Graham Frost joined the Railway Children marketing team six months ago. His daughter, Becky, works as a teacher in Tanzania. So, when Graham and his wife were planning a family holiday to go and visit her, it made sense to take a detour to Mwanza to see some of our work first hand.
In the first of two special blog posts for Railway Children, Graham tells us about his trip.
Mixing work with pleasure
Becky’s been teaching in Tanzania since last September so my wife, Elayne, and I have been counting the days until we could go out and see her. And there’s no way I could travel all the way to Tanzania without going to visit one of Railway Children’s projects.
Reaching out through football
I’ve been volunteering as a junior football coach for 20 years so I’m really excited to be visiting a Railway Children project in Mwanza that uses football to connect with vulnerable children.
The football activities are run as a drop-in session on a vast strip of rough, open parkland, surrounded by concrete and wooden shacks. In the middle of the park, huge vulture-like birds eyeball me from the leafless branches of a single tree. I think I might be their prey.
Joram and Eva
The eerie park suddenly comes alive when Railway Children’s two outreach workers, Joram and Eva, arrive with a mobile classroom. Scores of boys magically appear from every corner of the park. Most of the boys are dressed in threadbare jeans and unwashed T-shirts. A few have got hold of outdated English Premiership football shirts. Their faces are shining with excitement.
As the younger boys join Joram in the middle of the park, a small group of older youths has formed at the side of the park and they keep a keen eye on what’s going on.
Joram gets the boys together and hands out football shorts and tops - they get to wear fresh-smelling silky kits throughout the session.
On the morning of our visit there are 11 new boys who’d had no contact with the project before. Eva shows me her blue A4 notebook where she notes down what they tell her. She explains that when boys first come to the project, they’re scared to tell their stories so they give fake information. Gradually, as they come to trust her, they start to tell her the truth.
It’s also Eva’s role to draw the children into some educational activities through the mobile classroom. These sessions are designed to start things off – our first chance to build relationships with these hard-to-reach children while we plan how to help them in the long term.
Time for a break
After the game Eva and Joram bring out the chai and mandaazi and drinks of juice. I’d expected the children to gulp down their drinks and food but instead I see them savouring every last drop of drink and every morsel of food. They have excellent table manners - although there’s no table.
Some of the older boys help to serve the food and drink. It’s humbling to see how the older youths watch out for the young ones. Joram tells me that when the younger boys lie down at night, the youths will often form a circle around them to protect them as they sleep.
A new friendship
On the morning of our visit I notice two young boys chatting away. Eva tells me they’re both new to the programme and had never met before. One of the boys is 10 and the other is 7. They’ve both been on the streets for a couple of weeks. The older boy tells the younger one where he’s been sleeping and how he’s making a bit of money from collecting and selling plastic bottles from the ditches and rubbish tips. He invites the younger one to go with him. Even in this desperate situation, I’m touched to see these two lads making friends.
When I’ve said my goodbyes and posed for a hundred photographs, I trudge away from the park. I’m overwhelmed by the contrast between what I’ve just seen and my own experiences with youth football.
The lads I coach in the UK turn up in the latest style brand new designer football boots. And it isn’t the done thing to wear them for more than one season. They play their matches on manicured, well-marked pitches and train on a beautiful £250,000 all-weather 3G astro pitch. Only the shrill whistle of the referee can be heard over the roars of support from enthusiastic parents and grandparents. Here in Mwanza, the greatest of goals is met with silence. Passers by just pass by. Only the vultures and a handful of youths watch on in silence.
These football sessions are just the beginning of our work with the children. Joram and Eva are ready - as soon as the boys are - to help them change their lives for good. But I’ve seen something special happening right now: for just a couple of hours these boys have scampered about in silky, clean kits - scoring goals, making friends and, above all, being children.
Watch this space for Graham’s second special blog post - where he’ll be telling us about his visit to meet a family whose lives we’ve changed for good.