From the streets to sanctuary, teen parent’s path to healing

Monday, June 10th, 2024 03:39 | By
Sharlene Meyser Conshez, a young mother of a 10-month-old infant who sought refuge at a youth friendly centre in Mombasa.
Sharlene Meyser Conshez, a young mother of a 10-month-old infant who sought refuge at a youth friendly centre in Mombasa. PHOTO/Reuben Mwambingu

On a sweltering mid-morning in Mombasa, Sharlene Meyser Conshez, a young mother with a 10-month-old infant, glides through the alleys of Ganjoni, on the fringes of the bustling Port City CBD.

Her child nestled tightly in her arms, she makes her way to the Ganjoni Youth Friendly and Edutainment Centre for an antenatal clinic.

This sanctuary, established by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known as Doctors without Borders, provides a beacon of hope. The international independent medical humanitarian organisation offers vital medical assistance to those marginalised and excluded from healthcare.

At just 19, Sharlene has weathered the storm of life on Mombasa’s unforgiving streets, where she was born and raised. For the teenage mother, exclusion from healthcare has been “a normal experience.”

Resilient melancholy

“I was born in Makadara grounds and that’s where I was raised. We had no home. Unfortunately, my parents died and were buried at Mbaraki graveyard, leaving me alone,” Sharlene recounts, her voice tinged with a resilient melancholy.

Briefly, she lived with her father, separated from her mother before both parents passed away. “My mother was married elsewhere, but one day we received the news that she had died. My father requested that her body be brought home, and she was buried at Mbaraki. My father later died as well,” Sharlene recalls. Left to fend for herself, she had to grow up fast.

Makadara grounds, Sharlene’s so-called home, is one of Mombasa’s historic open-air recreational spaces in Old Town, Mvita Constituency. Despite its historical significance, neglect had marred its beauty until recent renovations began. The grounds became a haven for homeless families and drug addicts, Sharlene among them.

“Life on the streets is not easy because you have to struggle to get what you need. If you are not careful, especially as a girl, men will take advantage of you and use you,” she reveals, the weight of her experiences heavy in her words.

Sharlene enrolled at Serani Primary but the rigors of street life made education a distant dream. “Because of the challenges of street life, it was difficult. I would be in and out of school. Sometimes, there were no fees, and I had to stay home until I could get some,” says Sharlene, who speaks flawless English. She turned to YouTube tutorials to master the Queen’s English.

Harsh treatment

“I had no phone, so I used my boyfriend’s phone to learn after seeing a friend master English through a phone,” Sharlene explains. A kind church woman rescued her and took her to Nairobi, where she joined Kitengela International School and completed her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). But her dreams for a bright future abruptly ended when her benefactor died. Rejected by the family, Sharlene returned to Mombasa, using her savings from her pocket money to rent a house in Likoni for Sh1,500 per month. She worked as a public toilet cleaner at Makadara grounds until pregnancy forced her to stop.

Like many street families, Sharlene encountered harsh treatment whenever she visited hospitals. “We are often mistreated at hospitals. They dismiss us as chokoraa which is why we are reluctant to visit unless it’s an emergency,” she explains.

However, the Ganjoni Youth Friendly and Edutainment Centre offered her a different experience. “I started my clinic at Ganjoni until I delivered my child. They held my hand throughout. I delivered at Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital (CGTRH) through this facility. They have treated me like family.”

 MSF project coordinator in Mombasa, Marcos Tamariz, says the Ganjoni centre is part of several similar facilities inaugurated in 2021 in collaboration with the Mombasa County Department of Health.

These centres provide comprehensive services for adolescents and youth aged 10 to 24, offering health promotion activities, sexual and reproductive healthcare, mental health services, medical and psychosocial follow-up for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, family planning services, and treatment for HIV and hepatitis.

Legal access

 “We aim to make it easier for marginalised or excluded young people to get the advice and treatment they need,” Tamariz explains.

The centre also includes a social component, offering activities and advice on nutrition, hygiene, economic empowerment, legal access, protection, and mentorship. “I mostly interact with young mothers who live on the streets,” says Khadija Khamisi, an MSF peer educator. “It’s urgent to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health. The youth-friendly centre makes them comfortable because all our services are confidential.”

 Last month, MSF introduced an edutainment component to enhance the centre with learning materials and entertainment. “We have top-quality materials for adolescents and youth to study, evolve, and find purpose in life. There are meals, computers, a library of books, games, and interactive spaces. Peer educators are on standby to guide them,” Tamariz says.

A recent study by MSF and the County Department of Health reveals troubling trends among Mombasa’s youth.

 The Mombasa Youth Study, involving 1,405 adolescents and young adults, found that 18.6 percent show signs of moderate to severe depression, with higher rates among females.

Substance abuse

Alarmingly, 6.3 per cent exhibited signs of severe depression, and 13.8 per cent had suicidal tendencies. These figures starkly contrast with global estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report also highlights a lack of physical activity among Mombasa’s youth, with only 10.9 per cent engaging in the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise. Economic challenges are significant, with eight out of ten young people aged 18 to 24 living in poverty, affecting their access to healthcare and mental health services. In the six months before the study, 52.1 per cent of participants failed to obtain necessary health services due to cost.

 Substance abuse is another critical issue. Thirty per cent of young people reported alcohol consumption, with higher rates among males. Cigarette use and other tobacco products like tumbaku and kuber were also reported, along with marijuana and khat. Using the CAGE Substance Abuse Screening tool, 17.1 per cent showed signs of substance abuse.

 Stigma remains a barrier, with 7.5 per cent of healthcare workers admitting they would refuse care to drug users. Dr Denton Callander, a principal investigator at MSF, noted that data collection is ongoing to monitor changes over time.

 Tamariz emphasises the need for the County to invest in economic well-being, job creation, and skill development for young people. “Investing in holistic health for adolescents and young people is crucial for public health progress,” Tamariz says, calling for robust, locally contextualised research to inform policies and monitor their impact.

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