My name is James Mortimore. 9 months ago, I came to Africa for the first time, having just turned 30 and having left a job in London wanting to see a different side of the world. Understandably, I was both quite excited about doing something new, but also very scared, extremely uncertain about launching myself into a whole new realm of unknowns and possibilities. The plan, though slightly change in retrospect, was to spend 4 months working with AfCiC in Thika, Kenya, before spending another 2 months with an organisation called New Generation in Burundi, both organisations working in one way or another with street children, and combining this with some travelling in the East African region.
I write this, then, having just come back from Burundi, having left Kenya after nearly 5 months working with AfCiC in Thika. During that time, I was able to see a group of nearly 25 boys, formerly from the street, grow in confidence and contentment as they completed the final 4 months of their time at AfCiC’s Interim Care Centre (ICC), a residential rehabilitation centre for street children. It’s worth noting that for these boys, I didn’t see them when they were on the street, nor when they first arrived at the ICC, a notoriously difficult time!
The ICC is used as a temporary home for these children, helping them in the first instance to provide regular shelter and food, but also to overcome the frequent addiction many of the boys have to glue or ‘musi’, a petrol-based drug. In the longer term, the ICC also provides education in various forms, from the more commonly seen English, Maths, Ki-Swahili and Science, to the lesser seen but, for street boys, equally important, dancing, acrobatics, drama, music and martial arts.
On the whole, my experience with these boys was hugely positive and, as they graduated just before Christmas last year, everyone was very hopefully that these boys would be a success back with their families, with whom AfCiC had worked in the intervening period, and would be able to strive back in school, albeit to varying degrees given the natural swing of educational capabilities.
At the same time, I was also working quite closely with a lot of the boys who were currently on the street at that time, and was particularly excited when many of these boys were selected in the new intake for the ICC, just before I left for Burundi. It was exciting to see these boys who I had seen on the streets, addicted to glue, come to the ICC, put on a new uniform, get their haircut, get clean, and I particularly remember on their first day being with them when they saw their beds, complete with 3 blankets each, and the excitement plastered all over their faces.
It was easy from this first 5 months in Thika working with these boys to see what a difference AfCiC, and thereby street-child focussed organisations, can make in the lives of children so different to the ones I see each day in the UK, as well as my own.
Fast forward 3 months and I have returned to Thika and have been struck by some startling revelations – revelations that many have probably had before, but only now make sense to me having seen children I grew close to affected.
One example that illustrates this is a boy called Matthew (not real name), a boy I first met at AfCiC’s OPVC (Outreach Prevention for Vulnerable Children), and outreach centre in the heart of one of Thika’s poorest areas. It was in my first week in Thika, back in October, and whilst I didn’t really relate to him more than any others at that particularly time, I remember more vividly the time he was subsequently admitted to the ICC as a rescue case, it having later emerged he had suffered some quite serious sexual abuse from a member of his wider family. He was quite visibly traumatised and shaken, with one out-playing of his internal pain being a very tactile behaviour towards me (I can’t speak for any other staff members here), something I remember being very uncomfortable with and made an effort to curb.
Over time, and with rehabilitation and a lot of care from staff, he grew back into a more confident and happy boy. He was clearly very intelligent, extremely helpful around the centre with cleaning and cooking, and I grew particularly close to him when all the other boys from the ICC went home to families for a week at Christmas as a trial period, whilst Matthew stayed at the centre, and I went and saw him and another boy every day, if nothing else just to stay busy as I also found being so far away from my own home at Christmas quite hard.
It then gave me great pleasure when just before I left to travel to Burundi, Matthew was admitted into a school near his home, and with some of the problems with his family seemingly fixed, it was on my return to Thika 3 months later that I looked forward to seeing him again, visiting him at his school and maybe seeing his home.
However, what I found on my first morning in Thika town was that he had very recently gone back to the streets, had started taking glue, and was looking quite ill looking worse than I had seen him for many months.
Having met with him and another two members of AfCiC staff, it turns out that whilst he very much enjoyed being at school, it was when he returned to his home where he had problems, and it was this breakdown in his family, caused by a new relationship his mother was having, that saw him return to street life.
In a similarly disappointing vein, I also returned to Thika to see a collection of the boys who were admitted to the new intake at the ICC back on the street, back taking glue, and many seemingly in an even worse state than they were 3 months ago, even before they were admitted to the ICC.
As I previously said, the revelations I got from these experiences were ones many people have had before, and it is on this foundation that much of the work of AfCiC is based. The revelations I had pointed me to the fact that however much work you do with the child, and however much work you put into their rehabilitation and education, unless the families and communities to which they are returned are able to positively cope with them, the work you put into the child is rendered useless.
Similarly, particularly in respect of the boys who left the ICC, largely due to withdrawal symptoms to glue, the boys and girls we work with need to be active participants in change. Change doesn’t just happen to these children – we cannot just turn a switch on and they are suddenly changed – they need to want to change. They need to be active participants rather than just passive observers.
A positive example of a boy who wanted to change is Antony, a member of the last intake at the ICC, and now living back with his mother and new fiancé, whilst attending school every day. Antony was always visibly bright and intelligent, and even though he lives in an unbelievably tiny two-room home with his Mum, Mum’s fiancé and young baby, he is determined to have a better future – a future intimated to in a video put together by AfCiC centred on Love and Forgiveness. Even with that determination to not return to life on the street, it is still the responsibility of AfCiC not to see Antony as a ‘success story’, but rather as a work in progress and someone with whom we should be working, like many others, for many years, rather than just seeing a return to family and school as the end of the process.
What this past week, and the preceding months on which I have reflected, has done is show again that these individuals stories are just small symptoms of a much wider issue. In a meeting before Christmas, the AfCiC Director, John Muiruri, pointed to the analogy of a tree in explaining that street children are simply the fruit, albeit tainted in some way, of a rotten tree. Even the tree itself, representing the families and communities from which they came, is sometimes powerless to control the fruit being produced, as it is at the root where the damage is done.
This root is the same root that pervades developing countries throughout the world, and for me makes it easier to understand the role that global organisations like the UN have to play in tackling what for me seemed like a million miles away from New York or Geneva or London. How could an organisation like the UN really have an impact on Matthew’s or Antony’s future? Do Matthew and Antony really see a difference in their lives when somebody in the US or UK goes before a meeting of wealthy businessmen and talks about the importance of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’?
But the answer is in some way, yes, as much as it’s very hard to see in the day-to-day life here in Thika, and for these boys. What I have found hard to get my head round is that there are thousands of Matthew’s and Antony’s all across Africa and Asia and South America, even in Europe, Australasia and North America, and whilst I would love to see the UN come down to Thika, spend lots of money and time on ‘fixing the problem’ here, it really isn’t conceivable or practical!
To get to the root of the problem, thereby preventing boys and girls down the line from even coming to the street in the first place, organisations like the UN have to mobilise important people, whole countries and other global organisations, to agree to tackle global issues on health, education, ‘poverty’, hunger, and the environment, which in the long-term will see a difference for future Matthew and future Antony. I, like many, often struggle to see the effect of long-term goals, and often prefer to see the short-term gains which are easier to comprehend though, in reality, are often without substance and long-term benefit.
There is obviously no reason why AfCiC and similar organisations cannot also look at the root causes of why children come to the street, and many, including AfCiC, do exactly that. Increased training and dialogue with the community these children come from and a family sponsorship programme, designed to give families a means to provide for their children, are both important tools AfCiC uses in focussing on ‘prevention’ of street children rather ‘reaction to’ as the key to keeping children in prosperous family units and schools, and its only really now that I begin to understand how important these long-term plans are.
In the future, AfCiC want to be able to train and educate more people; children, families and communities alike; in issues such as Child Rights, in HIV/Aids awareness, in understanding the role of Government and the Constitution, and in many more similar areas. This training will, in the long-term, build the capacity of these individuals and groups to care for their children and not just relinquish responsibility to concerned individuals and local NGO’s to do that job for them. It’s been an interesting 9 months; hugely valuable and eye-opening, but certainly not one with a short-term happy ending.