired father cannot help. He has no source of income and the entire family relies on what her mother earns from selling vegetables and cereals outside their home. Red Cross food, she says, has kept the family going.
She is not without hope. A vocational training programme of the Kenya Society for the Blind, which is funded and supported by the Red Cross, is helping her acquire business skills. "It is like starting life all over again. I have to learn to adjust to my new condition," Esther says.

In Dandora, a low-income area in the eastern part of Nairobi, Nancy Wanjiku Kinuthia and her children are grappling with a slew of problems. When Nancy's husband, Simon, was killed in the blast, she was expecting her eighth child. She gave birth to a baby boy last November, an extra mouth to feed in desperate financial circumstances. "The bomb cut off our lifeline," she says. "My husband was the sole breadwinner. We all depended on him for our survival."

Her children, she says, fall sick more often these days and she suspects the sudden fall in their standard of living is responsible for their deteriorating health. The family's health insurance provided by her husband's employer ended when he died. She says, "It's impossible to get medical help these days. If a child gets sick we depend on God." For now, the Red Cross provides respite - food and assistance with school fees - but Nancy is looking for a permanent solution to her problems. She would like to undergo vocational training and set herself up in business. So, like other widows, she has enrolled in a Red Cross training programme and her eyes are on a small business.
Coping with the trauma
The psychological impact of the bombing on children greatly concerns the Red Cross. Many are traumatized by the deaths of their parents, and the conditions they live in do not help. Says Susan Mutungi, another Red Cross social worker, "Relatives have come to us seeking guidance on how to deal with traumatized children. Those who lost parents are suffering terribly. The horrific pictures they saw on television could have deepened their psychological problems."

David Maina, a street boy, witnessed the bombing firsthand. Close to the blast, he lost his jaw and is still undergoing treatment. David is at pains to tell of the dreadful scenes he witnessed. "I saw seriously injured people running and screaming. I was badly injured, too. Someone rushed me to hospital. I had never seen something like that before." David still remembers the powerful explosion and has developed a phobia for noise. He is in good hands, however, in Mount Kenya Baptist Street Children's Home in Naro Moru, central Kenya, where he goes to school. The Red Cross will pay his school fees and provide his food. "I want to be a doctor," he says confidently.

Grace Chepkwony
Grace Chepkwony is a Federation information officer based in Nairobi.

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