May 22 2008 at 07:02PM
By Vivien Attwood
Tom Hewitt was raised in Britain, where he enjoyed all the benefits of a First World economy and went on to obtain a degree at the University of San Francisco in California. However, when he began to work in Africa, he quickly discovered that his calling lay with those who had grown up with no benefits at all; the most marginalised sector of our community, the street children.
"They are not at risk, or vulnerable. It has gone beyond that," he wrote in a recent article on Umthombo’s website.
"I think about these words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’. How sanitised they sound. Why are we afraid to use more suitable words and phrases like ‘brutalised’, ‘crushed’, ‘manipulated’, ‘expendable’, ‘afflicted’ or ‘oppressed’?
"For the sake of the children, and our own humanity, let’s join together to bring about a revolution in the way street children are perceived and treated."
When Tom and his wife, Bulelwa, were searching for a name that would encapsulate their organisation’s aims, they knew they had hit pay dirt when they found "Umthombo", the name of a tree that grows in desert areas. It is a symbol of hope; a symbol of life sustained despite the harshest of conditions. The group offers support and friendship to street children.
As well as running outreach and aftercare programmes, Umthombo is partnered, in the running of a drop-in centre, with I-care who are contracted by the municipality for this purpose.
Employing the services of 18 former street children on their staff (Bulelwa herself lived on the streets as a child), they have complete understanding of the children’s position; the reasons why they ended up on the streets; the painful stigmatisation they endure; the risks they are exposed to and their longing to be reabsorbed into a more caring community.
Since Umthombo’s inception, the organisation has helped hundreds of children to leave the streets and find safe homes.
"Despite the tragedy unfolding on our streets, you can’t become hardened," said Hewitt. "You do see a lot of hope, and you have to hold on to that. We are mindful of the negatives, but committed to the positives.
"First off, you have to accept that you won’t get all the children off the street, and concede that their rehabilitation is a process, not something that can be effected overnight.
"Poverty is the underlying reason why kids live on the streets, compounded by the issue of HIV/Aids. However, we are not seeing the ‘sea’ of orphans that was predicted.
"There is a small but steady increase in numbers. Currently, there are in the region of 1 000 street children in Durban, 400 of whom live at the Point. Naturally, we want to reduce their numbers, but it isn’t about statistics. Every one of these children is important."
Umthombo is part of the KwaZulu-Natal Alliance for Street Children. Other affiliates to this umbrella body are I-Care, Youth for Christ, Streetwise and Zamani.
"We are all fully registered Section 21 non-profit organisations that believe in building partnerships and devising and implementing city-wide strategies," explains Hewitt.
"Durban does not have a proud history with street children. Over the years there have been a number of articles in the press highlighting issues such as abuse, maladministration and wasted resources. Street children are constantly dehumanised in the media, yet a negligible amount of crime is attributable to them. Criticising is all very well, but we need to find city-wide solutions we can all buy into."
Although a number of non-profit NGOs have dedicated themselves to improving the lot of street children in KZN, the mandate for the management of issues pertaining to the children is held by the provincial Department of Social Development.
While criticism has periodically been levelled at that department, Hewitt feels that all role-players can make a significant contribution, provided the needs of the street children are paramount.
"You have to be in it for the kids, not because you’re serving your own agenda," he stressed. "Personally, I’d be delighted if, someday, I was out of a job. It would mean all the children were safe and happy in strong, supportive communities."
The children’s activist says that while the media might sometimes distort issues for its own agenda, it is a vital means of educating the public and altering skewed perceptions.
"Readers need to examine the issues of why the children come to the city, and what happens to them on the streets. The popular misconception is that: ‘Kids like it on the streets’. In our experience they always run from something. There is always a ‘push factor’."
Umthombo sees reintegration as the only viable future for street children. The organisation provides both temporary support and long-term assistance to help former street children find new families or mend fractured family relationships. Their new environment is regularly monitored to make sure it is conducive to healthy childhood development.
"Aftercare is the most crucial aspect of our strategy," Hewitt asserts. He shatters the common myth that providing shelters will magically resolve the issue of children living on our city’s streets.
"Child and youth shelters are not the be-all and end-all. There are other important emerging services. These shelters are not always located within communities. When they are in the heart of the city, it is all too easy for the children to continue to access drugs. Their fundamental outlook does not improve.
"When the government subsidy dries up as a child turns 18, he or she has no option but to return to street life. If they had been reintegrated into communities instead, they would have a greater sense of purpose and belonging."
While Umthombo, together with I-Care, is contracted by the municipality to run a drop-in centre on Victoria Embankment to provide a place where children can receive assistance in crisis, or get food, Hewitt and other street child advocates are deeply concerned by the lack of rehabilitation-based child and youth care facilities, dubbed "first phase shelters", in the city.
"It is not just drugs that the children have to be weaned off," Hewitt explains. "They live in a state of constant trauma. This sort of facility is hugely important. It isn’t an institution housing children until they turn 18, but a shorter term, a loving and compassionate environment where the children can heal before they are reintegrated into communities."
Responding to the contentious issue of the removal of street children whenever there is a major function in the city that will be attended by international delegates, Hewitt said there were parallels between the way South America and South Africa dealt with street children.
"I spent a lot of time in Brazil, observing approaches to street kids. The strategies employed in the two countries are disturbingly similar.
"We’re fully committed to ensuring that Durban makes a great success of hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but not at the expense of street kids. If we are assisted to get the children off the streets in a caring manner, it will be a feather in Durban’s cap, and will show that the city truly cares about their fate."
# If you would like to make a contribution to the valuable work done by Umthombo, and at the same time assuage your guilt at the plight of children on our streets, here is the organisation’s banking de
tails: Umthombo Street Children Action, First National Bank: Davenport branch, account number is 62077976656, branch code 220226.
o This article was originally published on page 12 of Daily News on May 22, 2008