Retrak is a UK registered charity working with street children in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. It began its work in Uganda under the name of “The Tiger’s Club”, and was renamed as it spread to neighbouring countries.
Although many charities try to help children living on the streets, most do so through providing places in residential homes. The problem with this is, residential homes are quickly filled and the children stay there until they reach the age of eighteen, when they have to leave. Meantime, other children cannot be accommodated. Retrak’s approach is to try to put children into families, making their residential homes transitional, and this means there is greater ability to help more children, more regularly.
Where possible, Retrak helps to reunite children with their families. This can mean reuniting with mothers and fathers, or siblings, but where this is not possible, it can also mean putting children together with members of their extended families – uncles, aunts and so forth. At present 70% of the children Retrak deals with are reunited with family. This is the preferred method of working, and Retrak has even resettled children into the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, if that is where their families are now living. The camps are, at least, a community, and preferable to life on the streets, fending for themselves.
Where reunification with their own family is not possible, Retrak endeavours to place street children in foster families, which is not a widely accepted practice in this part of the world. Fostering of children who are not related to the carers is unusual within East African culture, on top of which, children who live on the street are not generally valued by the local community, but are often seen as pests, thieves, nuisances, even vermin to be exterminated. Known by the derogatory term “chockera”, street children are ignored by the rest of the population at best, and at worst can be subjected to beatings and other abuses. For a family to take one into their home is, therefore, a big deal and the problems faced in making a placement work can be huge.
As in the west, fostering works better with younger children, although Retrak do try to help older children as well, providing the funds and support necessary to put them through schooling and vocational training support. However, experience has taught them that it is incredibly hard to help children who are older than about fourteen, as there is simply too much to put right in their lives. As well, children over the age of twelve are unwilling to stay in residential places and orphanages, and their return to the streets make working with them very difficult.
There are many reasons why children end up on the street. Sometimes, they have lost their parents, as the result of illnesses such as AIDS, or as a result of war and other conflicts. Sometimes, they have run away from unhappy situations at home. Many come to the capital cities from desperately poor rural areas, like modern day Dick Whittingtons, hoping to find streets paved with gold and finding instead broken dreams and shattered hopes. Sometimes, they are victims of their culture. If their father dies, their mother may have little choice but to remarry. Her new husband may then reject the children of her first husband, insisting they leave and his own children take precedence. She can do nothing to prevent this happening. In East African culture, the children of a marriage do not “belong” to her, but to the family of their father. If that family cannot or will not take care of the children once her new husband has ejected them, the children will have no choice but to live on the streets.
In Ethiopia, there are a phenomenal number of children, and others, on the streets. They seem to be everywhere – on main roads the central reservations are lined with them. They sleep under roads, in sewers, anywhere they can find a space. It has been estimated that there are 60,000 children sleeping rough on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, and it is these children that the charity seeks to help.
In Kenya, there is a big problem with street children. There are large numbers of children in need in all five of Kenya’s biggest cities – Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu.In 2002, following complaints about these children, the Kenyan Government took action against them, rounding them up and trying to get them off the streets and sent back to the homes they had left. However, although money was provided for the round up programme, no funds were made available for the after care needed by these children. In many cases, the Government simply gave the children the bus fare to go home, and didn’t check to see if that was what they had done. The result of all this activity was, the terrified children disappeared from the main city streets, hiding themselves in the crowded slums where they could be less visible to the authorities. Unfortunately, this made them less visible to those who would help them as well.
The work of Retrak produces results. They have not tried to diversify, but have continued to work in their areas of expertise, and this has made them very successful in what they do. By reintegrating children into both their families and society, they give them a sense of belonging. The children are not thrown back onto the streets at the age of eighteen, as they would be from residential homes. As a result, a new generation of young adults finds itself with a hope for a brighter future.