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24 JANUARY 2001
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street kids

The Alternative Africa: Street children in Ghana

Part One of a presentation by Father Patrick Shanahan at a seminar at the University of Zimbabwe, exploring the realities of street children in Africa. Part Two is included in the February 2001 issue of CYC-Online.

"You don’t know much and that’s a fact." – Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Kwame’s story
Let me put a face on the Alternative Africa. His real name is not Kwame, but he is a real child. His story shows how a child in a village can finish up on the streets of Accra. His village is about 70 kms north of the capital. He was in Junior High School, Class 1. He was 14 years old. He knew that his father, who had no real farm of his own and who worked for a big cocoa farmer whenever there was work available, was in severe trouble in paying school fees. Three times Kwame had taken home a note from the headmaster. He knew what was in the note. In Ghana if you don’t pay you are excluded from school. He knew that there would be no fourth note. He knew that the following Friday he would be told “Stay at home". He spoke to some schoolmates. He borrowed some money and at 4 o'clock on the Thursday morning of that week he walked the eight miles to the bigger village which had a lorry station, bound eventually for Accra. He arrived in Accra on the Thursday night – alone, tired, utterly confused. He was still a village boy. He slept in the lorry park on the north side of Accra that night and in the morning he looked around for anyone who might speak his language or come from his district.

Within the first week he discovered that the streets are rough. He was beaten by other street boys, by city guards and by police. By the end of the first week he had found three other boys from his area, just a little older, and he joined them and 200 others in their street dormitory area. This is an open courtyard, and is what can best be described by those who know Charles Dickens as a Fagin's kitchen.

His first job didn’t come for ten days and, on the street with so little money around, solidarity in caste terms is something of a dream world created by novelists and film makers when they confront the problem of street children. Kwame was in reality alone, hungry, and still a village boy. He got a job as a refuse carrier in the markets, which meant that he worked at 3 o'clock in the morning, at 11 o'clock in the morning, and at 6 o'clock in the evening, but he started to earn some cash. He also started to learn that on the street you hit first and talk afterwards. He discovered the power of a gang (called a “base" in Accra). He became sexually active. He tried marijuana but didn’t like it, so he settled for the odd snatch at the local hard liquor. Within a month he was angling to become a shoe shine boy. He was by then a street boy. The village had gone. He had joined the Alternative Africa. He was, and is, a person of the new subculture, of the new ethnicity.

Today Kwame is a shoe shine boy. He thinks seriously from time to time of getting an apprenticeship, but now as a shoe shine boy he earns enough to eat well on the street, to be a minder of a girl two years younger than him (he is now sixteen). He is our friend and we, at CAS, hope that we reciprocate that. He is a new African.

I am aware that such a label may seem to fall into the trap that Judith Ennew warns us about in her article in Africa Insight. (1996, Volume 26,No 3, page 204). She says “it is difficult to see what, apart from geography, makes a Cairo shoe shine boy, a 10-year old domestic servant in Lagos, an Afrikaans schoolboy and an Ethiopian youngster herding camels, fall under the same rubric of The African Child."

We would have to agree, given such a group. But the rubric of new African in my terms comes from the streets, from the cities. It comes from urban, and I think all over our continent today we have the absolute need to be aware of what the urban world can do to our children.

Street children are here on our streets. They have rights and needs. We have to be open-minded and flexible in our dealings and alliances with them. In the words of the late Fr Arnold Grol, writing in 1983 about street children in Nairobi, we have to show them “affection, care, service and love". It is only in that way, says Grol, “that you can start having a real human and brotherly relationship with them. Without respect and affection you cannot have a lasting influence on these children." I think it is there that we would concur fully with Ennew in recognising that children are individuals.

Fifteen years on from the article which acted as an apologia by Arnold Grol, Catholic Action for Street Children (CAS) in Accra tries to react in the same way. Its partner organisation, Street Girls Aid (SAID) does the same but with particular reference to the girl child who is in serious trouble on the streets. CAS and SAID, started in 1993 and 1994 respectively, are two local NGOs working on the streets with street children. I will return to these two programmes in the part of this paper which deals with the evaluation of policies employed by government and non-government agencies in Accra.

Life on the streets
Criticism, like charity, begins at home. To me and to many of you present at this seminar I have to say that as social scientists in Africa we have been, and still are, exceedingly slow at acknowledging that street children are here. Surely we have to admit that this is not a very happy situation. The children are not going anywhere, least of all away. They have come to stay.

When I was a young priest in northern Ghana I had to learn local languages and customs and I was told for the first year of my work to look and listen and learn, but not to speak. And yet as social scientists we do not want to look or listen or learn and we are very quick to talk about street children. They are a new culture. Some say “subculture". I used that phrase myself initially. Now I say they are part of the new Africa, the Alternative Africa. If “culture" upsets you, then they are part of the new ethnicity, but again it is no use as social scientists to seethe impotently about “terrible" situations on the streets. We need to look for resolutions to some of the problems.

Let us examine two factors that go into the make up of Kwame. Our children are arriving on our city streets because of a combination of poverty and the breakdown of traditional family structures. My colleague in Accra maintains that the main reason for children arriving on the streets is the breakdown of the family structure. However, I see the sheer poverty of their situation as the prime cause. Our urbanisation levels in Africa ensure that rural poverty is transferred to our streets with mindnumbing regularity and rapidity.

Secondly, we need to ask: “Who are these Kwames?" We all know the classic divisions of children “on the street" and children “of the street". I have no wish to get embroiled in academic arguments of whether or not our approach to our children has been dominated by Latin American models. I prefer to leave that to senior academics like Ennew, Riuini, Ebin and Diaw. I have to say that I have never felt threatened or dominated by any of the Latin American thinking about children on the streets. I find, for example, that people mis-use Paulo Freire and fail to see that he was one of the first to accept participatory development from children as well as adults. In Accra, we would have to say that 50% of all street children in the city actually live, sleep and conduct their social life on the streets. As social scientists we must be wary of thinking that just because a child goes back to a recognised domicile at night he or she is not a real street child. That is a very dangerous attitude to take. When you are on the street you are a different person.

It is to Madeleine Dunford, writing in 1996 about street children in Kenya, that I am indebted for the creation of a third way of looking at the problem. She calls this new, more shadowy, group children “for" the street (Occasional Papers, No.58, “Tackling the Symptoms or the Causes", Centre of African Studies, Edinburgh University). What does she mean by that? I think an example from one of the slums I have worked in for the last 10 years will help. In East Mamobi, in Accra, in the lane where I helped start a maternity clinic and where now we have a Refuge for street girls, I counted 43 children of early primary school age in September 1997. None of them, as far as I could see, moved very far from their own tiny area in that particular slum. None of them goes to school. All are illiterate. All need to be fed. They are all ready “for" the street. Their parents and guardians will have no option but to let them go on the streets, either willingly or unwillingly, in order to hustle for their own daily subsistence. This third category is perhaps the most worrying.

The street
There is at this point the need to address one of the real players in the child's life on the streets, and that is the street itself. Even experienced commentators like Fabio Dallape have in my opinion failed to take on board the fact that the street is a living entity. He says: “The term 'street children' is inappropriate, offensive and gives a distorted message." ("Urban Children: A Challenge and an Opportunity", Childhood, Vol 3, no.2, 1996). Authors are very quick today to toss out expressions like “streetism" which is as inaccurate as it is ugly-sounding. We have to give to the streets, the street corners and the shanty groupings the same significance, importance and recognition that we give to paths, lanes, tracks, hamlets, dwellings and villages when we approach rural appraisal and learning about things rural in Africa. I tell my workers that street mapping is a very important exercise, that the whole social relationship on the streets is vital to the life of the children who are working and living there. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to use the word “street", whether we feel it is an insult, it is where these children are.

May I be forgiven for poking just a little fun – a little serious fun – at the Junior Mayor of Bloemfontein! In 1997 all he could talk about was that he did not like the name “street children" and that people in Africa wanted to call them “community kids". Delappe himself talks of the need for workers to study the community first. Neither of them tells us what they mean by community, and neither of them accepts the major role that the street and its whole social implication has for each child. I think downtown urban anywhere in the world has mighty important things to tell us. I think we dismiss “street" too easily – in my case in Ghana – for our own good. At present, I deliberately use the expression “street children" because I wish to accord great respect to the importance it holds in their young lives. For half the children I live among, street is home. I have no wish to trap them, as Christina Stanton Blanc says, “by labelling, stigmatisation, and victimisation" (Childhood, op.cit.). Perhaps I could steal a line from the title of one of her publications of 1994, Urban Children in Distress (Reading: Cordon and Breech). Could I say “urban children in distress on the streets" and wonder if some of the commentators on Africa would come along with me! If we give these children credence and rights then the streets will be taken as “their place".

A day in the life ...
The danger for all of us working with street children is to forget what life is like on the streets. I wauld like to describe a day in the life of a boy, so let’s go back to Kwame. For the purposes of the description, let’s make it a day in the dry season. I say that because in the rainy season you will come across a phenomenon that still makes me pause in anger. It is the picture of what I call the human horses. Very often children in the rains seek whatever little shelter there is and stand up, huddling close to each other. They then fall asleep, like horses.

But let’s look at a dry season situation. Kwame, you will remember, has become a full member of the Alternative Africa. At l6 years old and a shoe shine boy he is already a leader on his own particular street corner. He still sleeps in that open courtyard. His first problem when he sleeps is what to do with the money he has earned. His second problem is what to do with his shoe shine box. Recently Kwame switched from saving his money with local money savers to putting it into the safe-keeping of the housemother of the Refuge for street children which CAS runs. His shoe shine box is more important, so at night the boxes are placed under the protection of the street boy who is the night watchman for that particular corner.

This night watchman is paid by the street boys to make sure that other street boys do not come to steal from them when they are asleep. The box is the symbol of his job. It has a handle and a piece of rope to enable him to throw it over his shoulder. It contains his brushes, his cloth, his polish and, because every shoe shine boy is a cobbler in embryo, it contains hammers, nails, patches, spare heels, bits of rubber, glue and everything else to enable Kwame to mend your shoe or sandal where you stand on the street. It is his most precious possession and if you touch a shoe shine boy’s shoe box you will find the retribution to be swift, violent and very messy.

Kwame will get up at daylight. He will need to pay for water to wash and he will need to pay the same price again for the dubious privilege of using a pit latrine for his toilet needs. By 6.30 am Kwame will be looking for the women who sell food on the streets. If he has kept enough money from the day before he will buy some rice water or some local porridge and a piece of bread, and then he will join the crowds as they begin to move around the city.

The first thing to remember about shoe shine boys is that they walk enormous distances every day because everyone they pass is a potential customer.

The second thing is that they all have their own areas to work in. Some of the worst fights I have seen were between shoe shine boys who crossed over into somebody else’s territory. By midday in the dry season it is beginning to get not just very hot but, because of the west coast, equally humid. Kwame will normally eat in places he has used before. Street children eat very well in terms of quantity. Like most poor people in the world they spend 70% of their income on food. The problem of eating on the street is with the hygiene and cleanliness of utensils, the servers and the cooks. At some point in the day he will surely find some shade to collapse in. (Many of them have started to use the CAS Refuge in order to flop out). By late afternoon, when the city turns itself around, they will be back in the crowds looking for customers. As far as I know, Kwame has two girlfriends. As far as I know, he has not fathered any children yet, nor to the best of my knowledge has he suffered from a severe bout of venereal disease. He is lucky. Kwame will go to see one of his girlfriends. He will also meet the other shoe shine boys in his gang. He will have earned, if it has been a good day, f1.50 sterling. If it has been a bad day he will be hungry. He will give some money to whichever girlfriend he meets. If he is not too tired he may go to one of the ramshackle video viewing places. He doesn’t smoke much marijuana even though it is quite cheap, and he can’t afford to go to the cheap disco joints that are beginning to mushroom. The chances are that Kwame will be fast asleep by 10 o'clock, having first paid the watchman, spent some more money to wash and checked that his box is safe.

Let me tell you the story of a girl child called Comfort, though her real name is not, of course, Comfort. When our workers found her in 1997 she was 13 years old, anaemic and seven months' pregnant They found her sleeping on a rubbish heap behind one of the markets in central Accra. Like many of the 20,000 children, including 6,000 girls, living on the streets of Ghana's capital, Comfort had come to the city from a village to earn some money and survive. She started work doing one of the lowest jobs, selling polythene bags of iced water in the markets during the day. At night, like so many other girls on the street, she acquired a minder – a young man. She gave sex for security and some extra money. He made sure that she understood she was his property. A year later she was pregnant. Her minder had gone. A week after the social workers found her she went into labour on the rubbish tip and by chance an older woman saw another social worker, raised the alarm, and Comfort was able to have her baby safely in a clinic next to the Refuge of Street Girls Aid. She was very lucky. Her baby is truly beautiful. Today Comfort is back on the street with her baby, trying hard to survive. It is clear that for an unskilled, uneducated child-mother she faces a very tough way ahead.

All street children are vulnerable. Girls on the street are more vulnerable than the boys. The most vulnerable girls are those who are pregnant. And the most vulnerable children of all are the street babies. Comfort is of course somebody’s daughter. She could be anybody’s daughter. Comfort could be your daughter.

A year ago we asked 80 girl mothers like Comfort what they wanted for their children. They all said two things: (1) “Not to be like us living on the streets or in the shanties" and (2) to receive a proper schooling and education. There isn’t much hope for Comfort to have a better life. Comfort, though, has hope that her baby will have a life very different to hers.

Whose responsibility is it to help Comfort get what she wants for her baby? Could it be that as social scientists we also have to be agents provocateurs with governments, NGOs and multi-national development agencies?

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