The plight and fight of Tanzania’s street child

Sunday August 22 2021
Street pic

Audax Abeli, founder of Azaria Foundation speaking to homeless youth and donating necessities. Photo|FILE

By Ashura Ngwai

Behind closed doors, in the safety of our cars, we see them, we talk about them, we judge them and then we pity them. We then come up with ways and ideas we could help them out but rarely do we go beyond just words.

Sometimes, we are moved to give them those few coins we tossed into the cup holder on our way out of the mall and somehow, we feel like we have done them a favour.

Despite the usual perceptions surrounding street children, I was privileged to see their young and optimistic side. Having had to grow fast and learn to fend for them, it is no wonder they have earned all the bad press.

Their tough, crude and hardened personas are nothing but a result of the harsh living conditions they have had to endure and the needed skills to survive out in those streets.

Statistics from a research conducted in 2017/2018 in about six regions of Tanzania show that Dar es Salaam has about 2984 street children. Mwanza has 978 children, Arusha 544, Iringa 954, Dodoma 347 and Mbeya 586.

According to these statistics, Mwanza and Iringa regions are more prevalent because of domestic violence and hardship which lead to children fleeing the streets.

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The main reason these youngsters give for their state is domestic violence, especially in these leading regions.

Society has developed plenty of negative perceptions and attitudes about these children, which leads to a lot of abuse and even isolation from the larger part of the society, which is probably dangerous and more often than not, could lead to them being involved in informal activities with gangs

It is now common occurrence to hear of terrifying stories of abuse of children by parents or family members. Children as old as three are increasingly being sexually abused, starved and ignored by the family and community at large.

Key players who are supposed to play a leading role in finding a solution to the problem have become the major source of the problem.

Government policies that embrace liberalization and the free market economy are contributory factors to the persistent state of poverty and increased hardship with children being affected most.

The family, which is supposed to be the bedrock of children’s welfare and protection, has today become a major cause of the problem of street children. Parents are sending their children into the streets to beg, steal or engage in petty trade.

Children are leaving their homes to escape domestic violence or because of the breaking up of family structures.

Schools are turning into centres of violence and crime and creating an environment to puts more children on the streets.


Life on the streets

Rahel and Jamal

10-year-old Rahel Ismail entered the streets of Dar at the age of six, barely out of the toddler phase, with his older brother. Theirs is a sad, albeit rather common story for many street kids.

“I came from Mwanza where we escaped after increasing abuse from our step-mother. We stole some money from her for the fare and made our way here,” said Rahel Ismail.

However, you cannot help but ask yourself a lot of questions. These children live here in Dar es Salaam, a city that needs money just to get one’s basic needs.

There are no farm anywhere close to the places these kids frequent and so the concern over how they survive besides the commonly perceived means of theft is always a nagging issue.

However, 11-year-old Jamal answers with great confidence that they survive through begging local traders and other passers-by. “We also find ourselves cleaning cars forcibly even if their owners don’t want us to and this earns us as little as Sh500 so we get a meal and so I think it’s better to stay on the streets than to be at home living in abuse,” says Jamal.

At the end of the day, after all the hustling and heckling, these kids have to find a place to retire for the night.

Although some can still be seen roaming the streets at night, the majority find themselves snug and cosy enough spots under bridges and call it a day.


Jackson and Halfani

Jackson Peter found himself on the streets at the age of twelve due to difficult domestic conditions. However, in search of a livelihood, he got himself a job preparing gravel for construction.

In addition to his gravel preparation job, Jackson also explains that there are other days where he works at the bus stand carrying passengers’ luggage and other days, he collects plastic bottles for recycling which he sells off and earns himself a daily meal.

‘’I found myself on the streets at the age of 12 due to the abuse I received from my parents and I decided to go in search of a better life. I am now 17-years-old and still on the streets. It got to the point where I was denied food and almost got burnt to death so the streets were a better option than the home where I was suffering,’’ said Jackson.

He tells Life&Style that life on the streets as a child is very difficult and he does not wish to see other children like him go through the difficult situations that he did. “Food is very difficult to come by and finding a decent place to sleep is even more challenging on the account of personal safety,” says Jackson.

There is a saying that goes “you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” and this is true with the street child situation.

“Try understanding those children whose eating is difficult, who sleep in dirty areas with mosquitoes and consider how affected they are by the environment,” Halfani Ismail, another street child said to me.

“This environment has affected me so much I have learned to smoke marijuana and cigarettes to reduce my stress and use drugs to feel good,’’ said Halfani Ismail who declined to mention his actual age.


Perceptions of street children

Zuhura Raphael explains that when she sees these street kids, she keeps her wallet well for fear of possible crime looking because she sees them as street thieves. Zuhura however is one of the many citizens who are prejudiced against street children. Sometimes, the simplest and kindest thing to do would be to try and understand the circumstances these kids find themselves in. Despite society treating them as hooligans, with bad habits of theft and crime, they themselves are still struggling to get what they want and need.

Mariam Elias is a small businesswoman at Mwenge and she explains that street children often ask for money for daily necessities such as food and water. ‘’Sometimes they ask us to give them a job to earn money in order to get a meal for a day because they are still young,” said Mariam.

Meanwhile, Ziada Salehe, a street vender at Ubungo believes they are not all a menace and advises community members that these children should be afforded opportunities and platforms in order to create better young people as well as better parents because when parents and guardians are not compassionate, the lack of the fear of God will create a generation of street children.


Ways we could help them

Not enough is being done to address the problem and street children remain an ignored tragedy that is set to have a devastating impact on the development of African counties.

Audax Abeli is the director of the Azaria Foundation which is a non-governmental organization that works to help vulnerable children identify and overcome the negative aspects of child abuse and get them off the streets.

He has also lived the life of a street child, and his main reason for running from home to the streets was domestic violence, especially the beatings he was experiencing at home. He decided to open a centre that enables street children by providing education and moral support to overcome bad behaviour.

Street children face untold hardship and danger on the streets. They lack of food, clean water and adequate health care. Living and working on the streets exacts a terrible toll on street children.

They are often prey to every physical and moral danger and as they grow older they often become a danger to others. After such precarious childhoods, most of them are condemned to spend their lives excluded from mainstream society.

Dr Juma Maligi who is a sociologist, works with the community in solving community challenges especially to eliminate street children.

‘It is important to understand that social work practices through educating with the aim of improving living condition with cooperative parents and other stakeholders because the main reason for street children is poor living conditions,??’ said Dr Maligi.

He explains that social problems including violence against women and children totally affect children.

In making sure we fight in this issue, we are working with various stakeholders to educate the community, especially at the family level to raise education, self-awareness for children through institutions like schools, families, workplaces as well as at the general community.


Train them

“The biggest help to give these children is seminars that will train them to stop living in gangs while helping them develop necessary skills. At Azaria Foundation, we give training much like VETA schools in order for them to become more skilled and aware,” says Audax.

VETA and other institutions that focus on vocational training on individuals are primed to help these kids develop their technical skills and put them out as constructive citizens.

For a developing country like Tanzania, such pro-bono training may not be such a bad idea for the government to engage in if there is any hope to curb this problem.


Government policies

The urbanization rush was no doubt the biggest perpetrator for the rise in the number of street children. Pair that with liberalization policies that promised better chances of economic relief, you find yourself with a large number of hopeful individuals turning to the streets in search of this relief.

Of all the agents capable of doing something about the problem of street children, the state is perhaps best situated to tackle the issue. However, part of the tragedy of street children is the way governments have abandoned them to their fate.

The government needs to implement policies that protect children from abuse in the homes to prevent a wave of street children. We could use the example set by other nations and in partnership with the community set up hotlines to report incidents of abuse by parents and guardians and an equally responsive team that deals with these reports swiftly.