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36 JANUARY 2002
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street children

The Children on our streets

The second part of the article based on a workshop by Professor Michael Bourdillon

Part II: The Situation

We now move on to look at the situation in which we find street children, and in which street children find themselves. When we try to understand the problems faced by street children, rather than by us middle or upper class academics and administrators. we quickly find that we need to know something about the home background of the children. We need to look at their families, and what they are leaving in order to be on the streets. Overcrowding and poverty are obvious reasons for going onto the streets. I want now to point out more subtle problems that are arising in Africa's cities; and in particular to social and cultural changes that result from the move from an agricultural life-style to a modern urban situation.

Urban culture
I am going to speak about urban culture. “Culture" is a word that contains many different meanings, and is a word we should use with caution if we use it at all. Nevertheless, it is a convenient word because it covers many things. We need to think a little about what culture is. People often speak about African culture, or particular ethnic cultures. This includes the idea of customs that are “traditional”. What is traditional? Just this week, the museum in Harare set up an exhibition of folk ways of healing. They were going to call it “traditional” until they realised that rural clinics and the use of hospitals have themselves become traditional. It is part of what children learn from their parents.

People sometimes talk of “traditional African religion”, forgetting that for many Africans, Christianity and Islam have been passed on in families for many generations now. They have become both traditional and African, in that they incorporate ways of thinking and doing things that have not simply come from outside missionaries. The point is that culture and tradition are alive and changing as they are passed on from one generation to another. Culture changes constantly. It comes from many sources. We learn our culture from our parents; also from our peers, with whom we mix socially; we get ideas from newspapers, from the radio, from television, from films and books, from school – and even from advertisements. There is around us a great pool of ideas, of ways of thinking and behaving. Each generation, and different groups and individuals, choose from this pool whatever is to their taste or advantage. The mixture varies.

So culture is changing, and it is the result of choices. When many people do the same thing, it becomes tradition or culture. In cities we find people with widely different backgrounds, and in different and social situations. People make different choices about the “cultural mix” they adopt for themselves. The result is that in cities, we find many different ways of behaving. Some people regard such diversity as chaotic and undesirable; others enjoy the richness and excitement of this diversity. Urban situations are very different from rural ones. Peoples' interests in the cities are different from rural interests and their responses are different.

No family home
Homelessness provides another example of ancient traditions not working in the modern context. I have been told by a variety of administrators that according to “our African custom” everyone has a rural home to which they can return in times of difficulty and an extended family who can support them.

In practice, some people have now been born and brought up in the towns, with little or no contact with the rural areas from which their parents came. Rural areas are like foreign countries to such people. Town people are unfamiliar with the country people and with the way they live. Town people know how to survive in the urban areas, making money by selling second-hand newspapers, or plastic containers, or minding cars: they know nothing about farming and growing for subsistence. To such people who have not maintained rural links, no rural area would be home. They have often lost all contact with rural kin.

Another factor that leads to the break-up of family life is AIDS. I am not going to dwell on the topic – you all probably know more about it than I do. I just make the point that apart from destroying families, AIDS can impose yet another strain on extended families who try to care for young survivors when their parents die. Obviously this is relevant to finding children on the streets.

The economy
I have mentioned poverty; I have also mentioned a change in the way of living. I do not want to go into technical issues about capitalism and neocolonialism and ESAP. I am not looking for a scapegoat to blame everything on: I am looking for things we need to notice in order to formulate ways of responding.

Economics at the family level
I have already pointed out how rural extended families relate to the agricultural economy. We need to notice that as people move into the towns, new family economics prevail, and result in new family structures. This is one aspect of the break down of family structures.

I also mentioned issues of authority in the family, and I want to point out the issue of dependency. You have probably all heard the English proverb, “He who pays the piper calls the tune." Whether we are looking at international relations, relations between employers and employees, or relations within the family – or even between friends – those who have least access to means of livelihood have to bow to the authority of those on whom they depend. In rural areas, the authority of traditional chiefs, of elders, of men over women, all to some extent depend on who controls access to land. In urban areas, several studies have shown that women who earn a salary of their own are less under the control of their husbands than those who do not. The same applies to children. A child who can earn enough to live on can afford to flout the authority of elders in the family. Equally, a father who cannot provide adequately the material needs of his children has little chance of exerting authority over them. It has been observed that a teacher may make the mistake of reprimanding a father for the behaviour of his child, when it is the child who provides most for the family: in such a case, the child may have more decision-making power in the home than his father, and is not likely to accept criticism from any adult. This is all very different from a situation in which the children depend on the family land for their food, and all the family contribute labour to produce food. We need to consider how much issue of tradition and culture, and of rebellion against tradition, is related to changing economic structures.

Economics at the societal level
Obviously, the larger economic factors in the country also affect the condition of the children we have to deal with. In a very prosperous country, we might be able to handle problems on an individual basis. When we see a poor country in a declining economy, we cannot hope to relieve a significant number of children from hardship. Our response must be more in the line of trying to help them to cope with a bad economic situation – trying to help them develop further their strategies for survival; trying to help them to acquire at least some independence from those who control the economy of the country. Such considerations are relevant when we consider the kinds of education we may wish to provide.

A sound national economy does not guarantee that there will be no urban poor, and it does not guarantee happiness. But we need to make sure that the solutions we aim for are realistic within the terms of the economies of our countries. We should not be encouraging children to expect a life that is simply not possible for the majority of urban dwellers. Still less should we be providing a style of life that they cannot expect to maintain when they become independent adults.

The streets
Finally, when we look at the situation of street children, we have to look at what we may call the culture of the streets. Some people may object to this term on the grounds that street life is full of violence and dishonesty, and offers no future to the children: such a way of life, they say, cannot be called “culture”. I reply that there is violence and dishonesty in many cultures. People on the streets develop their own ways of thinking and living and organizing their society. Some features of their life may train them well for a future life of independence in the poverty of our cities. There is good and bad in all cultures. If we refuse to call street ways “culture”, it means we are not trying to sort out the good from the bad in their lives: instead we are imposing our values on the street children, and condemning their ways indiscriminately. So I shall talk briefly about street culture. It is no good trying to set up a project for street children if you do not take into account what are considered acceptable ways of behaving on the streets. One ex-street child commented to me that in those days, he had to live as though he was tough, afraid of no-one, and wanted to live independently on the streets. In reality he was there because he had no alternative; he would have loved a chance to find a home elsewhere. But while he was there, he had to fit into the group. He had to be prepared to fight, to drink, to smoke, to flout authority. These are forms of behaviour by which the group identifies itself as a group “a group that offers mutual support to its members. What we regard as bad or unruly behaviour may be carefully orchestrated, enabling individuals to integrate well into the only group that offers them some kind of security.

We need to notice also how the street children organize their society. Outsiders worry about how the older boys take earnings from the younger boys. The young boys themselves may complain. The same young boy may go to the older one who took his money for help when in trouble or for support. The older boys offer protection (for which they charge), but also friendly support in many situations. Older boys sometimes offer a place to go to at weekends. We should not condemn without first trying to understand precisely what the relationships are. Whatever dreams a child may have of a normal home, he has to learn the ways of the street in order to survive, and to think and behave accordingly.

I have pointed out how the urban environment affects the support that a child might receive from the extended family. Other kinds of traditional support may also be weakened.

Religious support based on the family and the land is no longer so effective. Healing that concerns itself with social tension and stress does not work so well with less personal, and more commercial, healers in town. The old culture simply does not work so well.

In its place there are new opportunities in new ways of doing things.

There is social welfare and there are NGOs offering support.

There are church groups. There are also street groups who use their initiative and learn to live an independent life. Such groups teach and support each other.

Responses to the problems
The purpose of this paper has been to raise questions that will help people in the field to work out their own appropriate responses to the problems faced by street children, and by the society of which they are a part. In doing so, each of us has to work out precisely what problems – and whose problems – they are responding to.

We have to clarify for ourselves our own motives for being involved. We have to be careful about how our solutions in some areas may result in further problems for others. Here I simply want to emphasize points we need to consider when we are working out our responses.

Firstly, we need to be able to look beyond the values and assumptions with which we were brought up, and try to see the needs of the children. This is not always an easy thing to do, and it is not always clear what are the real needs of the children. But we must at least be ready to reconsider our previous judgements of what is right and what is wrong. And we must be aware that reintegration into our kind of life is not necessarily the best solution or the only solution.

Secondly, we should perhaps think about our response towards the public. As we learn to know and to value the children, we can pass on our experiences to others. Street children often get a poor press; good publicity may be an important response. In deciding how much publicity to give to the children and our work, we need also to consider what will be theresponse of others, particularly of the authorities. We do not want the kind of publicity that will result in more children being rounded up and imprisoned.

Thirdly, we should be constantly aware of the responses of the children to our attempts to help them, and to those of other people. And we at least should be aware of the fact that short-term pleasure does not necessarily mean long-term profit. We need to be careful about enticing the children to become totally dependent on a system in which they are likely to be long-term losers.

Finally, I return to the problem of identifying the children most in need of help. Can we do anything about the girls?

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