In Arusha the car pulled up to a small house in the Centre of town. Inside, it had been transformed into the offices of a local partner charity of Railway Children UK, Amani Centre for Street Children, who work with close to 1,000 (former) street children and youths across Tanzania.
Working on the streets with Amani’s dedicated social workers is where I met some “hardcore” street children and youth. Arusha is a big city (about half a million people, half of them below the age of 18), and the children who live on the streets there become involved deeply and quickly into a number of dangerous street behaviours, including serious substance use. Walking through the dingy and dirty alleyways and slum areas, we encountered children and youths who, in their fight to cope with street life, were happy to see us and the Amani staff. Some young children were carrying sacks bigger than them, filled with empty plastic bottles for recycling which earn them around 75pence a day. Often part of this goes on their transport back to the place where they sleep, and the rest is enough for one basic meal (a plate of rice, with some beans) and some street substances. Many of the children and youths we met were carrying around empty bottles filled with glue and petrol for sniffing, they had cuts and bruises which looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, and were wearing dirty, ripped clothes.
They were surprisingly friendly towards me and the Amani street educators, giving us “high fives” and pats on the back, participating in the special group session that the street workers conducted, making jokes and discussing their problems openly.
The young children who are rescued by Amani street educators are taken to a temporary shelter in Moshi, the Amani Children’s Home. Here they receive a whole range of services to help rehabilitate them, re-start their education, and they are later reunited with a caring family member. The older youths are counselled intensively and given the options of going to study basic vocational training or joining a Youth Association Model – a group of youths developing a joint ‘business plan’ and life skills plan to get out of street life.
That afternoon we travelled through the hectic Arusha streets, past the pavement hawkers and rows of boda-boda “motorbike taxi” drivers to meet one of the Youth Association groups. They had already started their life skills session by the time we arrived in the centre of the city – Daraja Mbili. One adolescent boy stood in a circle of 20 boys, speaking with passion and conviction. We stood on the fringes and just watched for a while, as the youths challenged each other and debated the issues their business was facing. We were welcomed into the circle and Hija, the youth who had been leading the discussion when we first arrived, introduced his team to us. Hija is the chairperson of the NMC Youth Association which has 21 street youths in total, and is working on the business plan of creating and running public bathrooms, and charging for them. The transformation of the youths we had seen on the streets the night before into the motivated and dedicated youths in front of us was remarkable. Each youth had their own independent role and worked every day to help the start this business and make it a success.
At the end of the day, we travelled to the outskirts of Arusha to visit the family of a former street child, who was rescued by Amani and now reunified with family. I was with Hassan and Naomi, two of Amani’s dedicated family reunification workers. Speaking with them on the way, I gained more of a picture of how challenging it is to reunite former street children with their families. The reasons the children run away from home range from lesser issues like stealing from their family or neighbours, to having suffered severe physical and sexual abuse. The child we were going to see, Karim, had run away from home because of extreme poverty. Around 50% of Tanzanians live in extreme poverty; not eating 3 meals per day, unable to afford basic healthcare or education for their children, and living in a substandard home.
Karim’s mother had been given a conditional grant by Amani to help her repair her home, pay for medicine, and buy enough food for them to eat 3 nutritious meals a day. Although we had to stoop down to enter the shack in which they were living, they greeted us warmly and sat close together on small stools. The reunification seemed to be working. I stayed for some 45 minutes, listening to the translated version of the counselling from Amani’s social workers. It was family therapeutic intervention, and the main aim of the session was to help both the mother and child understand each other’s needs. Naomi explained to me that Amani’s staff had been trained for one week by Railway Children UK on this method of counselling and it was working remarkably well with the families of reunified children.
The most notable part of my experience on the Arusha streets was witnessing the tenacity of the street children to survive, the level of fun and comradery they managed to maintain, and the close relationships they had built with Amani’s social workers. They were like family. This seems to be the reason Amani is so successful in working with these children and youths – they treat them like family and give them guidance in the same way parents would.
Later that week, I travelled 80km north of Arusha to the Amani Children’s Centre in Moshi to see their holistic care programmes for rescued street children.
The huge yellow building that is Amani Centre for Street Children can hold up to 90 children maximum, aged 7 to 15/16. As I walked through the building, I went past the nurse’s office, counselling room, the colourful Starters Classroom and both the boys’ and girls’ dormitories. I learned that Amani’s programme is extremely extensive, offering street children healthcare, counselling, accelerated formal education, food, clothing, and a safe temporary shelter whilst they trace the families of the children in order to be able to reunite them.
The main thing that struck me at Amani was how happy the children were. They were laughing and playing, and reading outside. They seemed just like normal children, there was no evidence of the trauma and suffering they had gone through on the streets. And the caring atmosphere that I had previously witnessed on the streets continued at Amani Centre. Staff and children interacted as though they were family, and there was a warmth and friendliness to the atmosphere. A good number of children came up to greet me wearing huge smiles, and I happily joined in with a small group of kids playing hopscotch.
I was most moved by the story of one girl, Neema. Although only 13 years old, Neema had already gone through more hardships than most adults face in their lives. One of the weekend caregivers explained to me that she was the daughter of a commercial sex worker and that her mother had also sold her to men in exchange for money as she was growing up. Despite all of those challenges, Neema is a confident and cheerful girl at Amani Centre. When I first arrived at the Centre she was darting between the tasks of reading a story book on a bench outside, and playing a board game using pebbles with her friends. But when the lunch bell sounded, Neema took pride of place alongside the cooks, helping to organise the plates of food for all 60 children at Amani and ensuring everyone got their fair share without any quarrels. The staff told me that Neema was a natural leader, kind listener, and could be trusted with any task. When I asked her what she would like to do when she grows up, she told me her dream is to be a teacher.
I hope the above has conveyed the special experience I have been given, to get to know and understand the situation of street children in Tanzania. As I am part of the cross-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Street Children, I hope to take what I have learned from my time in Tanzania, both with Railway Children and with Amani, back to the UK Parliament to discuss with my colleagues. It is clear that issues involving street children are fundamentally important to the development of countries across the world, and that we are in a position to help those less fortunate than ourselves to become positively contributing members of their societies.
About Amani (Notes):
- Amani Centre for Street Children (full registered charity name)
- Amani Centre for Street Children was founded in 2001 by three Tanzanian volunteers. It is a Tanzanian registered charity.
- The HQ is based at the Amani Centre in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
- The Amani Centre can house up to 90 children at any point in time and offers services to children including; food, clothes, accelerated formal education, healthcare, professional counselling, reunification with families.
- Amani also has a drop-in Centre and night shelter in the bigger city of Arusha, approximately 80 km from Moshi, where it works with street children and youths, and rescues young, vulnerable girls who are engaged in sex work.
- Amani has a smaller Satellite Centre in one of the poorest regions of Tanzania, Singida, where they focus on rescuing and reunifying children.
- In total, Amani works with almost 1,000 (former) street children and youths.
- Amani is supported by individual fundraisers and also relies on grants from foundations and larger institutions.
- Amani is co-funded (as a sub-grantee) by DFID and USAID.