Joan Mwakinywa* (27) and her sister Janeth Mwakinywa* (29) were abandoned at the ages of three and five by their mother who left Mbeya in search of greener pastures in Dar es Salaam.
The sisters were left in the care of their grandmother who eventually got old and could no longer look after them. At ages nine and eleven, they began to fend for themselves and their grandmother.
At the beginning they got help from relatives but when their grandmother passed on, they felt completely abandoned. They dropped out of school because they had to labour in their new guardian’s homes and eventually at the ages of 14 and 16, they ran from their guardian headed for Dar es Salaam in search of their mother.
In Dar es Salaam the girls arrived at Ubungo and slept around the terminals until they were taken in by other street kids. This was not all easy as they were robbed of their belongings and what little money they had. Eventually they adjusted and they joined a crew of beggars.
Janeth got pregnant because her boyfriend advised her that a baby would make it easier for her to beg while her sister Joan found herself in an orphanage.
“It was hard separating from my sister but I was scared for her life and I had a small baby and my boyfriend could not afford to take care of all of us, so Joan had to go to an orphanage that we heard about from other street kids. They told us of an orphanage that provided shelter but the matrons were so strict and the big kids were bullies.
There was no freedom there and the streets offered more freedom. The next day I took my sister, my heart was aching but I knew this was the best for us,” she explained.
Janeth adds that Joan agreed to go but when she returned to check up on her she was greeted with news that her sister had run away.
Joan could not fit in the orphanage; she was bullied and eventually after so many attempts she left the orphanage after 7 months, joining another street crew. This time around it was unfortunate for her because she was raped.
A new leaf
Eventually she went to a church to ask for food and she was given food and a cleaning job. She continued working hard and got a chance to learn tailoring and eventually saved up enough money and went on the search for her sister who she found that had lost her child.
Joan says, “I wish I continued living with my relatives because work and spanking would not have exposed me to everything life has done to me. I am working hard so my child would never have to live in an orphanage or on the streets.”
Tanzania, like many other African communities has a culture of extended families. In the early 2000s out of every 10 families, 8 of them lived with relatives.
Now that times are changing and life expenses are growing rapidly, this culture of living as an extended family is also changing and in fact declining. High living costs are just one of the main reasons accompanied with stigma and superstition.
Due to families closing doors to children who were orphaned or living in difficult conditions, the number of street children has increased; According to globalliving.com, there is an estimated 437,500 street children in Tanzania, some of whom are housed by orphanages.
Orphanages, to many, may seem like a safe haven for children who have been abandoned by families, up until I spoke to Pamoja Leo; an organization that advocates for fit families popularly known as foster care homes, that i learnt different.
Pamoja Leo is a non-governmental organization based in Tanga that works together with the government and the Tanga community to advocate for foster care, also known as fit person’s/fit family program in Tanzania.
Foster care or the fit family program is when families that pass the criteria set by the government during the screening process voluntarily become a temporary host home for orphans or children in vulnerable environments until the government, usually social welfare, finds a long-term solution.
Often this is a proper relative who is found fit enough to take care of these kids and in best case scenarios, adoption usually follows through.
Pamoja Leo was co-founded by Georgina and Ed Hill. Georgina took an interest in East Africa after studying international development at the London School of Economics. She became alarmed when she noticed that the orphanage system in East Africa was blooming and more concerned that some of these orphanages were sponsored or funded by Europeans, while in Europe the orphanage system was banned.
Georgina says, “No child should be separated from family and every child belongs to a family. We should be open to volunteer to become
foster families and if we are not fit, there are other roles we can play towards ensuring that orphans and children in vulnerable environments have a place to call home and with a loving family.”
Georgina adds that as they started researching, they realized that kids who have been in the orphanage system attest to picking up some of the bad habits, some even having less mental development.
Majority have become adults who are fighting childhood traumas, with some falling to addiction and others to prostitution. Perhaps some turned out well but the majority have a sad story to tell.
Abraham Nassoro, a senior social worker at Pamoja Leo says, “Pamoja Leo is a lot of things but mostly it is about giving a voice to the voiceless and is determined to improve young people’s standards of life in one way or the other.”
As an organization, Pamoja Leo deals with a lot of things such as free daycare from Monday to Thursday where children from families that can’t support them are given an early education, get balanced meals and they are provided with health insurance.
These children are from age two to four years and afterwards they are placed in primary schools. It is Pamoja Leo’s goal that every year they take in 34 children.
Pamoja Leo also assists the children’s parents or guardians with business because these children are from families that are really in need.
Abraham says they link them with training schools and some have ventured into tailoring or just small businesses like selling charcoal.
Pamoja Leo also provides teen moms with a program that helps children who had kids at a younger age and dropped out of school cope.
Pamoja Leo receives information on such cases from social welfare and the community development officers, puts them through vocational trainings and then supports them on various businesses such as food making, clothes selling and tailoring while their kids attend day care.
As of 2019 to date, Pamoja Leo has trained 99 foster families in Tanga mjini, Chongolieni and Lushoto.
Together with the government, 6 kids have been permanently placed in fit families and still are living with them while others are able to be accommodated by relatives.
To become a foster family one has to go through screening where the social welfare and community development officers do a thorough research that assess these families for eligibility.
The process involves a checklist where the officers visit these homes to check if these families tick all boxes.
Training usually follows up with a government given guidance where the social workers train the fit family by informing them on their rights and the children’s rights.
There are different needs for different children, the sick, the ones with disabilities and some whose relatives visit and also those going to school.
Pamoja Leo plays parts in sensitization and supporting the government with transportation if need be.
In Tanga town they have 27 families that have gone through screening and training, In Lushoto they have 63 families in total they have 99 families that are ready as foster homes.
Families do not pick a specific child but the form used during training takes the information of all fit families.
In these forms, parents express how capable as a parent they are to helping a child which helps Pamoja Leo together with government to pace the children easily.
The kids are also counselled by an officer at every stage until they adjust and they also put through the hospital those who are sick.
Pamoja Leo supports in every step and they provide a comfort kit usually a bag with necessities like soaps, sanitary pads, toothbrushes and more.
Seeing as foster care is ever evolving, Pamoja Leo visits regularly to check up on the progress of children, to see if they are safe, well fed and taken to school.
Silvia Shemweta is a foster parent from Tanga Mjini, she works with Pamoja Leo in the daycare and she says, “I felt from my heart that young children left alone get lonely and they become hurt individuals. I think it is important if more people came forward and fostered kids.”
Silvia has worked as a caregiver in orphanages in Lushoto and the children she looked after are now grown. After she left Lushoto, she went into a search for younger kids, who she could take in and look after. She wanted to continue as a caregiver and she searched online and stumbled into Pamoja Leo.
She applied to work with Pamoja Leo she decided that she will be a fit person.
She has one child of her own and is also a fit parent to two; a mother and a daughter. The mother is a secondary student who is 17 and her daughter is 2 years old.
After her ordeal, Joan asked more on what foster families were and has acknowledged their importance. She say that once she has stabilized, she would love to be one as well because every child deserves a loving home.