Homeless in Tanzania

Homeless children in the Tanzanian city of Arusha face a daily battle to survive. Jess McCabe reports on the small steps some organisations are making to support them, and where possible, reunite them with their families.

Tanzania 2013

By Jess McCabe

November 29, 2013

Also published by Inside Housing

Sixteen-year-old Lenard Baraka grips the air above his head. He is miming how, four years ago, he slipped under a car, grabbed onto the chassis and held on, upside down. He doesn’t remember how long the trip took, but it was ‘very far’. This was how Lenard ran away from home at 12 years old, and the means of his difficult passage to the city of Arusha.


‘I was living happily with my family,’ he says, speaking in Swahili through a translator. ‘I woke up one morning and my parents separated. My mother left and we stayed with our father. He decided to get married to another woman. She beat us up, and all that. I decided to leave.’

He arrived in Arusha, a city of 1.6 million people, bustling with tourists, sitting in the foothills of Mount Meru, close to Kilimanjaro and famous nature reserves. The city is also a magnet for homeless children such as Lenard, leaving behind abusive families, abandoned or in poverty, and attracted by the promise of the big city. But the streets of Arusha are no more paved with gold than London’s.

In 2009, Tanzania’s parliament passed the Law of the Child Act, which guarantees children certain rights. UNICEF explains: ‘If a child’s parents die, and there are no other relatives to care for the child, or if a child is neglected, abandoned or abused by their parents, the state should ensure they have a safe place to stay.’ But in Arusha this ideal is far from the reality.

Fending for themselves

‘We don’t have any specific place,’ says Lenard, explaining what life is like for him and other homeless children in the city. ‘If we go to a house at night, or a closed shop, we sleep on the veranda. Sometimes we collect blankets on the streets. We make sure we stay together. That’s how we survive.’

Lenard has a serious face, and is wearing a Tennessee football jersey which is dirty in part from working on his vegetable plot. We meet on a scrubby piece of land, where Lenard is one of the boys who have been given allotments as part of a new project by non-governmental organisation Global Service Corp and Mkombozi, a Tanzanian charity for homeless children.

The allotments have been carved out of the land by the boys themselves, in the shadow of a juvenile detention centre. Now Lenard, along with the others, is growing spinach, with the aim of making about 10,000 Tanzania shillings each from the harvest - about £3.80.

Trouble with police

But he once looked on this land from inside the detention centre’s walls, during a three-month sentence for rough sleeping. ‘We were sleeping at night. The police came. They took us [off] the street,’ Lenard explains. ‘The government is interested in jailing us, not helping us. This place, the juvenile, is very scary. We avoid as much as we can to come here.’

Lenard outside the juvenile detention centre where he spent three months.

Perhaps it is a measure of the boys’ desperation that the grounds of an institution which terrifies them has become one of the safest places to go. Lenard is even considering sleeping here. ‘We have lived on the streets. We understand what life is now,’ he says.

Fred Mbise, assistant coordinator at Mkombozi, is the outreach worker who has helped get the boys on board. ‘Fred wanders the streets by night and meets the kids. He knows them by name, they know him by name and he’s very in tune with what the kids need and their situation,’ says Max Church, Tanzania county director at the Global Service Corp.

‘The rules are they must always work hard, they must be committed, they must be ready to be there to water the garden, weed, work with others, respect their colleagues’ work,’ Mr Mbise explains. ‘Also to attend lessons. We get an expert from GSC to come and give them lessons. With us, we don’t know much about agriculture.’

But the boys are very aware of the limitations of the project - which doesn’t include food or shelter. ‘We feel this project is a life-saver, but it loses meaning because if we don’t get money to eat we won’t be able to work on the farm,’ says one of the boys. ‘We are facing so many other challenges. We don’t have anywhere to sleep’. Because journalists are paying them a visit today, they are hoping they will be given a meal.

Mr Mbise says that, as a result of the project, some of the boys are no longer living on the street, having earned enough to rent a room. ‘It may not be easy to provide food and shelter for the boys as there are no funds to do that,’ he says, adding this may also ‘increase dependency’.

A report by researchers at Columbia University in 2012 calculated that Tanzania had 282 children’s homes supporting 11,000 children, and only one of these received any government funding - $4,500 (£2,780) a year.

Officials from Tanzania’s social welfare department could not be reached for comment.

Safe haven

One of the only places where Arusha’s homeless children are provided with shelter and care is a few hours away. In the pretty town of Moshi, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, down a quiet street lined with trees and flowers, Mkombozi runs a transitional home.

Upendo Ramadhani, children’s programme coordinator, is late for our interview. A small group of the 40 boys, aged seven to 15, who live in the home, have been misbehaving and she is telling them off. Ms Ramadhani is surrogate parent and social worker - but also headmistress.

Baracka, left, is one of the boys housed through Arusha Children’s Centre, led by Emmanuel Joseph, right.

‘We don’t receive any funds from the government,’ explains Ms Ramadhani. Mkombozi’s 1.6 billion shilling annual budget (£618,000) and 45 staff are paid for by UK-based charities, individuals and the UK Department for International Development.

This covers not only the home, but also its street outreach programme, a mobile school and work with children at risk of homelessness in Arusha and Moshi.

Some children come here after persuasion from Mkombozi’s outreach workers or are referred by the police or the Arusha social welfare department. Others find their own way and turn up at the door. If there is no room - 40 is the maximum capacity - or if the child is too young or a girl - although most homeless girls end up in prostitution or domestic work instead of the street - the charity makes referrals to other organisations.

Often children arrive with ‘worms, wounds, skin diseases, malaria’, says Ms Ramadhani. They receive medical treatment, therapy and school classes at the home, and each of the four dormitories has a social worker assigned to it.

As soon as a boy arrives, Mkombozi’s staff begin tracking down his family. The intention is to find out why the child left home, and see if a reunification is possible - or safe.

Back to their families

Children stay in the home for a maximum of a year. ‘Most of the cases go back to their family,’ Ms Ramadhani says. On her walls are spreadsheets tracking what is happening with these returnees: 81 boys are now in primary school, 53 are in secondary school.

Mkombozi contributes to the children’s school fees, and may help their families find jobs. In cases where no family can be found, or if a boy’s parents are homeless or abusive, Mkombozi has a list of foster carers he can move in with.

Back in Arusha, a group of boys who are for the most part too old to be taken on by Mkombozi, lounge on some concrete steps, under a tin advert for soft drink Fanta.

Emmanuel Joseph, founder of Arusha Children’s Centre, an organisation that helps homeless children, starts talking and joking with them. ‘Brother,’ they greet him. Not so long ago, he was one of them.

But Mr Joseph doesn’t like to talk about his past. Shaking my hand, he gives me three pages of typed notes. When I ask anything about his time on the streets or how he managed to get on his feet, he taps the essay which details his life story.

‘I had bad time thinking about my parents because… I never know what’s happen to them, if they are alive or dead because when I had seven years old I found myself alone on the street,’ he writes in remarkably good English.

‘I never knew they belong to which tribe, clan or part of Tanzania, that’s drive my mind crazy. I had a miserable life with a lot of challenges and sufferings without any help… Though I can’t crash the will of God, but I missed a lot of things like parental care. It is my prayers every day to fight not only for myself but also those who are like me.’

We walk through one of Arusha’s sun-drenched neighbourhoods, and arrive at a tiny, three-room house.

This is Rachael’s home, a school teacher who Mr Joseph has persuaded to help him. Rachael has taken in a number of young homeless children. Baracka (pictured left), a small boy, follows Mr Joseph around as we talk. Everything is scrupulously tidy; an army of toys is arranged on a doily by the television. Light leaches in through holes in the walls.

A second building made of breeze-blocks is half completed in the tiny yard. This is phase one of Mr Joseph’s project: to raise enough money to eventually replace Rachael’s home with a decently constructed building.

Around the corner, Rachael teaches counting to a class of children in a church hall, loaned to the project for a few hours each day. The Arusha Children’s Centre might be registered with the government, but it’s currently a centre in name only.

I ask Mkombozi’s Ms Ramadhani what it would take to provide for all the area’s homeless children.

‘All of them?’ she exclaims. ‘They have so many things that they need, except for food and shelter: they need staff to take care of them, they need to go back to school. They need to pay their school contributions, uniform, shoes, buying the school materials and everything. They need a lot of things more than food and shelter.’

Jess McCabe travelled in Tanzania as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.

Child homelessness

Tanzanian charity for homeless children Mkombozi does a biannual census of Arusha and Moshi’s street-involved children.

In 2012, 135 children in Arusha were living full-time on the streets, up 61 per cent from 84 in 2010, and 358 children were living there part- time, up 40 per cent from 256. Most were between the ages of 15 and 18, above the age of eligibility for the transition home. But three children in Moshi were under the age of six.