READING FOR CHILD
AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
The Alternative Africa:
Part Two of a presentation by Father Patrick Shanahan at a seminar at the University of Zimbabwe, exploring the realities of street children in Africa. Part One was included in the January 2001 issue of CYC-ONLINERights, Needs and Survival Strategies
All of us surely agree that childrenís rights are important. Likewise, we would agree that the most important right of a child is to be a child, to have adults take responsibility for you until you can reasonably take it for yourself.
Officially, according to both the United Nations and the Constitution of the Fourth Republic of Ghana, Kwame is a child. He is under 18. Comfort is a child. Clearly her baby is a new child. Of the three, only Comfortís baby fits into our nice neat statement that the most important right of a child is to be a child. The other two, in all respects except emotional vulnerability, are not children any more. They are small young street people. The new culture that they are in demands that they leapfrog from "very young child" to "adult" with virtually no steps on the way. That is part of the new tribal land which is a street, a slum, a dungheap, a shanty town.
Right to be a street child
At this stage I would like to raise something that I think will be controversial. I bring it up not to be controversial but because, in my own development with the children whose lives I have shared in for the last 10 years, I have reached a point beyond which I cannot go at present. I wish to state that every street child has the right to be a street child.
Paradoxically, letís go back to the village. Kwame in his village had the right, and exercised this right, to be a village child. He went farming in due season. He hunted in due season. He learned to dance according to festival and tradition. He ate as he was bidden. His sister carried the water in the morning. He swept the compound. Nobody disagrees with that. Everybody says: "But that is plainly obvious." So, why is it that when we come to look at the street children in our cities we do not accord them the same respect, and say they have the right to be street children? To sleep in their recognised areas? To eat on the same street corner? To work in the same jobs? To hustle? To survive! If I say to a street child "I am trying very hard to ensure that I respect you every day", I am really saying "you have the right to be on that corner", because if he or she hasnít that right, then what am respecting? A fraud? A fake? Or a real, young child?
I have no wish to stifle the debate with the semantics of rights and duties, but I do have to repeat that if I wish to follow the example of Ndugu in Kenya and offer love, care, affection and respect for each child, then at this point in my life I am saying that a Street child has the right to be just that. This experience of the right of street children automatically makes me flexible in my approach to them.
81% of all children met by our workers on the streets are illiterate or semi-literate. Most street children we meet are amazingly self-contained. All street children need to eat, wash, use toilet facilities and buy sufficient articles of clothing. This leads me to say that street children need a chance to become literate, a chance to hustle and work rather than beg, and the opportunity to have a safe, dry place in which to sleep. There is one need, however, that is paramount. Our experience shows that a street child is most vulnerable and in greatest need when he or she is sick. So, I would like to talk about the health strategies that we are currently trying to employ on the streets of Accra.
We realised that street children, like all poor people in Accra, self-medicate. If the Structural Adjustment demanded by the World Bank and the IMF has done anything in the health sector, it has been to force the poorest to avoid proper medical care. You canít have a cash-and-carry system if you havenít enough cash. We also realised that our street children were suffering from all the normal sicknesses, so in order of importance they catch malaria often, and have respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases. They also have, in Accra at present, a high incidence rate of STDs. Of HIV and AIDS I am not in a position to comment. We started our own very ad hoc health post in a tiny room in one of our Refuges, but as of 1998 I can report that we have a mobile health unit run by the Salvation Army of Ghana in close collaboration with ourselves.
Ghana is a very peaceful place. Ghanaians, as we have seen on the international stage, are very gifted in both making peace and in keeping it. Ghanaians prefer palaver (talk) to physical violence. A discussion forum would be called a durbar in Ghana, a word imported by the colonialists from India to describe a traditional phenomenon they found in the villages. There everybody, from a chief and his linguist to the lowliest inhabitant, sat in a circle, and once you sat in the circle you had the right to speak. Everybody exercised that right. On the street it is different. I sometimes call it "South Bronx comes to Africa". On the street you hit first, and possibly discuss afterwards. The basic survival strategy for every street child is to ensure that you are strong and physically rough and tough. The worst
fight I have ever seen on the streets was between two 14-year-old boys who fought each other with broken bottles over 200 cedis (a few cents) payment for a cleaning job done in one of the markets.
Street children are not hard in the almost effete macho sense of the word, but in the dog-eat-dog sense. Kwame today will hit a smaller child to show power, rank, dominance Ė almost by way of introducing that child to the street, because Kwame, you can be sure, was bounced against the wall many times when he first came to Accra. The street child borrows from his old cultural practices. There is territory for both work and sleeping. There is the continuation of the clan idea which can stem from similarity of job or location. And there is the need for relationships with both girls and boys which can make up in large part for the times when they are emotionally weak, particularly when they are sick.
The girl children have to adopt extra survival strategies. Once the age of puberty has been reached many of them will have boy minders who will demand sexual favours as payment for protection. Many small girls will use sex for survival in terms of supplementing their income. It is too easy to call them prostitutes. A prostitute is for me a professional sex worker. A 14-year old who offers sex for food and a few shillings to buy a length of cloth is not a prostitute. It is our experience that the girls, unlike the boys, always live and operate from within a group. These groups have strong hierarchical structures which cannot be ignored. The most important element for survival in terms of a child maintaining some form of balance is the fact that in Accra at present almost every street child hustles and works to survive. We have not yet got to the stage where the majority of children on the street sit around all day doing nothing with their vast quantities of energy left to simmer. Our experience at present is just the opposite and that is another vital factor for us to take on board.
Can we answer one question! Do we adopt the ostrich attitude and pretend that street children do not pose a problem for our continent, or do we accept the reality and live with them?
It is easy for us as social scientists to say that children are the makers of their own development; to say that they are not objects, but that they are subjects; to say that we must listen to children. It is easy to criticise social workers on the streets of our cities and say that they rarely ask the children about their lives. The reality is that most of us never bother to ask any child in Africa anything about their own development. If a child in a village has never been asked what he or she thinks about an issue for development you can be sure that the child on the city street is even less likely to get a hearing. The pretence is to talk about child participation. The reality is actually to work in the urban slum and respect the child enough to take on board the ideas he or she has.
I would like to say two things about governmental strategies in Ghana in relation to the children. Perhaps they will be of some assistance when you consider the situation in other countries.
The first point concerns the strategy on the national level. In 1996 the Government of Ghana successfully trained 30 young social workers in its School of Social Work in Accra, to the basic level of a Diploma. Our own agencies approached the Government and asked if ten of them could be seconded to us with pay to work on the streets alongside the children. We were told that it was impossible ó none of the 30 was able to be employed by the Government due to the IMF regulations concerning public sector employment according to the rules of the current Structural Adjustment Programme in operation in the country. Cynically you could say that the IMF and the World Bank had faithfully followed one of the apostles of monetarism, Hayek, who considered social welfare to be nothing more than "a semantic fraud". In reality the Government of Ghana was powerless. It is far too easy for people to ask "What is your Government doing?" when that same Government is unable to provide young, committed workers for its own street children. Today our two agencies employ 17 of the 30 with no help from anyone, least of all the ME Unless and until the Governments of this continent are allowed to treat social welfare as a necessary part of public spending and public commitment then Ghanaís example will go on being multiplied.
I must, however, report that on a national level some of the inertia we experience is not the fault of Structural Adjustment or lack of public spending. In November 1995 we were party to the preparation of a document called Street Children in Ghana: Policy Framework, presented to Government through the Department of Social Welfare. Now, at the end of March 1998, this document is still called a draft document. It has no teeth. It cannot be used to stir other departments into action. On local levels there is much suspicion about street children. I have been called by one of the District Chief Executives in Accra "the priest who has brought criminals to the area" when describing the work of our Refuge. The "criminals" are, of course, street children. The blame for such a mentality lies with both of us: on the man in question for his intransigence in accepting that there is a problem and that it is here to stay on his streets, and on myself and my workers for losing patience in trying to open his mind to the fact that these children need the care and friendship of committed adults.
What we find on a daily basis is that the local government is failing to give us the space to try and reinvent facilities for street children, though this would in fact cost them nothing to implement. One of the striking features of the Ndugu Society in Kenya was its ability at an early stage to persuade the then Minister of Education that its alternative schools were not a threat but the only means to offer literacy to children. We have a close relationship with the Mayor of Accra and from the beginning we have acknowledged that he has no money to help us pay wages but that he does have political power, and at times he has used that in favour of street children. The first creches for street babies in the city were built on an illegal site on the edge of a shanty. They became illegally "legal". Openness of mind which allows the childís rights to be considered will, as I have said, always lead to flexibility. I suppose on the question of education and health I would classify myself as an old disciple of Ivan IIIich. But in order to make use of street corner literacy, street corner health posts and street corner creches for street babies, we need political permission. In my dreams I imagine the Government of Ghana giving me five years of complete freedom in order to make alliances with the street children and so form policies that will help all of us to care together. In this same dream I ask the Government to judge after five years in the full knowledge that the street children would have persuaded all of us to reinvent our approaches to them.
For ourselves at CAS and SAID, we are advocates who act for the well-being of street children. This means that we see our work as completely street based. It is not my place in this paper to start a discussion about agencies around the world who work with street children through a more institutional approach. Our workers are on the streets every day, all the time, with one thing in mind: to meet and talk and greet and, where possible, become friends with the children of that street corner.
It is only then that all the wonderful theories of participatory development can become reality. We have a Sponsorship Scheme in place for those children who wish to leave the streets. As I write I would have to say that only about 2% of all the children we live with take advantage of it. For us, no street worker means no agency for those children, It is very hard and very demanding, and our own young Ghanaian Social Workers, trained and untrained, put us to shame.
Publishers and literacy
The Zimbabwe National Book Fair is about to be launched, and my last point in this section is addressed to this event. I have mentioned Ivan IIIich above. One of his great ideas was to promote the need to have street corner classrooms and street corner health facilities. I would like to reinvent him and say that the real need we have in Ghana is for street corner literacy programmes for our children and young people. We have a whole new generation of illiterates growing up in our towns and cities. Economic constraints ensure that free universal compulsory schooling is not rushing to meet us. We need desperately to ensure that our young children receive the opportunity to acquire basic literacy skills. The challenge to publishers is to come up with innovative material to enable our social workers to start street corner literacy groups. Is this the time to revert to the comic? Is there a need for the comic strip as well as the comic story? Can you give us age-appropriate subject matter in simple language in comic form? Can you ensure fast, affordable publication? You have a huge market out there. In a few years half our population will live in towns and cities. At the same time half our population will be under the age of 16. In Ghana that will mean that the illiteracy rate amongst children and young people in the poorest parts of our cities will be enormous. It is pointless to train young social workers to start street corner literacy classes if they have absolutely no material with which to work. But the challenge from me isnít just the challenge to publishers. It is to the publishers and to the education authorities in our cities. The great strength of Ndugu in Kenya is that it was allowed to set up an alternative system for the poorest illiterate children in the shanties and on the streets. The authorities didnít get in the way. They didnít fall into the trap of saying that the Ndugu schools are second class. They didnít try to hinder the work by saying that you canít introduce literacy and skill without a properly appointed school building. My contention is that if the publishers would give young social work practitioners good material to use on our streets, all of us could re-educate our education authorities into letting us properly experiment with literacy. We are finding such an intervention very difficult in Accra because of the lack of any affordable simple reading material
Both Arnold GroI and Fabio Dalappe taught us from Nairobi that we have to show affection, care, service and love in our dealings with street children. I would like to steal an idea from Judith Ennew. In The Handbook of Childrenís Rights, edited by Bob Franklin (Routledge 1995), she wrote a piece which contained a section entitled The Unwritten Rights of Street Children (pp 210-213). In the same year a small organisation in France, called Repper, produced the Charter of Rufis qua (Senegal( for street children. Repper allowed me to translate this Charter. I am including (Fact File, below) its ten propositions because I think they match what all of us are searching for when we try to follow Arnold Grol in loving the children of our streets.
This Charter was proposed by a young man called Francois Lefort. You may disagree with some of the things he proposes. I know that I do. But I think in the main they are rules of conduct for all of us to use when we offer to walk the streets with our children. Finally, Lefort says to each child, and I translate: "If you are serious about your life you will be loved. If you are not serious about your life you will be loved all the same."