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.
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?
Chapter Two – Into the night
Mary and Gill don’t speak as they leave the stadium steps behind. Mary chatters and laughs with the boys accompanying them and Gill tries to do the same. The weight of the unspoken “what if?” bears down on both of them.
“What if Peter doesn’t persuade Joshua to find us?”
Mary paused at the bridge and gazed down thoughtfully to the boy’s hidey hole below. This was the territory of some of the hard-core, long time street kids.
“We will head out to the bus Station Gill, let’s see if we can’t find this new kid.” Her tone was firm, her decision made. She would return to the bridge tomorrow night when her volunteer charge was back in the safety and comfort of the home.
As in cities all over the world the bus station is a hub of activity and a likely spot for the homeless to gather. The local traders recognise Mary and their respect for her is clear. Wherever she goes she brings a feeling of camaraderie and understanding.
Mary is quickly distracted as a group of older boys point to the new kid; she heads over to him leaving Gill talking with the boys.
“Soccer Madam, we likey de soccer.” One of the older boys had finally understood Gill’s question and he freely translated for the boys.
“Ahhh, OK. So Manchester United?” Gill offered.
Two words: and the conversation was transformed. The boys were cat calling and high fives went around with gusto. In the ensuing gabble Gill realised she had started a debate. She grinned, feeling more comfortable: this was the same the world over. Men, boys whatever, get them onto football and they will argue for their team for hours. Catching some of the references flying about, she tries again.
Now the boys focus on her, their eyes show their shock.
Gills grins foolishly, she’s in! For five minutes she is the centre of the boy’s attention as they throw names and teams at her testing her knowledge, high fives and comfortable slaps on the back are her rewards when she recognises something correctly. She could be stood at a bar in any sports club in England on a Saturday night she thinks. Then she guiltily remembers Joshua and looks again at her surroundings. As she stands amidst some of the least respected of the world’s population her thoughts focus on the harsh realities of life.
“In a bar in England the guys discussing football would have pints of beer in their hands, not bottles of glue hidden in their sleeves.”
Mary returns pleased to find Gill more relaxed and at ease. She catches Gill’s eye and nods across the busy station, they are on the move.
“What’s the new boy’s story Mary?” Gill catches up to Mary, keen to hear and understand. Mary stops and turns to Gill her face serious.
“Elisante’s story?” She looks around the bus station her eyes sad and her shoulders slumped. “Abuse, hunger, death in the family, HIV, no roof on the family home. Elisante’s story is the same as all of their stories Gill. When and if we get him to the home we can find out more but for now he says he is from a remote farming village outside Arusha and that his mother’s new partner chased him out of the home when he returned after school with no money to contribute.”
The smile returns as suddenly as it had left and Mary straightens up as she turns away.
“OK let’s see who is hiding over there, waiting for the late bus to arrive from Dar.”
They move on and Gill sees the truth in Mary’s earlier words. The boys always report new kids. They want to see Mary help them. despite some of them being beyond the help of the centre. The street traders also tell of any newcomer they see, even the shoe shine men who are the source of the boys glue habit, even they will talk and tell.
As they walk, talk and mix with these boys, Gill forgets her earlier fears and worries, nasty words like dangerous delinquents no longer haunt her thoughts. She is sad to realise street kids are an issue that nobody wants, certainly not the kids, they mostly dream of a better life. Generally they are good kids begging for a break and the way they trail alongside “teacher” vying for her attention is proof of this.
The night has closed in around them and time has passed quickly, suddenly Mary hustles Gill into a taxi and it is time to leave. Gill winds down the taxi window calling out as they leave.
“Tomorrow, kesho. At the drop in centre, yeah?” Her eyes are misty as the taxi pulls away, her words a plea not a question.
“Ok Gill, so now we go back to hotel and get some food, yeah?” Mary turns in the front seat to face Gill.
“Uhuh, yeah OK. But we didn’t see Joshua?”
“Not tonight, no we didn’t but maybe in the morning.” Mary holds onto the latest news she has received from one of Peter’s boys sent to find her at the bus station earlier.
There had been an incident. Joshua had received a beating and was making his way to the Red Cross Centre seven kilometres outside town where they would tend his wounds for free. Mary sighed, the details were unclear but she understood it had not been other boys. This meant either the local police or worse still the sungu sungu, local vigilante groups set on ridding the streets of the boys they consider a nuisance and threat to safety. She was not about to introduce Gill this level of the issues tonight.
As they slowly drive down the bumpy backstreet to the hotel Mary points out the street girls they had seen earlier. No more than kids, lined up and waiting to be chosen outside the bars and cafés. Girls on the streets are either taken as house maids, often forcibly and kept as slaves, or put to work selling their tiny bodies to satisfy the needs of men often old enough to be their fathers.
The two women head into the hotel’s bar area where the television plays a music channel with cheerful, happy sounds. They had pre ordered their chicken suppers before leaving for the streets, clearly the staff here are familiar with Mary’s routine on such occasions.
“All the boys have stories, Gill. You will need to accept that. Of course it is important to understand the issues surrounding the reasons the boys are on the streets but you cannot get caught in each individual story. It will tear you up and make your time here harder and you must share your time and caring with them all, not a select few whose story has gotten into your heart.” Mary’s words were kind and clearly formed through experience.
“It’s just that,” Gill paused pushing the food on her plate around. She had lost her appetite. “I would have paid for a room for Joshua. Really.” She sounded petulant, like a child who has been refused something they want.
“And Elisante?” Mary looked hard into Gill’s eyes. “And Peter? And Hamisi, the boy who was hassling you earlier?” Mary picked up her chicken biting into the flesh of the drumstick and tearing it away into her mouth forcefully.
“Yeah, Hamisi too. Just because he isn’t small with a cute smile it doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the same treatment as Joshua. Get it?”
“I’m sorry Mary. You must hate having to do this with the volunteers, you have so much else to do and we must be a burden” Gill smiled at Mary and picked up her own chicken. Somewhere deep inside she knew Mary was right.
“Hey, no. Don’t ever think that. What you guys do is amazing. We all respect that you give your time like this. But you, Gill, I can see you heading for trouble if you get too caught up in individual stories. You cannot rescue the world, Gill. We can only do what we can do. Pole pole, slowly slowly.”
Gill laughed and the mood lightened, she had heard these words before. Her friends back home had all said the same to her. You can’t change the world, be happy to make a difference to just one child at a time.
After the meal Mary stood to leave, a friend waiting to accompany her back to her room at the drop in centre. The two women had talked music and love lives and swapped stories of their different cultures.
“Eight o’clock Gill, at the drop in centre, OK?” Mary asked her head cocked to one side and her eyes asking more than her words.
Gill stood making a decision.
“Yeah, chill out Mary. I can find my way, I promise. I’m nowhere near as fragile as you think! I will be fine.”
Mary laughed and held her hand up for a high five. As she reached the door she looked back, she too had made a decision.
“Come half an hour early and I will share a story with you, not Joshua’s but Peter’s. But if you come early, you promise that Peter’s story will represent all the boy’s stories equally, OK?”
“Thanks Mary, I really appreciate that and I will be there.” Gill smiles and makes to leave to go to her room. She turned back at the last moment and called out over her shoulder. “Oh and OK. I promise.”
Chapter Three – Peter’s story
“Peter’s story.” Mary sighs and slumps onto the bench seat next to me, she is holding a tatty exercise book and is gently caressing the cover lovingly.
“This is Peter’s story in Peter’s words, he would draw images to answer our questions about his home, that was six years ago when he could still remember and felt the motivation to share.” Mary was flicking through the pages of the exercise book giving Gill fleeting glimpses of crayoned images, some stark and brutal, others happy and sunny. “Nowadays Peter won’t look at the book let alone draw in it.” Mary suddenly stands and walks into the office her hands fluttering to her face, her breathing deep and ragged. Gill picks up the book and stares at the first page, a huge sun, the age old child’s image of a house, same the world over it seems, and a family, clearly Mum, Dad and a little girl.
“Peter was happy at home?” Gill’s question greets Mary as she returns and she silently acknowledges Mary’s unexpected show of emotion, clasping her hand in hers and giving it a squeeze as she sits back down.
“Yeah, Peter lived in a remote farm outside Dar es Salaam. He had two older brothers both of whom had left to work in the diamond mines, neither returned home to help their parents. His sister, Habiba,” Mary points to the girl and looks Gill in the eye. “That means loved by the way. Was two years younger than Peter and his best friend in the world.”
The two women sat at the bench in the quiet of the morning, as the boys arrived they looked in and offered their respects then left the women alone as they went to the back to start the process of getting clean for the first time this week.
Peter and Habiba had attended the local primary school although Peter remembers wearing his older brother’s trousers which were too big for him and he had to keep hitching them up. The farm his parent’s owned was struggling. Peter’s father met a business man who offered to buy several hectares of land for what was later to be discovered half its value. The deal depended on Peter’s father then paying a rent to work the land he had sold and an agreement to sell the produce to the businessman at an agreed very low price. Neighbours had supplied the details of the deal and all agreed Peter’s father, a good, honest, hardworking farmer had been completely duped by the slick words and fancy car of the businessman. He had brought the family gifts and presented himself as a friend. Once the deal was done he reverted to his true colours and even took back the gifts he had brought.
Mary had turned the page and here was an angry image. Reds and blacks dominated the page and the image showed a huge man with a scary face grabbing at a doll the young Habiba was trying to hold onto. It was clearly an unfair tug of war between an adult and child, there were tear drops flying from the girls face.
Habiba was pulled out of school first; she was needed to help with the chores as Peter’s father spent more and more time in the nearby town looking for extra work.
Peter’s uncle arrived at the farm with his wife and their three children. They were victims of a large corporate land deal which is widely publicised as having forcibly evicted over 200,000 people from their homes. This put further stress on the struggling farm, it was now supporting eleven people as Peter’s grandparents were already part of the family unit.
Peter’s father and uncle left for the mines. It was the only choice. The image here shows Peter and Habiba holding hands with their Mother as they waved goodbye and balloons from their mouths called out their farewells. There was no sun in that image.
Life quickly changed, Peter was pulled out of school to work the land three days a week. Months later at harvest time his father returned, clearly unwell but home to help with the harvest none the less. The image now showed Peter’s father bent over and his face bore the crude slashes of a child’s image of pain, Peter’s mother’s face had lost its sunny smile but not Habiba, she alone was smiling.
Mary continued with the tale of Peter’s father’s death at the mine soon after his return to help with the harvest. The news had taken two weeks to reach the family. Tanzanian inheritance laws and family ties quickly dominated the story and Mary explained this information had been gathered many years later when they had first met Peter and had travelled with him back to his home.
Peter’s uncle returned to the farm and claimed it and Peter’s mother as his own. He demanded Peter’s mother take him as her husband and relinquish rights to the farm with his own first born boy taking preference over Peter. Peter’s mother refused and tried to hold onto her self-respect and home.
“This next is the start of the end for Peter and so many kids like him. Remember Gill this is every street kid’s story.” Mary smiled ruefully. “Peter said that you know?” her head cocked to one side and her eyes glazed with the memory. “Yeah, back when he still dreamed, he told me one day, that when he was a doctor he would find the words to match the pictures and give the story to everyone he could find that was driving a flash car and wearing a shiny suit, so that they would know what they had done.”
Mary sighed and stretched a she continued.
“When I asked him what he hoped the men in the flash cars would do with his story, he said simply, stop doing it. He told me that they had done this to every single boy on the street, he said the men in the flash cars and shiny suits hadn’t just destroyed his father but every street kid’s father.”
The next picture took up a double page and was penned starkly in varying degrees of harsh blackness created solely with a black colouring pencil.
It showed Peter with his backpack being pulled from his back and the school books thrown around the farm with pages fluttering in the air. Peter with his hands held out, palms up, empty, a clear gesture of showing he had nothing. Mary pointed to Peter’s trousers, hanging loosely round the tiny stick frame, the pockets were turned out. The picture showed Habiba, small and crying now, her face turned into her mother’s skirts and the super-sized tear drops flying all around. Peter’s mother was bent over and old looking. Peter’s uncle, the one demanding money and grabbing at the backpack was a frenzied image of blackness with stick legs and arms identifying it as a man. The hands on the stick arms were huge and evoked images of violence in the two women’s minds. The face was indistinguishable except for the two eyes, glinting with evil intent from within the blackness.
Peter had been chased off the farm and made for the nearest town, lost and lonely. He had quickly found refuge with a couple of street kids who recognised him as fresh on the streets and befriended him hoping he would have access to money or something they could sell. In the end it had been his brother’s hand me down trainers that bought his inclusion into the night spots and allowed him to take his first sniff of glue.
Mary explained that Peter wouldn’t talk much about the early times on the streets, except to tell of his sneak visits home to see Habiba, they met on the outskirts of the farm’s territory where the now abandoned and cowless cowshed sat. She would sneak out bread from her own meagre rations and they always shared this together. The images portrayed of these trysts always had a huge sun and many colours, Habiba was always smiling.
Habiba never told Peter of their mother’s sadness or the escalating violence she faced or if she did Peter never told the Social Worker’s.
“His relationship with his mother had been an intense and loving one and when he was forced to leave it must have torn him apart but he wouldn’t talk of this.” Mary explained. “He must have known that his mother was now being labelled as a witch and accused of killing his father by giving him HIV. This would have been common talk on the street, but he never refers to it.”
Suddenly the image on the page shows a family reunited, Gill gasps, hey a happy ending she thinks fleetingly before the reality of the case hit her. A happy, sunny page, again double sides of the book, Mum, Peter and Habiba walking together along a road leading to …
The three figures have their back to Gill and Mary but Habiba’s head is turned and they can see the start of a big smile. The road they travel disappears into a happy distance or so it seems.
“The yellow brick road,” Gill muses. “Never mind Mary, so what has happened? Where are they going?”
Mary filled in the gaps: they were headed for Dar es Salaam. Peter’s mother was in fear for her safety and felt the only choice was to leave and seek a new life for her and her kids in Dar. She had a cousin who was there and she hoped the rough address she had would be enough.
The cousin was located and took the tired, hungry, trio in. Habiba was quickly put to work, Peter’s mother shown how to scrape together a few meagre shillings working long hours as a street vendor selling fish and Peter was ignored. A rent for one room in the house was agreed and their new life began.
Peter quickly found the street boys in Dar, or maybe they found him, Mary had explained.
“From here Gill, I will tell you Peter’s mother’s story, all the mother’s stories are not so fortunate many of the boys mothers were born on the streets themselves. But it is Peter’s mother’s story as we now know it that set Peter off on the long journey from Dar es Salaam to Arusha. He came looking for us.” Mary continued the story.
Peter’s mother could not survive on the meagre income from selling fish. Her friends had told of her accepting offers of help from several men, but always on a business level. Her friend explained these relationships as having been Peter’s mother small business and that she had accepted the fact that sometimes she was beaten and unpaid as a hazard of that business. Apparently she tried to select just three men but that had been hard as, her friend had told us, men are unreliable. Eventually Peter’s mother decided to move downtown where the choice of “boyfriends” may be better and it would eliminate her having to travel. She had formed a friendship with another woman and negotiated a deal to share her house. In reality she stopped her street vendor work and the boyfriend business grew. She became sick quickly.
Mary turned the pages of the book and there was a crude bed, a prone figure being fed from a spoon by Peter and Habiba looking on, her smile faint.
“So Peter was still living with his mother?” Gill asked.
“Sometimes, it depended. Often his mother’s friend would chase him off telling him to bring money or food or both. He was forming close alliances on the streets and we suspect it was around this time he became initiated into one of the hard core street gangs.”
“Initiated?” Gill asked.
Mary sighed and looked around wistfully.
“Another time Gill, Peter’s mother for now.” Mary left Gill to her own sad conclusions and continued the tragic tale that was so familiar to her.
As his mother’s health deteriorated so the need for money increased. Peter brought home money but never said how. His mother’s friend took charge of every shilling and Peter and Habiba were left trying to care for their mother. They were both at her bedside when she died.
Surprisingly to Gill, when Mary turned the page, it was not a black and brutal image but rather a subdued and yet colourful one. It showed another farewell in Peter’s life and Gill suddenly remembered that Peter had been no more than eight at this time.
“Peter left?” Gill asked incredulously.
“One of the boys on the streets had told a story of his brother’s friend who had hidden in the back of a truck heading out of Dar and en-route for Arusha. This boy, so the story went, was picked up in Arusha by white mzungu’s and taken to a children’s home where he was fed, washed and sent to school. The story goes on to depict this boy as now being a successful business man and driving a big car.” Mary smiled.
“This boy came to you?” Gill said excitedly her longing for happy endings alive again.
“We don’t even know if the story were true or not but the point is Peter believed it. He knew his sister could not join him on the streets and he wanted to find a home for her. He was content to return to Dar or settle in Arusha and live on the streets as long as these fabled Mzungu’s, who were clearly volunteers like you, would look after Habiba.” Mary looked at her watch and closed the book.
“That is how we first met Peter, all of six years ago. A small, determined boy who cared for nothing but his best friend in the world, Habiba his sister.” Mary stood and placed the book on the end of the bench. “Maybe Peter will look at it today and tell us both some more of his story.”
Gill didn’t think Mary believed her own words one little bit and she remained as Mary left to check on the boys. Now she lovingly caressed the cover of the tatty exercise book that symbolised every one of the boy’s stories.
Chapter Four – Habiba’s Story
Gill sat with the book on her lap for a long time, no energy left to turn the pages and face the heartache and unfairness of one small boy’s life that represented so clearly the lives of so many small children living on the streets, forgotten and discarded by society.
Later, when she had returned to what was now her new home for the next half a year she had pursued the rest of the story from the Social Work team and anyone who had or still has contact with Peter.
Peter had learned some of the tricks of the trade whilst living on the streets and he hitched rides and walked the long and harsh journey to Arusha. On arrival he was immediately identified as a new but one who bore the look of not being a newcomer to the streets. This made him a threat to the crews of long-term hard-core street boys. Maybe he came looking for a new territory. His first few days in Arusha were brutal and hard, the law of the streets dictates that the strongest always win and Peter had been beaten severely by one crew of boys but stubbornly refused to submit and give them his allegiance. Peter was quoted in one report as has having explained:
“It’s OK I was the new kid in a new town, I hadn’t proved myself here. Hey man, life on the streets has to have some order you know?”
The report stated he had shrugged his shoulders almost nonchalantly.
“They don’t see me, they just see a piece of s*** who’s all alone. It doesn’t always have to be other street boys,” he told one Social Worker later when asked about this time. “Guards, police, whatever … I’m just a piece of s*** to them.”
He was focussed on finding these white rescuers the boys in Dar had spoken about and the network of street vendors, kids and workers at the bus station soon identified him to the Social Work team from the nearby centre for street kids in Moshi.
On arrival at the centre he had explained he wanted them to take his sister and care for her, he had come looking for them or someone like them. He was documented as being young, aloof but respectful and highly focused on his sister. The decision was reached, Peter could not be helped without first helping him to resolve the issue of Habiba. The Social Work team also knew the chances of a positive resolution to this were slim. They agreed to take him back to Dar.
On arrival at Dar es Salaam the report quotes:
As we stepped off the bus I watched Peter change, his body language took on typical evidence of aggression and power. He suddenly adopted a loping, rhythmical walk as if he were listening to a private music channel. He looked around, wary but confident. He was back on home turf and he wanted the street boys to know this.
They returned to where Peter and Habiba had lived with his mother, where they learned that Habiba had gone to work as a house maid for “a man”. Peter’s mother’s friend was evasive and unfriendly; clearly Habiba had either been pushed out or maybe sold for a bag of rice or beans. There was no trace of her.
Peter’s reaction had been one of quiet shock and horror, his life had clearly lost all meaning. He was taken straight back to Moshi, the Social Worker wanted him to be cared for emotionally at the centre. He had grave concerns re his mental state after the news. Peter was described as being “too quiet”, the anger was there but not showing yet.
The Social Worker returned to Dar es Salaam to locate Peter’s extended family and try to find word of Habiba, what he learned there, together with Peter’s story book pieced together events previously told.
Peter jumped the wall and left the centre after a week or ten days, the anger had still not manifested itself and he had been sullen and unfriendly with the other kids, try as they might the care givers could not get through the emotional wall he had created around himself. He had given up little information in this time apart from lies. The kids often made up stories when they first arrived at the centre, it was a defence mechanism, trust isn’t given easily or quickly. The kids want the food and clothes from the centre, the centre wants their story to enable reunification, so the kids create a story hoping everyone will be happy.
“That’s not telling lies,” Gill had tried to explain. “That’s just fibbing.” She had quickly given up trying to show the difference, life in Tanzania is simple, if one word covers it, why have two or three?
Peter had returned to Arusha where he was quickly lost in the depths of street life. He ran away every time one of the Social Workers from the centre saw him. But they never gave up on him. They kept looking and they kept listening to reports of him, he was respected amongst the kids and his friends talked of “no-one messes with Peter’s friends”.
It was a year before Peter started to talk to the Social Worker’s and a further month before he agreed to return to the centre. It was at this time that he started to tell his story via the pictures. Over the next year or so he jumped the wall five times and each time he returned he had slipped a little further, his dreams had faded more and the light in his eyes had dulled.
Gill learned of the violence that the Social worker’s believe Peter had experienced on the streets, they knew he had been the victim of a gang rape initiation at some point, probably early on in Dar. He had only told of it once but his attitude led them to believe he felt that it had made him stronger on the streets, a man.
Like all the kids from the streets Peter’s attitude to sex was dismissive. His direct contact with HIV through his mother left him aware of the issues but he dissociated any risks to himself from any sexual activity in his life. There are corrupt and inexplicable people that have used Peter and all of these kids in such a way that they are left with little or no respect for their bodies. Street kids’ bodies are just an asset.
Today, Peter is back on the streets, he is a leader of sorts and he tries to look after his crew, he maintains contact with the centre and is a regular at the drop-in centre, where he can at least wash and clean himself two or three times a week. He shows no interest in painting or drawing pictures that the centre can then sell to raise funds, despite his clear creative ability. He does sometimes sit and make beaded jewellery with the others but usually he just hangs out watching.
As Mary had told Gill before.
“You can’t save them all. We just have to do what we can do. But Peter and all the others like him will always be a part of our ethos; we will never give up on him.” Gill looked at Mary sadly nodding her head at the truth of Mary’s words. Finally after a few moments of silence Gill summed it all up.
“Yeah, but Peter has given up on Peter.”
Chapter Five – Back at Arusha
Back at the drop-in centre Gill sat caressing the cover of the book that now represented all the kid’s stories to her. She still had lots to learn about Peter and that would come later but for today she was in Arusha, emotionally wired and still thinking of Joshua.
Joshua – her first link to the world of street kids; Joshua – sat on the dusty step at the centre smiling and laughing at her first day enthusiasm as she tried to pronounce the weird Swahili words with him. Joshua – curled tight in a ball asleep on the steps of the stadium, a hand curled protectively over his head. Joshua – waking with bleary, lacklustre eyes dulled by the glue he covertly sniffed at as he gazed round the stadium steps disoriented. Joshua – the desperate boy left to sleep on the streets whilst Gill and Mary left him behind as they headed for the comfort of their beds.
“God bless you Mary, and all of you,” she mused as she stood. “One thing I know. I could never do your job. Thank heavens you can.” She takes a deep breath and heads outside to find Mary and the boys.
There is no sign of Mary, so Gill wanders around to the laundry area where she stops, suddenly embarrassed as she realises that washing their clothes leaves the boy’s semi naked. They ignore her and continue their banter and chatter. Then one of the boys heads towards her, he is pulling his wet trousers on as he walks and the other boys are clearly cross with him in some way.
“Madam please, no possible washy washy.” He is pointing at his crotch and explaining something in Swahili.
Gill is frozen on the spot unsure what to say or do. She has no idea what he is saying other than he doesn’t want to wash his private parts, that much is graphically clear. She worries about the soaking trousers he has put on but is too confused to act. He gives up on her and returns to the crowd shouting and arms flying. To her relief Gill watches as takes off the wet trousers tying his hoodie around his midriff as he walks out to the front of the building and lays the trousers on the grass to dry. Gill follows him and relief floods over her as she sees Mary and watches the boy explain the issue to her.
Mary listens and the start of a grin keeps trying to escape her control and form on her lips. Her eyes reflect her amusement, but her body language is pure sympathy as she settles the clearly distressed youth. He turns to go back to the laundry area, scowling at Gill as he passes.
“He cannot wash himself down there Gill,” Mary explains, the mischievous grin now fully exposed. “He was telling you that he had his ritual circumcision last week. There was four or five of the boys from one of the larger tribes, they all went back to their village for the ceremony.”
Gill nods the words swirling in her head, circumcision, ritual, ceremony? To her circumcision was something that happened in the first few months of tiny baby boy’s life. Not in their teens? It happened in a hospital with clean white uniforms and sympathetic hands and eyes. Not the imagery of a ceremony or ritual somewhere out in the bush of this dry dusty land.
“Come on Gill, help me make chai,” Mary is laughing at her confusion good-naturedly. “I think you could do with it.”
The morning passes quickly, Gill sees that most of the boys from last night arrive at the centre, including Hamisi and Gill cringes inside when she sees he remembers her. Memories of his stark offers of sex and pleas for money ring in her ears and she avoids him.
The drop in centre tries to teach the boys skills and encourages them to draw or paint or make beaded jewellery. This latter is under the guidance of Godwilling, an older boy who trained at the vocational college after completing his primary school education at the centre but not having achieved the grades to continue education. He then went onto vocational college with the centre’s sponsorship and support. He now lives at home with his brother and leads a life away from the streets. He is trying to build enough stock of jewellery, hats and trinkets to furnish a shop or stall. This is his and the centre’s business plan for the future. He works quickly and skilfully, clearly taking pride in his craft, the boys respect him and copy him as he shows them how to make necklaces and bracelets.
Gill fumbles and struggles as she also tries to thread the tiny beads onto an invisible piece of thread! The boys laugh at her efforts, the mood is cheerful. But the unasked question hangs heavy in the air around Gill. Joshua …
Mary takes the boys individually or in pairs and talks to them about the dangers of casual sex, HIV and alcohol and glue. She is earnest and empathetic and Gill watches her as she works. In her thoughts Mary is troubled, she knows that Gill will ask about Joshua and she still carries the burden of the facts undisclosed so far.
The news this morning was that Joshua returned from the hospice outside town in the middle of the night with a bandage on his head and a fresh bottle of glue. It seems the skirmish of the night before had not relieved him of the money Mary had given him for food. He had refused to sleep with Peter and the crew. Instead he had settled close by but remained aloof. Peter had told Mary that this morning Joshua had risen early and was gone when he had woken. Peter had again emphasised that Joshua was falling under the spell of the glue quickly. Peter also bore the marks of the attack from the night before, his eye was swollen and black, and his skinny body bore the imprint of boot marks. Peter would not disclose the details but others had said Peter stayed and took the brunt of the beating letting the others take the few seconds to escape. Joshua had been the victim of a rock being thrown at the group in general.
“The Rapper takes care of us man, you know?”
Mary and Godwilling exchanged a few words in Swahili and the boys started to pack up their handicraft. Gill approached Mary looking at her watch.
“You are closing up?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“Yeah, that’s it for another week Gill.” Mary was smiling but her eyes were sad.
“Until next Wednesday, right?” Still Gill persisted in asking questions she knew the answer to. “ So, Saturday, Sunday, Monday …” she counted off the days. “Five nights on the streets without help or guidance. You must have to start all over again every week. Wow!”
Mary sighed and thrust a broom in Gill’s hand.
“We want to be open seven days a week,” she draws water from the tap into a bucket with bleach. “Money, always money.” She laughs and leaves it at that.
Gill sweeps and Mary follows behind mopping the rooms ready for next week. Suddenly there is a commotion outside and the two women look up from their chores. Gill drops the broom and goes to move forward then stops.
“Hey teacher,” the voice is confident and cheery but the eyes do not smile. they are veiled and dulled.
Joshua stands on the step his palm up waiting for a high-five.
Chapter Six – Joshua
Gill and Mary were both grinning like Cheshire cats, Joshua just stood there waiting for the expected reception, which he duly received.
“Oh my God, Joshua your head what happened?” Gill turned to Mary in confusion, her eyes taking in the bloody, dirty bandage on Joshua’s forehead.
“There was an incident Gill,” Mary is inspecting Joshua’s wounds and her words are dismissive. They brook no discussion. “Joshua here had a fight with a rock.” She tousled his hair and sends him outside to wait with the other kids. “Come on let’s get this done and grab the bus back.”
Sweeping finished, Gill left Mary to finish up and went outside to see where Joshua was. The boys immediately came over and started chatting and she sensed they were distracting her from the back of the building. She stood her ground and watched. The boys were furtively disappearing out the back one by one, she followed and the remaining boys called out a warning. Joshua comes forward and tries to intercept her, he smiles at her winningly, come lady you are my friend, he says. She is not distracted and finds them sharing a bottle of glue. Her efforts to retrieve the bottle are in vain and she quickly seeks the help of Godwilling.
As Godwilling handles the situation and removes the glue, it is obvious that Joshua is the culprit. He brought the glue to the centre. The disappointment Gill feels in Joshua is personal. How could he be so disrespectful, how could he bring glue here of all places? But mostly Gill is hurt by the slyness of his attempts to distract her discovering the glue. His innocent and tiny face turned up to hers as he had clutched her hand declaring friendship. This hurt Gill the most.
Godwilling separates him from the others but it is already too late, the damage is done and he curls up and sleeps on the front porch. Gill watches as Godwilling expertly checks his clothes, feeling the hems and pockets for any other substances.
Disheartened, tired and emotionally drained Gill tagged along with Mary and Godwilling as they made for the bus station. Mary was happy they had two boys with them, Joshua and Elisante, the new kid Mary had found at the bus station last night. Joshua was dragging his feet and stumbling as he clutched Gill’s hand, his eyes showing clearly that he was still lost to the real world.
The bus journey back to Moshi only added to Gill’s emotional turmoil and physical exhaustion. She would tell friends later it was probably one of the worst two hours journeying of her long and varied life! The bus was hot and overcrowded and Gill had the misfortune to be seated on the rear bench seat with the heat of the engine searing up through the metal seat and the thin tatty cushion and directly onto her rear end. Similarly her legs were being slowly roasted from below. To top it all, the makeshift aisle seat in front of her is broken and so the lady in front’s full weight is resting across Gill’s knees. she had a straight black bruise across both legs for days after.
Joshua slept most of the way back his skinny body contorted into a ball on the back seat next to Gill. She envied his tiny frame that allowed comfort in these cramped conditions.
Finally, back at the centre and Joshua’s reception is without castigation. There is genuine pleasure among the staff. Gill watches, confused and upset at her own sense of betrayal.
Will Joshua or Elisante make it through the system that is Amani and graduate from school?
Will Joshua or Elisante turn out to be a natural scholar and be awarded a funded place at a private secondary school or will they attend the local school under Amani’s sponsorship?
Or will they, like Godwilling, not prove to be natural scholars and move onto vocational training.
Or maybe, like Peter they just won’t be able to give up the freedom of the streets. The emotional and physical abuse of their past may have damaged them to a point where they cannot respond to the strictures of the Amani process.
They may jump the wall and be lost.
All that is known for sure is that Amani will not give up on them.
RESCUING CHILDREN, RESTORING HOPE, TRANSFORMING LIVES
Gill stands at the gates looking up at the sign above the door. Finally she accepts what the first part of that statement means and knows that if she can’t understand and accept Joshua’s behaviour she should turn round now and call it quits.
She stands making her decision and as she looks around and watches the day-to-day happy routine around her she thinks about Part Two, Restoring Hope.
She decides to be a part of that story and smiles as she walks up the steps into the hallway. She will try to help Joshua and Elisante make it. She will try to help every single child she has contact with make it.
She will try to help restore hope.