I’ve been postponing writing this piece for a week now; not because it’s not important to tell the story of where the Amani kids come from but because the whole experience of going to Arusha to do street work with the Amani street educators/social workers (as observers only, of course) was an intense experience that we somehow felt we needed to digest and perhaps even get some distance to before writing about it here…
To start off, to give some context to this post, street children – homeless children living on the streets of big cities in Tanzania – are a much more complex phenomenon than I expected. Although there are as many as 800,000 children who are vulnerable to ending up on the streets (or already live on the streets), even according to conservative government estimates, 34,000 live on the streets full-time and represent the most vulnerable victims of a rapidly changing, strained and still overwhelmingly poor society. Street kids leave home for a variety of reasons: from intense poverty (of the kind where there is no food on the table and no money to pay for school) to abusive or negligent families, ravaged by alcoholism, and destructive family dynamics. As one academic paper we read during our orientation at Amani showed, the push and pull of the streets (vs. staying at home) can be overwhelming for children that have lost a safe home due to divorce or abuse and get sucked into a life on the streets that promises something better; a mix of camaraderie with other children and perhaps a bit of money from odd jobs. The reality on the streets is rough, however, with physical, sexual and psychological abuse, hunger, lack of schooling and health care a daily reality, coupled with a social status that equals that of trash in the eyes of many. Because they (sometimes) engage in petty crime to survive (most are not criminals and try to earn a living “legally”) and are abused by adults, including police and other officials, they are seen as an urban nuisance – as people who have chosen to lead a life on the streets. Choice, of course, plays only a small role in driving children, often as young as 8, to the unforgiving streets.
A population explosion in the last decade has resulted in a nation of children (about 40% of the Tanzanian population is below 14) and overstretched families with too many children and few means to support them. Despite a growing middle class, most Tanzanians still live below the poverty line of less than $2 a day, often in very poor rural villages, leaving many children with only spotty access to an educational system that is not even free at the primary level (secondary school costs several hundred dollars a year, making it a luxury that fewer than 10% of Tanzanians have had access to). We visited a local primary school last week and witnessed firsthand the strain that an exceedingly young, knowledge-hungry but resource-poor population places on an education system: 800 children crammed into 7 classrooms with little to no supplies beside chairs, desks and blackboards. Street kids, however, don’t even have access to this. They become outcasts at a tragically young age and often remain so for the rest of their lives. Although the Tanzanian government has a massive responsibility in tackling the root causes of child homelessness and hopelessness, there is an urgent need for organizations like Amani that step in to break this cycle and give street children hope, care and opportunities for a better life today. A lost generation of children won’t do anyone good and the weakest of the weak deserve particular attention and care.
As we delved deeper into the issue when visiting Arusha with the Amani social workers last week, many things surprised me and shocked me as well. Firstly, largely due to social and cultural reasons, girls are far less likely to end up on the streets. In the event of a family breakdown they are likely to end up as domestic servants in a local family or even as prostitutes, often with tragic and largely hidden consequences. Their plight is less visible but no less tragic; although Amani is doing what it can to find and engage with vulnerable girls as well as boys, the vast majority of kids at Amani (and similar organizations) are boys and much remains to be done to address the vulnerability of ALL children.
Secondly, street life is paradoxically both perilous and addictive. Although street children live in hunger and without access to shelter (most sleep on cardboard boxes next to shops) and suffer serious abuse in the hands of adults as well as other children on the streets (gang and turf “wars” exist between groups of street children), the tragic illusion of freedom, addiction to drugs like glue, coupled with a sense of camaraderie with their street “family” can prove overwhelmingly attractive. I was shocked to see that on our rounds walking around town with the Amani social workers, many children that we engaged with – including two boys that had been at Amani previously and had run away a month back – were very reluctant to leave street life behind. The social workers spend a great deal of time befriending the children, listening to them and engaging with them in a way that minimizes any sense of an adult coming to force them to a life in an institution, away from the “freedom” of the streets. The aim of this kind of street work is to make the kids realize that a life on the streets is futureless and that living at Amani or being reunified with their families is a far better option. But what once pushed them to the streets quickly transforms into a pull that outsiders, even the social workers, struggle to understand. I certainly did and still do. Tragically this pull can sometimes be so overwhelming that kids that have graduated from primary school at Amani and have been sent to a private secondary school (that Amani pays for), drop out and end up back on the streets. One such kid that Boogie had played football with the week before was back on the streets because he didn’t want to stay at home and wait for secondary school to start… He had run away from the social workers the day before but agreed to speak to us on the second day; the next day they got a call from another social worker who had heard from his mother that he’d returned home and will probably start secondary school soon. I spoke to another kid, Ibrahim, and he told me (in near-fluent English) about his dream of becoming a soldier in the army… One day, maybe, but so far the hard-to-understand attraction of street life had proven too strong.
Thirdly, although these kids are exposed to a level of abuse, psychological damage and hopelessness that many of us would find impossible to deal with, they are also remarkably resourceful, resistant and often child-like. Even on the streets, the younger, as well as the older kids were surprisingly willing to engage with the team of three Amani social workers we were with, chatting, even joking around with them (mostly greeting us positively as well, usually with a fist bump and quick “Mambo”), and although dirty and clearly malnourished (most of the kids look about 3-4 years younger than they actually are) they rarely came across as forlorn or overwhelmingly desperate. Street life hardens many of them but they don’t lose their childlike innocence entirely; an innocence that is easily awoken when they come to a safe environment like Amani.
The street children in Arusha have surprisingly set routines; they tend to work the same streets (picking up trash or selling plastic bags to fruit sellers) and beg for food near the same restaurants every day. They gather near the football “stadium” in Arusha after the sun has set, burning plastic and any trash they can get their hands on for a bit of light and warmth. Some sit around and chat, some sniff glue under their shirts to dull their hunger and others just walk around, waiting for a safe moment to fall asleep in front of a closed shop near the bus station. Our experience of walking around with the social workers was fascinating and heartbreaking… I felt surprisingly safe despite the fact that tourists, even locals, never venture out after dark. We did two rounds around the bus station, chatting to different groups of kids, asking how they’re doing, observing and listening as the social workers tried to convince them – very indirectly in most cases – to meet us the next morning and come to Amani with us. Many of the older kids aren’t eligible to come to Amani as they’ve often missed out on years of school and can no longer catch up with peers, but the social workers still talk to them and try to support them by giving them a place to come and clean themselves and their clothes (Amani has recently established a drop-in center in the city) and by counseling them and also using them to identify new kids that have only recently arrived on the streets. The earlier they are picked up and removed from the streets (and returned to a stable environment and school), the better the chances are that they never return.
As we walked around at night we met a few new kids on the dark streets as well as a mother of two kids who are currently at Amani – a desperately sad woman, drunk on the streets with her adorable 2-year old who she begged us to take… Sadly as Amani is not an orphanage for small children, the social workers were not in a position to take him and as we walked away from her and her child, my heart sank and I felt a sudden rush of sadness for this child that truly had no say in his fate. None of the Amani kids really do, but this one seemed particularly helpless; a little pawn in an all-too cruel game of life. I had to walk away fast and just gather my thoughts and feelings for a minute… I didn’t want to cry in front of the social workers who had seen this over and over again; sensitive to her plight and to the thousands like her, but also aware that questions of fate and choice in this country can often not be answered: Where does bad luck end and responsibility for one’s own life begin? Does it ever when the circumstances are so difficult?
By the end of it we were both drained; full of awe for the patience and commitment of the Amani social workers and compassion for these children that managed not only to survive on the streets, but also retain a level of innocence and playfulness in a world that is anything but. The following morning we did one final round with the social workers, hoping that some of the kids we’d spoken to the night before – including the two recent run-aways – would meet us at the bus stand at 9am and come with us to Moshi and Amani. They weren’t there at 9 (we could hardly expect them to be on the dot with no possessions to their name, let alone a watch), but after a final round around town, we managed to locate a group of five kids, including the two kids who had run away from Amani recently. One of them had been cut badly during the night and had probably decided (still reluctantly) to come back with us. Another kid who the social workers had met for the first time the day before, was left behind as the social workers suspected that he wasn’t actually a street kid but had been sent out to the street by his parents to beg for money and get himself to a school they would not have to pay for. A very, very tough call but all Boogie and I could do was to trust their judgement and hope that this kid would go back home… They promised to find him next week to assess his case again; I’ll let you know if we get an update…
With four raggedy kids in tow we hopped on a packed bus, paid their tickets and watched as they were trying to come to grips with what awaited them in this strange new place called Amani. One cried as we sat down, others looked in awe at the music videos being played on the TV above the driver. As we got off the bus two hours later and started our short walk to Amani, one of the kids (a new street kid) confided to one of the social workers that he was scared and pretty much expected that we were taking him to some kind of torture center… A day later all had been washed, checked for their health status and fed. As we came into work on Monday he was hanging from a tree, playing with the other kids, with a shy smile on his face… Was he happy to be there? Would he stay?
With our fingers crossed and hearts full of compassion we can only hope for the best. They all deserve so much better.