Street kids reach for a dream
A shelter for street children in Grahamstown is bringing a glimmer of hope to the ‘poorest of the poor’. EMILY LUNZ of East Cape News spoke to the people who are attempting to "help these lost causes gain hope".
LULAMA SILLATSHA fled his home in 1994 at the tender age of 12 after his mother died and his father slipped into heavy bouts of drinking.
Like many South African street kids he drifted between a life in dark alleys and a surrogate mom in the township, until he ended up at Grahamstown’s Eluxolweni Shelter for former street children.
"I live here because I want education," said Lulama, who at 19 is now in grade eight and attends a local high school.
The Eluxolweni Shelter is one of five shelters for street children in the Eastern Cape. Other shelter projects exist in Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Aliwal North.
Eluxolweni - which means ‘Place of Forgiveness and Peace’ - is one of three which has a school attached to it. Its Amasango School provides accelerated bridging education to former street children.
Children often enter the Eluxolweni Shelter with a history of sexual or physical abuse and delinquent behaviour.
"Often the most unruly children are the most damaged children. If you can win over those children that are full of gut and spirit, then they can go places because they’ve got a survival instinct," said Jane Bradshaw, principal of the Amasango School.
The shelter has suffered serious management problems in the past. Records were poorly kept and the building was in shambles. But over the last few years a new committee has re-energised the shelter and taken over its management.
"The Eluxolweni Shelter has huge potential," said Reverend Dinga Mpunzi, who serves as deputy chair of the shelter’s management committee.
"It has stood out to show the government that shelters for street children are something worthwhile. It can serve as an example of what we need more of."
But there are currently no active efforts by the shelter to recruit more street children because the facility is already overcrowded. Since the beginning of the year, eight children have been turned away. Six of the eight have been attending the Amasango School even though they are not able to live at the shelter.
At the Amasango School –Amasango means ‘open doorways’ in Xhosa — each child is encouraged to proceed at his or her own pace. When a child has completed grade seven at the Amasango School, he or she can attend high school in the township.
"The kids in the shelter don’t have to be there. They could avoid school and the challenge altogether," said Dennis Wilson, a volunteer from Rhodes University.
It’s a common part of the South African urban landscape to be approached by children begging for money. But although it may seem like street children are everywhere, Mpunzi says that is not the case. He maintains most of the street children have families and homes but are lured into life on the streets for various reasons. Some children cannot cope with substance abuse by their parents and the physical abuse that may accompany it. Others leave home because they feel neglected. Some children dislike the lack of space and privacy their one-room homes provide. "Very few children in the shelter really have nowhere else to go. If we can fix the problems in their homes, then we would have fewer children in the shelter," said Mpunzi.
But the shelter’s limited funding does not stretch to cover the services of a social worker.
Classes are taught in two poorly ventilated containers in the yard which are hot and airless in the summer and freezing in the winter.
But the walls of the shelter, which was formerly a train drivers’ rest stop, are covered with colourful murals and a small courtyard in the centre of the shelter has been converted into a vegetable garden full of tomatoes, beans, cabbages, and beets. Ultimately, the choice to stay in the shelter is with its occupants.
"It takes a very strong-willed child to make it on his or her own in the world. And these former street children are actually stronger than one would think," Mpunzi said.
"When a young child disappears, we do go looking for him. We try to trace him and speak to relatives whenever possible," said Bradshaw.
"But one of the most painful parts of working with children is watching them make choices that we think are wrong.
"The children are told that if they walk out the door, they are making a serious mistake. It sounds cruel, but one needs to exhibit tough love otherwise the children would come and go as they please and it would destabilise the shelter."
Drug abuse has also been a serious problem for the shelter. If a child is caught with drugs, the shelter staff confiscate the drugs and hand them to the police.
"We want them to take responsibility for the choices they make in life, to teach them self-discipline," said Bradshaw. — ECN Weekend