A home in the hills
The centre of Mwanza is noisy, colourful and bursting with life. Everyone has something to buy or sell. The tiniest scrap of land is in use – either to grow crops or as a base for street food vendors to roast corn on the cobs. Cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks – overloaded with people, animals or incongruous heavy objects – roar through the streets, swerving wildly to avoid potholes.
We’re on our way to visit a family that Railway Children has helped. We get a lift across town but to reach the family’s home we’ll have to walk the rest of the way. We pass through a small alleyway that divides two rundown shops on either side of the road. The pathway winds upwards and, as we climb higher, the worn concrete steps are replaced with muddy, litter-strewn pathways. The further we go, the quieter it becomes, until we can’t hear the rumble of the traffic below us at all.
As we climb higher, we’re leaving behind the solid, permanent buildings of the town centre. Now flimsy shacks and lean-tos cluster along the narrow, claustrophobic alleyway. I’m out of breath now and hit by the smell of burning charcoal. Every few steps I have to duck under washing lines draped in wet clothing. Faces peek out of the precariously perched buildings to see the curious sight of three hot “Mzungus” wheezing up their hill.
A warm welcome
We finally reach a circle of about 6 small homes. Some are made from concrete, others from mud. Each has one opening for a doorway and another for a window. With a wide grin and a warm handshake, Issa comes out to meet us. “Karibu! Karibu!” he repeats – “you’re welcome!” in Swahili.
We sit on the concrete steps outside the house and feel like celebrities. A group of young children appear from nowhere and stare at us. They scream and hide when I wave at them, only to reappear – a bit braver and a bit nearer – moments later. This becomes a game and soon their mothers come to watch the fun.
Issa tells us his family story - the two Railway Children case workers who’ve brought me here are my interpreters. Issa’s wife died a few years ago leaving him with four children. He’s a casual worker in the building trade but he couldn’t earn enough to provide for everyone. “There was never any food to eat,” Issa tells us, “and so my boys ran away to live on the streets.”
Issa’s twin sons, Joshi and Kanu, are teenagers. As the eldest children, they thought the family would be better off without them. Issa was broken hearted when they went.
“Every day I went down into the town to look for them,” he says. “I didn’t know how I’d feed them but I needed to find them. I had to get them home.”
That’s when Issa met Rashida – one of Railway Children’s outreach workers. She helped him find the boys and she worked with the whole family to turn things around for them. Railway Children looks at all the problems a family is facing and tackles them together. Issa needed practical support, encouragement and help with his finances. Joshi and Kanu needed to get away from street life and back to school – and to understand just how much their dad wanted to be there for them.
Back in school
The twins have been back home for three months now. Rashida and her colleagues supported them on their journey from the streets back to family life. Joshi and Kanu are now enrolled in a local school. Joshi loves drawing. He shows me his sketch books – full of intricate pencil drawings of lion, giraffes and aeroplanes. Kanu excels at maths. His school books are full of complex calculations and red ticks. The boys are attending school every day and every evening they come straight home. They’ve cut their ties with life on the streets. “Is life better now you’re home?” I ask. They grin at me. “Much better. So much better.”
Issa tells me that without Railway Children’s help he’d never have been able to get his sons back. “I thought I’d lost them to the streets forever” he says. “Asante” is the one Swahili word I keep hearing today. It means “thank you”.