A message from East Africa: the children I won’t give up on
- Date: 12/09/2016
- In: East Africa
There are often children begging in traffic jams here in Tanzania. In small groups they’ll work the cars as fast as they can, lingering long enough to try and evoke a reaction. They tap at the window and mime putting food into their mouths.
I always wind down the window and try and find out a bit about them. In Dar on Wednesday I met Jonni. He said he’d arrived two days ago with his grandmother from Dodoma; he was apparently staying with his aunty and said he was only in Dar until school opened again.
Who knows whether the story Jonni chose to tell to a stranger through a car window was true or not? What was true is that he was typical of the hundreds of kids on the streets in every big city here in Tanzania: he was smaller than his years; shy and a little vacant; his clothes were torn - that dusty neutral colour clothes become when they haven’t been washed for weeks. But if you teased him a bit his face would light up with a grin just like any other child.
I’ve been talking to children like Jonni on the streets of different cities across the world now for over 12 years. I’ve spent my working life trying to find ways to really reach out to Jonni and somehow ensure that his destiny doesn’t lie in a life of homelessness and hopelessness, living on the margins, literally fighting for his life and his dignity as the shadows of night draw in and around him.
My daughter is 8 and my son is 10. We don’t even let them cross the road on their own; Jonni was begging in the middle of a six-lane highway.
Jonni is 9.
In some ways meeting Jonni every time I’m in a traffic jam makes me despondent. Couldn’t I go and get a job in the ‘real world’? Shouldn’t I fill my time and space with happy thoughts, give my own children a bit more of me and trouble myself just with their needs? Maybe.
A few days after I met Jonni, I spent a day with Kivuko - our own project that we run in Mwanza. In the morning we went to the Kivuko school - another one of the services we provide across the city to try and help younger children living on the streets.
They have an hour and a half of lessons delivered by Mr Mikenze, a schoolteacher of fifty years. This is a different kind of space to our day centres, and it reaches children with different needs and interests. About fifteen boys were learning how plants grow from seeds.
They all looked much like Jonni, with dusty torn clothes. As one boy stood to get a better view of the blackboard, I noticed the tears in the back of his trousers. This took me back to an interview with a seven-year-old boy some years ago. He’d shown us how his only trousers were torn to shreds because the older boys would cut open the back of them at night before they raped him.
It’s hard to right that. And it stays with you.
But it was wonderful to see these boys with Mr Mikenze. His lesson fascinated them. They’re bright. They’re interested. Give these children a chance and they’ll learn - just like my children do every day.
Maybe it would be easier if I walked away and gave everything I have to my own children. But I can’t do it. Not yet. Because we’re making progress in East Africa all the time - always finding new ways to improve our work, better ways to help the people who most need us.
One thing the 'If I Grow Up' funding will do is to help us to keep developing our family work. It’s by supporting whole families that we can really change the story of Jonni and children like him. When we support a whole family with emotional support, vocational training, medical care - whatever they most need - we can return children home knowing that they’ll be happy and safe there - and they won’t run away again.
My own children are lucky to have a safe home - and a network of friends and family who love and protect them. And I know I’m lucky that my family believes in the work I’m doing with Railway Children and supports me.
I believe every child deserves to live with a strong and supportive family.
In my next blog I’ll be explaining how we’re helping to make that a reality - with the family work we’re doing in East Africa. In the meantime, I won’t be giving up on Jonni.