May 21 2008 at 11:51AM
By Vivian Attwood
With the help of I-CARE and Umthombo, two local NGOs that are achieving exceptional results in their outreach, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for street children, the Daily News has been able to interact with street children without arousing their fear or suspicion. They bear battle scars, but they are not completely broken.
Commander*, 15, followed his elder brother on to the streets a number of years ago. He wants to return home, but the pull of the streets is strong. He expressed doubt that he would be able to be reintegrated into his community.
"The streets are no good, though. There is no respect and you cannot learn," he said.
"Many of the children sniff glue to take away stress, but it hurts our legs and knees. It’s not easy to quickly leave glue because it is in our blood.
"It is dangerous for other children to come to the streets, but they are always running away from something. Some run because their mothers are not interested in them. That is my story. I have hope. One day I will go home. One day I will go to school again. Yes, I will go to school!"
Bongani* is 17. His parents left him with his grandfather a long time ago, and disappeared. He is crippled from years of sniffing glue and walks in the disjointed way that the children call "Thobela", after a dance song.
Although his body is severely damaged, he dreams of leaving the streets and beating his addiction.
"I want to go to school. Then maybe I can be an aeroplane pilot," he said.
While there are fewer girls on the street than boys, their lives are, if anything, harder than those of their male counterparts.
They are extremely vulnerable to sexual predators, and may form a relationship with a youth simply in order to be awarded some degree of protection.
Sindi*: "I am 16 now and I have been on the streets since I was 12. The police chase us. They spray us with teargas, they take away our clothes, they hit us and sometimes they just lock us up for nothing.
"I was abused when I lived at home, by my stepfather. He would hit me, sometimes, if I came home but I had no food. Then he wouldn’t let me into the house. I became pregnant by my boyfriend. I couldn’t get any medical help. I discovered I was HIV-positive. I had my baby but my mother took her away."
Sindi’s baby subsequently died of unknown causes. No autopsy was performed and the young mother grieves for the daughter who was hers so briefly.
"I would like to go back to school but my Zulu is not good. If I can go back to school then I can get a good life. I could live well. I could live to a hundred years old, even though I am HIV positive," she said, eyes shining as she pictured those utopian circumstances.
Simphiwe*, 15, went on to the streets because his family was impoverished and his mother, who drank heavily, was unable to support him and his younger sister. The two children used to sleep on the streets of KwaMashu. Later they came to the city.
He says: "The streets are not good because many things are happening like people being stabbed, being knocked down by cars, getting sick with TB. There is no one to support you.
"Many people get old on the streets and still find no way to survive. Babies are born on the streets, but still nobody cares. The streets are bad. Our time has been long on the streets."
The story of 17-year-old Thembi* is a source of great encouragement for other street children. She went on to the streets at 12, after her mother died, and lived under a tree in the city with a group of other children.
Umthombo has helped her to return to school and pays a family to take care of her. They also provide books and school uniforms.
"The street taught me to fight. Now I am only fighting with my pen," she says with great pride.
"I am happy now I am at school. I would like to help other street kids so they don’t have to sleep on the streets. I would like them to have a better life than me."
Gift* is one of 18 former street children who work with I-CARE and Umthombo. Originally from Johannesburg, she came to Durban to seek work. What she found, instead, was exploitation and fear.
"I had seen Durban on the TV and thought there were lots of opportunities," she explained.
"At first I did get a job, cooking and cleaning for R10 a day. But my boss, a Sri Lankan, wanted to marry me so he could get citizenship. When I refused he threw me out on to the street.
"I was 18 and a lady told me about Tong Lok, a place in Point Road where many homeless people lived. We looked after ourselves, but I saw many bad things – many deaths. People died of HIV/Aids; people died when they were hit by cars on the street, people died when they got into fights and were stabbed."
Gift does outreach work among girls on the streets. She finds her job enormously fulfilling.
"The best thing about my job is taking a child back home and that child not coming back to the streets again. The worst thing is a child being raped by the police.
"It doesn’t happen that often, but it can happen to both girls and boys. We have a team member who specialises in investigations when something like that happens."
The soft-spoken outreach worker will always be haunted by memories of life as a street child.
"What I try to do is give hope to the children on the streets. Hope is something to live for."
* Not their real names
o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 21, 2008