When things go wrong at home and there is no one there to look after them, children and young people often seek their fortunes on the streets. Abuse, drugs and crime are the almost inevitable consequences. In Malawi, some find their way back to their families with the help of a Kindernothilfe partner.
Text: Katharina Nickoleit, photos: Christian Nusch
Reading time in the library of the Tikondane project. The supervisor and a group of boys and girls read a story together, distributing the roles. The story is about children who don't help out at home and are rebellious, and about parents who yell and beat them. When the chapter is finished, a discussion ensues: Why did the situation in the story escalate? What could everyone involved have done better to prevent it from happening in the first place? The children are thoughtful, each of them can empathize with the situation. After all, they have all experienced such situations more than once, which is why they eventually ran away from home.
Since 1998, "Tikondane Care for Children on and off the Streets," as the project is officially called, has been caring for children in the streets of Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, for whom life on the streets seems like the only way out. The aim is to reintegrate the boys and girls into society. The project, founded by the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady in Africa in 1997, looks after 600 children every year. The oldest are around 16, the youngest just five years old. Tikondane takes care of some of her protégés for many years—reintegration is a task that requires a lot of time and patience.
"Our first step is outreach work," explains Cosmas Makala, recalling how she found Susan and Marian four years ago, who were then 11 and 14 years old. "The police alerted us when someone noticed them hanging out in front of stores, begging and not knowing where to go," the social worker recalls. The sisters were lucky to be picked up quickly. "Girls who live on the streets, in all rules, become victims of gang rape after a very short time. That's why we did everything we could to convince them immediately to come to us at the protection centre." Life on the streets is also dangerous for the boys. To make it more bearable, they take drugs and quickly fall into criminal structures.
The reception centre is the next step back into society. It is located on the edge of a market neighbourhood where many children somehow survive on the streets with small jobs, collecting garbage or even stealing. It's a sheltered place with safe places to sleep, hot meals and medical care. But the main task of the social workers is to find out why the children came to the streets. There is always a reason; no child leaves a home where he or she feels comfortable. "There are a lot of divorces, then the children don't know where they belong, especially when the parents have new partners. They feel bounced around and like they're unwanted." Often, children are neglected even in intact families. Because both parents have to work all day to ensure the family's survival, boys and girls are left to fend for themselves all day.
For Marian and Susan, the situation was somewhat different. Their father had a well-paid job in the management of a large company and was able to offer his wife and five children a good life in which nothing was lacking. But when he died in an accident, his family was left without any security. His wife, Memory, had attended school but never graduated or received an education. It was simply impossible for her to maintain her accustomed standard of living. From one day to the next, the family had to pack their belongings and move from a large house in a good district to a shack in the slums. While Memory sank into depression, her two oldest daughters wanted only one thing: their old life back. "We didn't like the new neighbourhood and wanted to go back to our friends," Marian, now 18, recalls of the sunny day she and her sister went to their old district. "We thought it was better to live there on the street than here in a dump." When you see how they live, you can understand the girls. The much-too-cramped shack smells musty and is gloomy, and there is no electricity or running water. To cover the mould and peeling plaster, the walls are covered with curtains made from old clothing collections.
What needs to change at home so that the children and young people can return to their families? This is the question that Tikondane staff are sorting out while the boys and girls are with them at the reception centre. "We couldn't reverse the family's deep social fall," says Cosmas Makala. "But we were able to help them live with the change. They had to learn to accept their new reality of life and make the best of it. Understand that living on the streets doesn't improve their situation, but makes it much worse."
When Cosmas Makala first brought the sisters back to their mother Memory, she on the one hand was immensely happy to see them. "But I also felt bad, because I knew that the girls had been looking for their old life, which I could no longer offer them," recalls the now 40-year-old. "That affected me a lot, because there was nothing I could do about our situation."
“Memory, too, needed help coming to terms with the new situation,” says Cosmas Makala. "We visited her and told her she needed to pull herself together and take care of her children. A social worker talked to her, helped her overcome her own depression, and explained what was going on with her daughters." Not only were they in a difficult situation, but they were still in the midst of puberty. They were defiant and rebellious, did not accept authority, and had a very low frustration tolerance. Tikondane's advice: don't beat them, don’t yell at them, but listen and understand them. The social workers also helped Memory develop an economic perspective. Her schooling is not enough for a formal job, but she now sells peanuts and sugar cane at a street stall and can support the children with her income. It's a far cry from her former lifestyle, but it's enough to survive.
Working with parents is always an important part of integration; after all, no one is helped if children return to the same difficult situation from which they fled to the streets. "There's more to being a parent than putting food on the table, you also have to care, spend time together, be interested. This is not clear to many parents who are themselves struggling to survive on a daily basis," says Cosmas Makala, describing the conversations the staff have with the mothers and fathers.
It took four years for the family to regroup to the point where Tikondane could slowly phase out its support. It was an arduous process that took an unusually long time in the case of Susan and Marian; usually it is quicker to reintegrate the children into their families. But Susan and Marian kept returning to the streets, being picked up and brought back to the reception centre. At Tikondane, there is a daily routine, rules they had to follow, and chores to do: Laundry, kitchen duties, helping in the vegetable garden. "With us, the children learn to take responsibility for themselves and the community. This helps them understand that life on the streets is bad for them and that they have to take their future into their own hands."
Somehow the knot suddenly broke, Marian says. "We felt that there were people who really cared about how we were doing, who cared. And then we started talking about the future, about how to move forward." Both sisters now have clear goals. Marian wants to be an agricultural engineer, Susan a doctor. Tikondane helped find a suitable school, and both go regularly and with great ambition, because both realize that a good degree is their ticket out of poverty.
Things are much better at home now, too. "Our mother has changed a lot. She takes care of us more, has patience and doesn't beat us anymore," Susan says. Memory can return the praise. "The children behave better, help out, are more cooperative–everything has become easier," she says, smiling at her daughters. What would have become of them without Tikondane? Susan shakes herself briefly, almost as if to get rid of a bad thought. "Without the help, I would have stayed on the street and ..." she breaks off, takes a deep breath and says, "Tikondane saved me from a bad fate."