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Kenya widow opens arms to abandoned child

Living in a Nairobi slum, she adds a newborn found in a plastic bag to her brood of four children and seven orphans. The problem of abandoned infants is significant in Africa, activists say.

December 25, 2009|By Robyn Dixon
  • Agnes Awori already had 11 children to care for when she decided to take in a newborn baby left in a plastic bag on a railway track near her home last year. She named him Moses.
Agnes Awori already had 11 children to care for when she decided to take in… (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — Agnes Awori is hurrying to the market, early afternoon. She sees a cluster of perhaps two dozen people on the railway track. Probably the usual thing, she thinks: someone killed by a train.

The 53-year-old widow, who lives in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi, doesn't have time to waste: She has 11 children to support -- four of her own, the rest her dead sister's. But she can't resist the twinge of curiosity tugging her to the tracks.

Turns out it isn't a body, just a plastic shopping bag. It's been lying there at least four hours, someone tells her.

It moves.

"It was a human being," Awori says. "He was just dumped there, with his umbilical cord. He was naked, as he'd just been born."

Awori's heart sings. She will save this baby.

As she gently picks him up and cuddles him, the women in the crowd laugh at her. She carries him away, a stream of ridicule and laughter pealing in her ears.

"Some said, 'Don't you have work to do?' Others said, 'You can't leave your work for that. You can just sell that child for 10 shillings.'

"I didn't care," she says. "It hurts my heart to see a human being thrown away."

She calls the baby Moses.


Child abandonment is disturbingly common in urban townships and slums in many cities across Africa. One of Awori's neighbors rescued a baby girl from a pit latrine. Awori says unwanted infants are often dumped in the river next to the slum. Many of the babies don't survive.

There are no statistics on child abandonment in Kenya or South Africa: Some infant corpses are probably never found. But anecdotal evidence from charities involved in child rescue suggests it is common.

"It doesn't happen sometimes. It happens a lot," says Tahiyya Hassim of New BeginningZ, a child rescue charity she set up eight years ago in Pretoria, South Africa, after a car accident left her wondering what she had contributed during her life.

In March 2008, Hassim established an anonymous drop-off point in Pretoria called the Wall of Hope where mothers could abandon babies without repercussions.

"Before I put the wall, it was a case of the police phoning me on a weekly basis, saying, 'We have found another dead baby in a dustbin or a park or a toilet,' " Hassim says.

Since then, 17 babies have been abandoned at the wall. The number of dead infants found in the area by police has declined, says Hassim, who has interviewed many young women about why they left children to die.

"They are often so desperate they don't have any alternative," she says. "A lot of the girls we spoke to said how horrible the treatment was that they got from social workers at state clinics. The social workers tell them, 'You made the baby, now deal with it.'

"Often girls have been raped by relatives like brothers or fathers."

She recently created a second drop-off point, but faces opposition from the government's Department of Social Development, responsible for child welfare, which told her she was encouraging women to abandon their children.

"We are just trying to prevent children from dying in the street," Hassim says.


Sixteen months after she rescued the baby on the train tracks, Awori sits in her one-room shack. She rocks constantly, Moses dozing peacefully in her arms.

Thirteen people live behind the red curtain in the doorway of Awori's shack. Moses is the youngest. The oldest child is 15.

The room is divided in two by a blue drape. Behind it lies the bed where the widow sleeps with the smaller children. The bigger ones sleep with her neighbors.

A rusted bicycle frame is suspended under the roof, holding a bundle of firewood for cooking. In one corner, she has pinned some cardboard religious paintings, like a shrine.

A daughter, Elizabeth, cuts Swiss chard into thin strips for sale at their vegetable stall. They have fewer customers since election violence in late 2007 and early 2008, many of their best ones having moved away.

Awori relies on credit from shopkeepers to feed the family. She makes about 200 shillings (about $2.65) a day and has accumulated about 10,000 shillings (about $132) in rent and food debts in the last two years. She keeps sinking further into debt.

"I am just praying that God will open his own way for me," she says.

Awori says that when her children get older, she'll work hard and repay the shopkeepers and landlord, in installments.

"I'm happy in my life," she says, still rocking Moses. "I'll bring him up well, like these other orphans. Everyone has their own talents in life."

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