The long road

8 Nov

I was first introduced to a world where kids live on the street in the late 1990s in South Africa by a guy called Tom Hewitt. His organisation, Umthombo, continues to do some amazing work with these young people. I am still friends with Tom and we met up recently while he was on a trip to England. We started reminiscing about the old days, when we worked together – which now feels like a long time ago. I look back with great fondness at that time. There was a real cost to this work – emotionally and psychologically – yet we were driven by an unwillingness to accept the injustice status quo. I was just not going to accept that kids lived on the street. I was not going to accept that kids were regularly beaten by the police, verbally abused by passers by, rounded up in police vans and dumped miles out of the city. It was not ok. And it still is not ok.

Yet, as I reflect on the work we did, I also recognise my idealism and naivety. My lack of understanding about the broader issues. I held on to a deep hope that we could work to change the lives of street kids, we could change the system – the status quo was not set in stone. And I see that my model of success – the belief I held unknowingly – was one in which all kids would leave the street and start a new life where they were loved and cared for in a home. I thought that success = reintegration back into mainstream society. Now I am not so sure.

I am not sure that I, a Western white woman, know what is best for South African kids on the street. I am not sure that my ingrained beliefs about success and failure provide the best standards by which to measure a project’s impact. I am not sure that being taken away from the street without preparation or long-term planning is always the ideal for these kids. The issue of street children is complex and heart-breaking. It is symptomatic of a world in which the wealthy few own the majority of resources. It is symptomatic of a political legacy scarred by apartheid. It is symptomatic of deep ravines of injustice that mean squatter camps are sometimes overlooked by millionaires and some children cannot go to school because they cannot afford the £10 annual fees. It is made worse by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is made worse by acerbic and embedded prejudice. It is a symptom of poverty+inequality+injustice, not a cause.  And it is not easily solved.

So – what does “success” look like for a street kid? Is it to find work? To take up a holistic and healthy hobby like surfing (see Umthombo’s fantastic project)? To find a way to go back to school? Is it to leave the streets? Sometimes. But some – like JJ – may never properly leave the streets. How can they be given dignity and a voice even if they choose to stay on the streets? How can we start to really see the talents and gifts each of these kids has, regardless of their background or “home situation”? How can we learn to accept these kids as they are and where they are, rather than trying to remould them in our image? These are the questions spinning round my head these days. It is not easy, for there are no easy answers. There is no one model that always works. Things do not always end in the way we want. There are only occasionally happy endings.

And this is what I have learnt over the last 13 years: we in the West do not have all the answers. We never will. We have much to learn from those whose lives are very different to ours. And we are still learning. I am sure that both Tom – who has been doing this work for almost 20 years now – and JJ would agree.

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