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National Agenda : Young Beggars Spill Into Nairobi Streets : In Kenya, half the people are under 14, and the birth rate is high. About 25,000 children roam the city.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faith Gathoni, 10, clutches her listless brother tightly against her hip and marches determinedly toward three foreign tourists window-shopping downtown.

The baby slumped against her in a makeshift sling is too weak to cry. It has been two days since their mother scrounged up enough maize flour to prepare a small batch of ugali --a gritty porridge.

“Please madam, five shillings,” she implores the foreigners in a singsong voice, falling into step alongside them.

Startled, they quicken their pace. They fake right, then abruptly veer left trying to elude the scrawny, barefoot child. But she persists, tugging at their shirt-sleeves with her free hand, pleading, “Please madam.”

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This demeaning ritual is a way of life for millions of impoverished children in developing countries forced to earn their livelihood on the streets. From the shanty towns of Sub-Saharan Africa, to the favelas of Latin America, theirs is a daily struggle for survival--begging strangers for money, rummaging through garbage dumps for rotting morsels of food and, sometimes, committing crimes in order to eat.

Sickly, malnourished and often orphaned, they are a shocking barometer of urban poverty fueled by mass rural migration to the cities, runaway population growth and high unemployment.

The July 23 shooting murders of eight young boys in Brazil--allegedly by military police--highlighted the plight of that nation’s destitute children. However, the estimated 40 million children living on the streets in Latin American countries represent just a fraction of the world’s total.

According to the United Nations’ 1993 Human Development Report, 155 million children live in “absolute poverty.” Under the World Bank’s definition, that means there is less than $1 a day available to feed, clothe and house them.

Those lucky enough to make it past age 5 often find themselves on the street.

The problem is especially severe in Kenya, where half of the population of 24 million people are 14 or under, and the birth rate is one of the world’s highest. The increasingly visible presence of the children is also a nagging reminder that despite the millions of dollars of foreign aid being pumped into the country for social programs, little ever finds its way to the needy.

Every day in the capital, anesthetized commuters step over the motionless bodies of young boys curled up in a fetal position on the sidewalk. Dazed teen-agers stumble down the avenues--a bottle of glue in one hand, a cup stretched out in the other. Scores of women breast-feed their infants along the sidewalk while their toddlers waddle over to passersby--cup in hand.

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“You find kids as young as 3 and 4 years old alone on the streets begging to feed their families,” said Francis Kamondo of the United Nations Children’s Fund, which recently opened four rescue centers in Nairobi in response to the growing crisis. “It’s horrifying to think what kind of life they’re going to have before they even reach 15.”

About 25,000 children prowl the streets of this metropolis--once dubbed the “city in the sun”--wrapped in filthy rags and plastic bags. Working alone or in packs, they swarm cars stopped at red lights, pleading for money as the passengers hurriedly roll up the windows. They tail foreigners for blocks at a time in pursuit of a five-shilling coin (7 cents) to put toward a meat pie at the corner store. Sometimes, after one too many refusals, they burst into tears.

“It’s horrible,” an American tourist said the other day as she dropped a few coins into a small girl’s outstretched palm.

“It’s like something out of a Charles Dickens novel,” she added, referring to the British author of “Oliver Twist” and other books detailing the misery of the urban poor.

With little money forthcoming from the Kenyan government, the onus of caring for poor children has fallen on the private sector.

Earlier this year, a coalition of Nairobi businesses, aid organizations and private individuals launched an innovative program to help street children called “Nairobi Cares for Its Children.”

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To raise funds, the program sponsors are selling coupons to the public for about 15 cents. The vouchers entitle a child to a free meal, medical treatment and counseling at one of four new drop-in centers that have been set up.

“Since many children are hooked on glue, the coupons ensure that the money goes toward food instead of drugs,” said Aloys Otieno, executive director of the nonprofit Undugu Society, one of the program sponsors.

“They can drop in at the centers for the day, then if they feel like leaving the streets, we take them to one of our community homes.”

Those who stay on are taught vocational skills such as furniture-making and auto repair. So far, Otieno said, about 600 children have used the centers. Out of these, about two-thirds have stayed on.

But thousands of others, like Faith, are unwilling to leave the streets because their families depend on them for financial support.

So, every day, she totes brother David along the dusty, pot-holed streets, supporting him in a makeshift pouch double-knotted around her neck. Sometimes her grandmother accompanies her on her rounds, but more often than not, she goes alone.

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Her morning begins around 7 a.m. in a one-room shack fashioned from mud and sticks in Kenya’s largest slum. Home to an estimated 200,000 people, mostly children, Mathare is a grim maze of squalid hovels where half-naked children with perpetually runny noses play in drainage ditches that reek of sewage.

Residents pay about six dollars a month in rent--about one-fifth of the average Kenyan’s monthly salary--for a place with no electricity or running water.

The eldest of her mother’s four children, Faith knows that whether or not the family eats depends on her success. On a good day, she nets about 30 cents. Together with her mother’s meager earnings from cleaning houses in wealthy Nairobi suburbs, it is enough for an evening meal of ugali.

One recent afternoon, she and David enjoyed a rare feast of french fries, courtesy of a passerby. Chewing nervously on a strand of thread, she mashed the potatoes between her fingers and pushed them into the baby’s mouth--stopping occasionally to give him a swig of Fanta Orange.

“We used to live with my father, but he would drink and beat up my mother,” she said in Swahili. “So she left.”

About two years ago, she said, her mother sent her into town to beg for the first time. “It’s scary being alone,” she said, relaxing to eat a few bites after determining that the baby had had his fill. “The bigger kids always beat you up and take your money.”

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If she had one wish, she said, she would not ask for much. “I would just want to be bought clothes and food,” she said dreamily. “And to go to school.”

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