6.45 and it’s still dark -we’re in Mwanza not so far from the Equator.
We approach what looks like a pile of old sacks dumped on the verge of a busy street.
As we wait, small boys -from seven to early teens snuggled together, start to stretch and emerge from under the hessian, polythene and cardboard.
The charity street worker explains that the boys sleeping off to one side on their own are the ones that wet themselves at night, so they are excluded from the communal warmth.
The boys are familiar with the street worker and greet her warmly. In turn, she is practised at extracting information about what has happened during the night: have they been harassed by the authorities, or anyone else, are there any injuries or are any of them sick?
A new boy is brought forward by the others, his first night, he hasn’t slept because he was too frightened.
The street worker asks the others to bring him to our centre later in the morning, and we move on to check-in with other groups of boys of different ages close by.
I ask about girls. I’m told that you won’t find them: they hide themselves away because it’s much more dangerous for girls.
We did however, see a young mother packing-up her bedding and hoisting her baby onto her back.
By 7.30 we’re having coffee at a stall on a market square, stallholders and street vendors are setting-up shop. Many of the boys that we saw earlier are congregating round some burning cardboard for warmth. Others are buying something to eat –they have some earnings from fetching and carrying for the vendors.
A motorcyclist stops and gives 1000 shillings to a vendor to distribute ten buns amongst the boys, apparently he comes by and does it every day.
We end up back in our centre, little more than an old classroom a few hundred yards away, little boys and girls are making things with putty and playing games, and a ‘pop-up’ school comes by.
The new boy sits with a social worker. He has had enough and wants to go home, but it’s a very long way. Our family workers will have to check it out and address the issues that led him to run away before he can be re-integrated with his family with appropriate follow-up.
Later that evening I saw him accommodated in a very basic but cheerful and loving short-term shelter: The emphasis is to avoid long term institutionalisation.
Also that day, I saw the mutual support groups that the charity sets-up and assists with help and advice until they are in a position where members can be supported with a loan or training to get a livelihood and somewhere to stay. The high point was meeting seven older boys who had been trained at the technical college over the last two months in shoe-making. Their instructor swelled with pride at what they had achieved: he was right; they were excellent shoes.
So what drives children to the streets?
It’s no different from the reasons one might run away here: neglect; abuse; inability to come to terms with a new step-father or step-mother.
I am currently teaching ‘life skills’ to young adults near Kilimanjaro. My experience with street children took place last week when I was with Railway Children, a charity based in Crewe (they called it Railway Children because the founder was a railway executive and when he visited India he noticed that the street children congregated at railway stations).