This is the story of the Amani Centre for Street Children’s role in the uphill struggle faced by those that care about the world’s least valued young people, street children. Street children are not unique to Tanzania or Africa. This is an issue every country has to deal with.
This fictional account is influenced by a combination of information I have read and researched regarding street children primarily in Tanzania but also in other countries including the country of my origin, England. All characters are fictional.
Book One – Rescuing Children
Chapter One – Arusha
“Hey little brother, what you doing there?” The tall, skinny youth calls out to the smaller boy as he approaches across the busy Arusha road. His body twitches and jerks ceaselessly as a life time of marijuana and glue course through his veins. The smaller boy looks up fearfully, his wasted calves flexing ready to flee.
“Yo Dude, I’m cool.” The not so innocent but still so young features on the smaller boys face relax as he recognises The Rapper and knows him as a friend.
“What you gotta there little bro?” The Rapper looks around the crowded bus station alert for danger signs as he sinks to the ground next to Joshua.
“You gotta shillings in dem pockets, the Rapper knows man, he sees you hauling the metal earlier.” This is a statement not a question.
Joshua grins, his smile wide and clear, his teeth still whole and white, malnutrition and glue haven’t got a hold on him yet. His teeth will crumble and break as time goes on. Street kids don’t have toothbrushes.
“I ain’t got no shillings man, see?” He turns out the pocket of his grimy hoodie to emphasise his point.
The Rapper moves quickly, ignoring the proffered pocket he pulls open the opposite side of Joshua’s hoodie and reveals the bottle of glue cradled protectively in the young boy’s armpit. Joshua gives it up, he knows the Rapper will share. Street kids show each other respect, no one else does.
The need for conversation over, the two boys sit on the dusty floor of the bus station with the feet of the busy travellers passing them by without a moment’s notice or care. Their eyes are forever alert as they take it turns to inhale the noxious substance that is their master. The few shillings they can earn hauling goods to or from the market, selling their bodies, or trading scrap metal pillaged from the bins buys a quick release from the harsh reality of life and stops the incessant rumbling of a hungry stomach. It is cheaper and more accessible than food. Street kids don’t get their five a day.
The two-hour bus ride to Arusha is bumpy, cramped and noisy. The white skin and apprehensive eyes mark the volunteer as a newcomer to Tanzanian travel. Her fellow passengers are jovial, jostling locals all vying for space on the crowded bus, some smile at her kindly, some openly pass comment to their neighbour and laugh knowing their Swahili outwits her and some just ignore her, but no one intimidates her. She settles in and relaxes as the bus moves on.
“OK,” she thinks to herself. “I’m cool, I’m on my way and this is uncomfortable but bearable.” She looks around and starts to really see the people: there is a whole new world of characters right here. She listens to the happy chatter around her and tries to ignore the perils of the road going on outside.
“The roads here are dangerous. Drink driving is the cause of accidents all the time. The driving skills of the local are reckless at best.” A fellow volunteer had helpfully proffered this observation the day before her trip!
Arrival at Arusha was a welcome release from the heat and odours of too many bodies in a cramped space and the volunteer got off the bus thankfully. Pushing her way through the hordes of people offering her taxi rides and help, as politely as her nervousness would allow, she made her way to the crowded sidewalk to take stock and find her life line, the phone.
“Hey Gill, how are you, karibu sana Arusha.” The wide smile and cheery face of Mary, the Social Worker who will be her guide for the next twenty-four hours, put her at ease and she stopped fumbling for her phone, instead her mind fumbling for the appropriate Swahili response to the welcome to Arusha.
The next hour saw the two women walking through the noisy, busy streets of Arusha as it started to wind down and close up for the day. It was late afternoon and the shops and markets would close by dusk which arrives early at around 6pm. There were people everywhere and all of them seemed in a hurry. The roads were busy with cars and the sound of horns and calls from the dala dala’s for business mixed with the thrum of busy people. As Mary led Gill along the precarious sidewalks that could never be labelled as pavements Gill smiled as they stopped at an intersection to cross the road.
“Trafffic lights!” She proclaimed laughing.
“Ha, yeah! Different to Moshi eh?” Mary laughed and gently took Gill’s elbow steering her across the road. “But don’t be fooled, sometimes red doesn’t mean stop here! But yeah in Arusha we have traffic lights.”
As they passed various points Mary pointed out their route for the forthcoming nights trip. These spots would not be the cocktail bars for pre-dinner aperitif or the best restaurants and clubs that Gill was used to on holiday trips abroad. These were the steps of the sports stadium, the rocky slope leading down past the garbage under the bridge, the bus station itself. The highlights of tonight’s tour were the street kids open air bedrooms. Street kids don’t get a goodnight kiss or get tucked in.
The lodgings for the night are better than Gill had expected, a hot shower, flushing toilet and big, hopefully clean double bed draped in a voluminous mosquito net which looks to be without holes. “What more could I ask for?” She thought as she looked around and dumped her backpack on the rickety dresser. She reached down the front of her jeans to check her body pouch, which contained her most important possessions in case of emergency, before a quick splash of water and heading out to meet Mary.
Mary takes Gill to the drop-in centre so that she can find her way there in the morning. The route takes them away from the bustling main streets and into a residential area facing open fields.
“How do the neighbours feel about the centre being here?” Gill asked, her gut reaction immediately thinking she wouldn’t be too keen to have a centre for teenage boys off the streets next to her house. She is making assumptions about the boys before ever meeting them, just like everyone else.
“They are cool, there are no problems generally.” Mary shrugged used to such ignorance. “We have to be careful of course, but the boys know to respect the neighbours. But overall there isn’t an issue.
As if to reinforce the point a neighbour appears cheerily greeting Mary with genuine pleasure.
The drop in centre consists of a large room decorated with the boy’s artwork and hand-made posters warning against the risks of HIV, drugs and Alcohol. There is a small office at the back full of beaded jewellery and knitted hats the boys make here, a kitchen area to provide tea and bread, showers, toilets and an outside washing area for the boys to wash their clothes. Mary and her colleague Isaac each have bedrooms for their three night stay in Arusha every week. This week Mary is alone as Isaac is on duty at the main home for the children in Moshi.
“OK Gill, so we will go back into town and just cruise the streets, see who is around. Stay close to me but don’t worry the boys will look after us.” Mary casually addresses the silent fears in Gill’s heart as if she were suggesting they go into town for a shopping trip. Her open and confident attitude reassures Gill as they set off in the dark heading back toward town.
“If there is no one about or we can’t make connections tonight, then we must come out again in the early hours as the boys wake and try again.” Mary explains as they walk along the rocky roads.
Gill follows Mary , amazed at how many people she knows along the way.
“Ha look, this is good.” Mary proclaims excitedly, staring across the busy highway at the cause of her excitement. Gill looks but sees nothing but cars and people. Then she recognises the sports stadium from earlier and her mind catches up and focuses on the “people”.
There is quite a crowd on the steps and they are all collected around a battered van. She can’t make out more but knows in her heart this is what she is there to see. Mary is striding fearlessly across the busy road, artfully judging the traffic, Gill follows.
Mary’s arrival is greeted enthusiastically by the slap of high fives keeping the rhythm of Yo Mama’s and greetings of shikamoo, a sign of respect. The boys appraise Gill but their focus is on the Mama handing out tea from the battered van. Mary goes over and speaks with the Mama leaving Gill standing on the steps of the sports stadium in Arusha, Tanzania with a dozen or so boys jostling around her.
In that moment she truly realises what she has taken on in her voluntary placement.
The boys are greeting her and asking where she is from, Gill nervously explains England and tries out her few words of Swahili much to the boys amusement. She instantly has a self-appointed teacher who takes charge and assumes his knowledge of English makes him her guardian! Gill smiles at him gratefully, feeling comfortable to speak some English.
“Gill, hey I need a thousand shillings.” Gill had been telling the boys consistently she had no money and was a volunteer so at first her response was to shake her head. Then she realised it was Mary speaking and fumbled in her pocket, for the little cash she had on her was deep at the base of her pockets. She had taken precautions against theft.
Gill handed over the note only half hearing Mary’s explanation and talk of the local charity and how they always contributed if they met, the words meant little to her. She was lost in the strangeness of her surroundings. She nodded and watched in awe as Mary bounded across the steps, her wide smile and generous laugh carrying cheerfulness into the night air surrounding these homeless young boys that life has discarded so freely.
The Mama from the charity is clearing her things and Gill watches as the boys voluntarily help. Once everything was packed away one of the boys holds the van door open for the Mama and guides her out onto the crowded road standing in the flow of traffic and commanding them to stop. These are street boys, not animals, and they maintain their respect.
Mary moves easily through the boys, there are eighteen or so now, her all-seeing eyes are looking for newcomers or signs of illness. Gill watches her move amongst the boys and her respect for this woman is huge, it is clear that Mary is on the boy’s wavelength.
As Gill talks awkwardly with the boys she moves around. There is a lone figure slumped on the top step, he looks vaguely familiar to her, he had refused tea and looked ill to Gill’s untrained. She sits beside him and her new friend immediately prods the slumbering boy.
“Hey Joshua, wake up man, we gotta da com pan y.” He drags out the last word to emphasise its importance.
Joshua wakes instantly, his instincts alerting him to potential danger, you don’t sleep heavily on the streets, life is too cheap. His addled brain looks around seemingly dismissing Gill but he recognises Mary. Satisfied he is safe he curls against Gill, covertly raising the glue bottle to his face and inhaling deeply. He sleeps again.
“Can you ask Mary to come here for me please?” Gill says to her new friend with no name.
“Why Madam, it no use he high lady, high. He be Ok later you see.”
“Please.” Her eyes plead with him.
He grinned and sighed as he walked toward Mary. Gill gently tried to rouse Joshua, she knows this boy. He had been the first boy she had met at the children’s home. He had been so sweet, they had introduced themselves by writing their names in the dust.
Gill was devastated to see him here. This boy was just a kid no more than nine or ten and a good kid she was sure of it.
Mary came over and immediately recognised Joshua.
“He jumped the wall last weekend Gill.” Mary shrugged. “It happens.”
Gill stood as Mary roused Joshua, she left the two of them talking quietly.
After a few minutes Mary left Joshua slumped on the top step and returned to talk with the other boys, she high fives and jostles with the best of them and playfully kickboxes with The Rapper. He is possibly the oldest of this crew. No one knows for sure. Street kids don’t have birthdays.
She was pleased to see Joshua, he had been at the home for three weeks but jumped the wall last weekend. Finding him is good, whether he chooses to come back to Moshi is a whole different ball game, that is his choice and right now he can’t even begin to think, right now he is too far under the influence of the glue. She may have to leave him here when they move on tonight, which she knows Gill won’t understand.
“Teacher, teacher,” The Rapper vies for attention from Mary. “I wanna talk with you teacher.” They move away from the cluster of boys and talk quietly.
One of the older (or is he just bigger?) boys is clearly high and getting loud and mildly forceful with Gill who no longer has her new friend for assistance. She is clearly uncomfortable with the degree of his physical contact and casual offers of sex, her discomfort shows. The Rapper looked over and barks out a command in rapid Swahili and one of the other boys comes over to drag the boy away, with a few choice slaps to reinforce the message.
“Sorry madam, sorry. He out of his head you know?” The message is clear to Gill as several of the boys come over to shake hands and apologise.
“He no good, crazy man. Too much smokey smokey you know? No good. No worries lady. We are good boys, drop-in centre is good, Teacher is good. You come from Ame ri ca?” The cheery voice and big smile draw out the last word making it sound like an exotic promised land.
Mary high fives with The Rapper and makes ready to leave her eyes watching Gill’s reaction as she realises Joshua is still asleep and would be left behind.
“He needs to sleep it off, Gill. The big boy over there, he is Peter, known as The Rapper. He’s a good kid and he says Joshua wants to come back to Amani. Peter will keep an eye on him and when he wakes, he will tell him where to find us. It is all we can do for now.”
Mary’s words sound harsh but her heart cannot break anymore, she has to be hard,. It is a necessary part of her work and she loves her work. Deep down she hates to walk away but The Rapper is a good kid he will sort Joshua out. Mary reflects on her conversation with The Rapper, he has told her of a new kid on the streets and she is keen to find him. The sooner they can find the new kids the more chance of rescuing them they have.
“Joshua wants to come back wid you Teacher, he good boy but the glue, it be getting him quick, so take him with you now Teacher.” The Rapper’s eyes had sought Mary’s and she had read the pain there, she sees the last tendrils of hope fading for this boy. As if sensing her thoughts he adds defensively. “I come next week Teacher, take Joshua now.”
“Next week, Peter,” she always uses his given name. “I’ll talk to Joshua when he wakes but you know the rules man. It’s an open door, it’s up to him.” She shrugs her shoulders.
Next week. She and he know, for Peter the Rapper, next week never comes.
The Rapper had been on the streets for years when he had first been found and brought to the children’s home, he had been plain Peter then.
Peter’s story was sad but not uncommon. He tried and tried to settle into the discipline and routine that is critical to the smooth running of the home but he simply couldn’t adapt. He had been a natural student and talked of his dreams to be a Doctor and help people like his Mum, who he had nursed as she died from HIV.
But he just couldn’t hack it and jumped the wall several times, each time he came back the signs of glue addiction were stronger, the damage to his brain and learning abilities bit deeper and his hopes and dreams grew weaker. Street kids forget how to dream.
Mary and Gill leave the stadium steps and Joshua behind them.
Will they see Joshua later?