More from East Africa: meeting the families you're supporting
- Date: 05/10/2016
- In: East Africa
I come to Africa at least every couple of months - more often this year - but recently I’ve been spending less and less time outside of meeting rooms and hotels. So on this trip I resolved to spend more time out with project staff in the field and start to connect with what we actually do again!
My first visit was to a newly opened day centre - run by one of our local partners. Children get fed at the centre and they can wash themselves and their clothes there. The four highly-skilled staff offer the children a three-month programme of activities that includes meditation as well as games and songs and creative sessions that help children develop a range of skills and also express their feelings and communicate what has happened to them.
One of the boys who’s been coming every day is 13-year-old Hassan. He’s been living on the streets for three years. The partners we work with locally had all struggled to reach out to Hassan before this - and he’d never before agreed to go to a centre, or to countenance the thought of going home. But when I talked to Hassan, and to the 12 other boys at the centre, they all told me how safe they felt there. Many said they now felt ready to go home - including Hassan. To see such progress in Hassan, made in just the six weeks since the centre opened, was humbling - and incredibly motivating.
The centre aims to build a bridge from life on the street back into society. It helps children to return to their communities, to get them back home, back into school and to get their futures back. It’s early days, but I’m impressed by the results so far. Reaching out to children before they’re ready to go home is a vital part of our work. Equally vital is making sure that when children do go home, they’re safe and happy.
Two of our local partners are piloting intensive family work with a small number of families, using methodologies we’ve developed with our long-time partner in Mexico, Juconi. We’ve given family workers in East Africa a great deal of training to make sure they really understand this challenging work and can deliver it well.
To see our family work in action, we went to visit a family we’ve been supporting for some months. We’d got to know the family after we’d made contact with 13-year-old twin boys, Joshi and Kanu, on the streets. After their mother had died, their father, Issa, had been struggling to cope. The boys had dropped out of school and drifted to the streets. With our support the boys are now back home and we’re helping the family to work through their problems.
The family session lasts just over an hour. We’re in the living room - perhaps 10 foot square, with a mud floor, and the only light coming in through the doorway. In a circle sit dad, Issa, his twin sons and two daughters, plus family workers Mary and Miriam - and me.
It’s hot. Mary and Miriam bring a mat to sit on and bag full of tricks. We start with everyone saying who they are and how they’re feeling. Then we play a game: we all have to tie a piece of string together with the person we’re sitting next to, just using one hand each. It’s a challenge, but after a few minutes we have a complete piece of string tied together, connecting us all in a circle. We each reflect on what the exercise symbolises for us. The meeting continues with more games. Then we start to talk. And listen.
Mary and Miriam have evolved so much over the past few years. The meeting works because they create a calm, non-judgemental and empathetic atmosphere. They build a safe space where painful issues can be brought into the open. They also model a way of communicating, listening and responding to one another that families gradually adopt themselves.
It’s taken us years to develop our family work in Mwanza to the point where projects are so attentive to the emotional needs of the children and families we work with. To begin with our partners and project staff told us: ‘we don’t play games in Africa!’ But it’s a pleasure to watch how intently families and workers play the games now.
Issa talks about how important the project has been for him. He says he’d lost all hope before we met him but now he feels he has the strength to support his children. He says he doesn’t feel alone anymore.
The team told me how proud they were of Issa and his family. And I am immensely proud of the team.