Street Survivors

The Tanzanian towns of Arusha and Moshi are at the centre of the country’s safari business. But the work carried out there by the Mkombozi project, one of 11 schemes supported worldwide by London-based charity ChildHope, deals with issues well off the tourist track.

The Mkombozi project was originally established to deal with the immediate needs of street children: food and shelter. It now also confronts endemic problems, trying to prevent children from ending up on the streets in the first place.

The centre in Moshi is run by Kate MacAlpine, an Englishwoman who has lived in Arusha since she helped set up the centre a decade ago. It provides food, shelter and education for 70 children at any one time. Some stay for a couple of months; some for years. The centre is small: the boys sleep in dormitories in a single-storey building some 25 metres long which, together with three small classrooms, a kitchen and dining room, surround a dusty play area. They would like to buy more land, but it is not in the budget.

Chatting in the yard with one of the boys who has been at the centre since it opened offers an insight into what life on the streets actually means and how the centre has helped. Silvanus is an articulate and mature 17-year-old. He speaks excellent English and would like to become a lawyer. He was one of three stepbrothers, each with a different father. He never knew his own father and lived with his mother and two stepfathers at different times, both of whom saw him as a burden. He had bad relations with his stepbrothers and, after his mother died, he decided that life on the street was better than life at home. He was four years old.

Silvanus spent the next three years on the streets of Moshi begging, washing cars and fetching water for money to spend on food and marijuana. When the centre opened he suddenly had shelter, food and education. He started receiving ‘non-formal education’ at the centre – a system developed by Mkombozi to teach older children and those with learning difficulties who are behind with their studies and who would not flourish in a typical school environment.

Later, Silvanus attended a formal primary school and is now in a government secondary school (with the fees paid by Mkombozi). He came second out of 117 pupils in his most recent exams. He was elected by the children in Moshi schools to represent them at a national forum on children’s rights, where he met the President of Tanzania. When he is not at school, he helps with the teaching of the younger children in the centre. He hopes to go to university, providing that Mkombozi can help with the fees.

From broken home to life on the street

Children find themselves living on the streets for many reasons, but conflict in the home is often the root cause. A common problem is step-parents who do not want the burden of a stepchild, while conflict can be exacerbated by corporal punishment, poverty and alcoholism. Poverty can mean that children literally do not have a roof over their heads; some in rural communities sleep in trees. It means that there is more emphasis on trying to earn some money than in attending school.

Equally, alcoholism is a big problem – from the scores of cheap bars to the bubbling vats of home-brew outside houses in the countryside. We met a teenager who had tragically suffocated to death her second child by falling unconscious on her while drunk.

For others, a life on the streets can begin with an apparently minor problem. Despite the fact that primary education is theoretically free, the need for uniforms (most schools will not let a child without a uniform attend), books and shoes means in practice it is not. It all costs a minimum of $15 (£8.50) per child per year. Uniforms wear out quickly, largely because they are often the only clothes the child has. With a rural family’s income often around just $50 (£28.20) per year, when a uniform gives up the ghost there is no money for a new one, which generally means no school – and a child not in school easily ends up on the streets.

Just three months on the streets can lead to a child missing so much school – and picking up so much baggage – that regaining a normal life is impossible. Life on the streets involves rooting through rubbish bins for food, being shunned by locals, and drugs. Cocaine, marijuana and glue are rife among street children, being used to ward off cold and hunger. A new drug has arrived in town: cocaine mixed with an unknown substance, which Mkombozi hopes to be able to identify, available for 20p a fix.

The Moshi centre is part of the town now: its monthly entertainment nights pack the local community hall. Nevertheless, it is not a total panacea: cost considerations aside, there is also the risk of institutionalisation. There are, therefore, other strands to the street children initiative:

  • ChildHope and Mkombozi have recently started sponsoring a ‘mentoring’ system in local schools, whereby children thought to be at risk of becoming truants have a ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ (who may be a teacher from another school, a shop owner or similar) to whom they can take their problems. Equally, children will act as peer mentors to help support each other, especially those at risk of dropping out.
  • Reunification of families is tried wherever possible, with the Mkombozi staff visiting parents with the child. It is hoped that it will soon start a fostering programme.
  • The UN offices in Arusha mean that foreign dignitaries are often in town, and Arusha authorities regard street children as an eyesore. Accordingly, they use a 1944 ordinance to clear them off the streets. For example, when the German president visited in 2004, 18 street children were rounded up off the streets and taken to court. When a local judge ordered their immediate release, the police still took the children back to the police station and beat them, before releasing them with more threats if they were seen on the street again. To fight this, Mkombozi has formed an alliance with 10 other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) seeking to apply to the courts for the repeal of this ordinance as contrary to other legislation, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Tanzania). They intend to raise £5,000 for the litigation.

With a view to providing future employment, Mkombozi recently joined the ‘affordable computers’ programme. Seven people are employed (three from Mkombozi) to learn IT skills by repairing old computers sent by companies in Western Europe, which are then sold for around £100 to companies, schools and individuals.

A visit to the project left me chastened at what we take for granted and by how such tiny sums of money can be life-changing. Pennies are watched carefully in the centres: at a meeting of the NGOs I attended, one charity supplied the meeting room, another the instant coffee.

Obviously, the search for funds is ongoing. Anyone – or any law firm – interested in supporting the work should see the contact details below and keep their eyes open for details of a joint ChildHope/Mkombozi charity dinner, planned for 2006.

Jonathan Wood is an in-house lawyer at Caylon

Nicolas Deloux: