By Margaret Mukwenha. The author is executive director for Samaritan Trust
“I was so confused, I was just moving like an animal.” These are the words of a 15-year-old, I will call Isaac, describing his time while living on the streets of Blantyre, “There was no one I could trust, after a while, I started drinking to forget the pains in my life.”
The ‘pains in my life’ is a phrase he uses to describe the alcoholism and womanising of his father, the beatings he suffered, the knife attacks he saw, the rapes he heard. But this is now in the past.
Isaac made a choice. He was offered a chance and he took it. He accepted help, left the street, stopped drinking and began to educate himself. Importantly, and probably because it was his choice to make, he stuck to it. Still, his transition was not easy. For the first six months, sitting in a classroom, concentrating on schoolwork was beyond him, so he chose to study bricklaying instead.
I tell you his story for a few reasons. To underline that the situation Isaac found himself in, was not his fault. To show you that his drinking was probably a result of his pain, fear and isolation. To suggest to you that his return to a ‘normal’ teenage life has so far been successful, largely because it was his choice to make and he had time and space to adjust.
I also tell you this because I run a charity that helps street children make this choice. In the past weeks, and probably in a few to come, kids similar to Isaac will be rounded up and either forcibly returned to their parents’ houses or held under the Vagabond Law. The rights and wrongs of this law and such returns are much debated, but for now it happens, and my concern is for the vulnerable individuals, children in particular, who find themselves in police custody.
Common sense and the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (Osisa), an institution committed to human rights and good governance, suggests that detaining vulnerable people-the disabled, the mentally unwell, children-has “a profound impact on (their) rights and physical, psychological and economic well-being.”
I would add that it is also an expensive, unsustainable and short-term response to an enduring issue for the country. Enduring because most cities in the world-be it London, Moscow, Delhi or Cairo-have a homeless population that survives by begging, so it is unlikely to be a phenomenon we can completely eradicate in Malawi.
What we can do is find better solutions for people living on the street than sweeping them into prisons or dumping them back into families that are often abusive and violent. From my experience, I am almost certain that anybody treated this way will be back on the street within months, maybe even days.
The good news is that the number of children on our streets is comparatively low and the organisations and skills necessary to help them largely exist already, it is more a matter of coordination, planning and communication that we are lacking.
What if, before the next round-up, Blantyre’s police called the local child care institutions and discussed their plans to clear children from the street? At Samaritan Trust, we could arrange for our social workers, who are trained and practised at working with vulnerable children to meet young detainees and give them the option of living on our compound, going back to school, learning a trade or even going back to their families, provided everyone agrees. The emphasis must be on choice and agreement, forcing children into our programme is not only against our principles, it does not work.
To succeed with us, children have to want to change. Not all young detainees will agree and even those who do, might not stay, but even if half remain after a year and are back in education, that is a reasonable result. It will also save police hours, budgets and space in cells.
In the longer term, a constructive approach to more hardened street kids would be to establish a night shelter, where they could find basic protection, talk to social workers and receive medical care. It would be a modest intervention, but one that could give such children, the beginning of a route back into mainstream society.
I realise that when you see children veering drunkenly around in the market, the idea that they could become responsible, contributing members of our society seems highly questionable, but it is possible and happens every year at Samaritan Trust. What if I told you that two children like that, who spent many years on Blantyre streets and have complex backgrounds, are now studying at the College of Medicine?
They are our exceptional successes, but we currently have seventy students living with us, a little, under 50 are back in school and other 26 have just sat their trade exams to become bricklayers, carpenters, tailors and electricians. I am also pleased to say that Isaac, having graduated from his bricklaying course, feels that next year, he will be ready and able to return to school