The streets tell a different kind of bedtime story
Posted on the 26th July 2015
By Jo Clark, SCU Communications Manager
It’s 9.00pm and I’m standing outside our hotel located on the southern shore of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania. My associate Chris Rose and I are waiting for a man called Daudi to pick us up for the night.
Daudi, 28 years old, works for our partner in Mwanza, Caretakers of the Environment (COET) who provide support and opportunities to children who are forced to live and work on the streets. Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest city with a population of approximately 3 million. The region is considered one of the poorest in Tanzania due to its high population density, with approximately 1,500 children living on the streets predominantly due to economic hardship and domestic violence in the family home.
Daudi is a social worker operating on the front line with these children – his specialized role requires him to work at night – when the children stop moving as they prepare to sleep on the streets. Tonight we’re accompanying Daudi on a night walk to witness his work firsthand.
We begin our walk into Mwanza city centre. It’s not long before Daudi begins to ‘check in’ with groups of young children, girls and boys, as young as 4 years old. Most of the young people we speak to already know Daudi and affectionately call him ‘teacher’.
Three tiny boys run over to their ‘teacher’ and hand Daudi some sugar cane from a plastic bag. They offer a piece to me, I’m hesitant to take because I think it might be their only food for the night. Daudi gives me a look to say ‘take it’ and then whispers ‘remember it’s all about building relationships with these young people, so you’re with them.’ So I take some cane and thank the boys, ‘Asante’.
The process of ‘checking in’ seems simple enough, but it is the result of hundreds of night walks, countless conversations with both the city’s elders and minors who help Daudi paint an intricate landscape of Mwanza’s street-life. He spends hours building trusting relationships with the children, understanding the multiple factors that have forced them on to the streets whilst evaluating what, often complex support they will need to leave the streets.
Each individual child we meet is at a different stage of their life on the streets. There are some faces Daudi doesn’t recognize yet so makes it a priority to start building relationships, and some faces Daudi knows very well indeed.
A face Daudi recognises belongs to a boy called ‘Lodgers’. Lodgers is 19 years old, and had been on the streets for over 5 years until Daudi found him during a night walk. Lodgers was introduced to COET’s street support programme providing the opportunity to go to school and study to become a mechanic. Daudi had recently been informed that Lodgers had been missing classes.
Daudi walks with his arm around Lodgers’ shoulder and discovers he had been missing classes because the place he was living had put the rent up forcing him to go back to the streets to try to earn extra money. Daudi was in pep talk mode, emphasising the importance of going to class so Lodgers could get the qualifications he needed to get a job and move his life permanently away from the streets.
Street child council
The children instinctively form their own groups and communities to survive, and it is an approach Daudi encourages. He wanted to show us a weekly council session he held with street children who lived and worked at one of the city’s main bus terminals in Buzuruga, in the South East of Mwanza. The purpose of the council is to ensure the children understand that their voice matters and that in working together they can look out for each other. Groups of street children are often seen as a public nuisance and treated as such, Daudi explained that their council stood against this misconception and represented positivity and unity.
In the day the terminal would be full of buses, and the children working there would wash them for a little money. But tonight the terminal was deserted except for the feint glows of burning coals signaling where groups had gathered to cook food or heat coffee. Six boys greeted us at the entrance, their faces lit up when they saw Daudi. They guided us to the far side of the terminal, where up to 30 boys, ranging from 5 – 19 years old, waited for the council to begin. They sat on the steps in two rows gathered around Daudi, and kindly invited Chris and I to join.
Daudi encouraged each child to stand up and say their name, age and whether they were feeling ‘red, orange or green’ – red signaling bad, orange was both some good and some bad, and green meant okay. The boys then shared their hopes for the future. Many said they wanted to be truck or bus drivers. I counted four boys who simply said they didn’t have any hopes for the future. Afterwards they took turns to entertain and make each other laugh.
By this point it was almost midnight and some of the boys had already got into ‘bed’. They slept next to each other almost spooning on the bare floor. They had no cardboard for comfort or bag of belongings to rest their heads on – nothing but the worn clothes on their backs. There wasn’t even a light switch to turn off so they could drift off to sleep, just a constant glare from the yellow terminal light above.
Daudi told us that by 5am the boys would have moved on, washing buses or finding some other way to survive. But he would see them tomorrow because Wednesday was cleaning day at the lake.
Throughout the council a young woman sat a small distance from the boys on her own. She simply stared ahead. Once the council had finished Daudi carefully approached her. He knelt down and softly spoke with her. Her name was ‘Hannah’ and she lived in a town a few days away. She had her own business grinding and selling nuts but was forced onto the streets after her husband died. She had no one to turn to and no money left. Hannah was draped in a shoal and hidden underneath was her baby daughter – she had been alone with her baby at the bus terminal for a few weeks.
COET have a Girl’s Centre for younger street involved girls between the ages of 7-14 years, where they are provided with a safe place while options of them transitioning home with their families are explored. COET also runs an outreach programme to support older girls and young mothers who are involved with the streets and/or sexual exploitation, providing them with medical care and counseling, as well as vocational or business training and support. Daudi asked Hannah if he could arrange a meeting for the following day and bring a specialist girls worker to help Hannah make a new plan. Hannah agreed to the meeting.
A commitment to street children
Witnessing the commitment Daudi has to these young people is inspiring. He sees them as the young people they are, full of potential and with the right to the protection, support and opportunities every child is entitled to. He is their mum, their dad, brother and sister, their friend, their guardian and of course their ‘teacher’. He is all things wrapped up into one because he has to be.
COETs commitment to supporting street children in Mwanza means Daudi can continue to walk the streets at night and provide, in that moment, what is possibly the only constant and caring relationship these young people have with an adult. I wonder how many lives have been saved because Daudi has managed to ‘check-in’ with a young person that night.
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