On Sunday 24th September 2017 I landed at Entebbe airport, Uganda. I was there to work as a volunteer for the charity Retrak. Everyone said it would be a life changing experience. It was, but not for the reasons that they expected.
If you don’t know, Retrak is a UK based charity that works to help children who live on the streets in African counties. Children that literally have nothing other than the clothes that they are standing in (and sometimes, this doesn’t include shoes). Children that are terrified, starving and abused by the adults that share the streets that they live on. Sleeping by day to stay safe, these children aren’t orphans – they have been trafficked away from their families or have fled poverty to seek the bright lights of Kampala City. Many are sexually abused or forced into slave labour. Girls as young as eight forced into domestic servitude and prostitution – abducted from their families and villages.
However, Retrak doesn’t build orphanages for children that have parents, or increase dependency by creating funding streams that can’t be maintained. That might make us privileged folk feel better but it isn’t going to address the needs of a people who are capable of making their own way in the world, with a little bit of love, support and taught skills. Retrak is about empowerment.
So I joined a team of eight others under the banner ‘Connecting HR Africa’. This enterprise is the brain child of Ian Pettigrew, the Chair of Retrak (on the left, below). His idea is not just about asking people to donate money to a charity, but instead asking people to donate their skills in helping others within the charity.
(Me and some of the members of Connecting HR Africa ’17 Team at Club House, Kampala, Uganda)
I joined the team and offered my skills as a police officer and middle manager/senior leader; researcher in organisational psychology (particularly in helping people deal with the emotions of working in distressing circumstances), an assistant lecturer and facilitator, and HR qualified. Our ambition was to help the Retrak staff working in Uganda, to focus on their needs and coping and to give them some time, space, and support; to understand how they can look after themselves to be the best they can for the children they work to help.
As a police officer I have worked in Child Protection, running the Central Manchester Child Protection team when I was a Detective Sergeant. I also oversaw the Protect Unit – the early Child Sexual Exploitation Unit for Manchester Central. I have worked with domestic violence teams, and as a DI oversaw the coordination of services looking at prevention work around domestic violence and child protection – looking at causes and triggers, as well as the devastating outcomes. I also ran the Sexual Offences Unit for Longsight and Moss Side and I have seen men, women and children in some pretty distressing and upsetting circumstances, so I felt pretty versed in what to expect.
However, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw and experienced.
Our first meeting with the staff and children of Retrak Uganda was at ‘Club House’. A drop in facility for boys in Kampala City. This is a centre that provides medical help, psychosocial support, food, a safe space to sleep, and a safe environment where kids can be kids and play games and experience the love and kindness of the Retrak staff. The Retrak staff make regular visits, day and night, into the slums to spread the word of (and the directions to get to) the Retrak drop in centre, and to talk to the kids who are on the streets. The hope is that with regular contact they will build up the trust of the children and they will in turn, visit the centre and accept some help and hopefully a hot meal. You have to remember that these kids are living in a world where they will have been lied to and let down by the people that sought to traffic them, or abused by the adults that they meet. They have no safe space in their lives, and are therefore appropriately wary.
The first contact with the children and staff was amazing! Both staff and children came out to meet us as we drove in to the front compound! Everyone (children included) were so excited to see us and we were greeted by each one – with a fist bump from the kids and a handshake from the staff! Each person who introduced themselves had a big beaming smile on their faces! If only everyday was like this!
As is typical of the warmth of the Uganda people, the children wanted to welcome us with a dance which they had rehearsed for us. It was here that I first observed three very important traits of the Ugandan people (traits which I repeatedly experienced many times during my short stay). The first is that the Ugandan people are the warmest, kindest and friendliest people I have every met – this shines through in every person that I encountered during my stay – from the littlest child to the oldest adult). The second is that they are extremely creative and all excel in the performing arts. The third is that, boy, can they dance!
(An attentive audience!)
So the boys put on a really expressive and energetic dance that was full of fun and bounce – and tricky moves. A dance which was seemingly too complex for ones so little, but they kicked it out of the park (so to speak)! Something I think we can all vouch for, as at the end they dragged us all onto the dance floor (centre compound) to bust some moves! It was a great introduction and a wonderful way to observe how these kids, who until recently had been living on the street, pulled together and worked hard to agree and learn a dance to present to us strangers – a far cry from street life and a brave move from all.
After our fabulous welcome we grabbed a bottle of water and sat down with the staff. Our first activity for the day was to go into the slums and get an understanding of where the children have come from and how they survive on the streets – and also what it is that the staff are exposed to on a regular basis. After a quick chat and safety brief we left Club House accompanied by the staff and walked to the slums where the children would be. I don’t have any pictures of this as we couldn’t take our phones for security considerations. Our first stop on the edge of the slums was to ask permission to proceed from the commander at the local police post. Clearly we presented a potential danger or ‘flash point’, as I would have described as an officer in England, and could draw on police resources if we got ourselves in trouble. This is remembering that we were the only white people that I had encountered within the country, so we were at the very least a novelty and cause for interest.
Walking through the slums I was both reminded of the footage I have seen of various celebrities in Sudan or Ethiopia in small huts made with wattle and daub and corrugated iron rooves; and the medieval street mock up at the Jovik Viking Museum. The intensity of the environment could almost be intimidating, I was amazed at how many tiny homes were packed into such a small place, rows and rows facing each other across four or five foot of winding mud paths. There was so much life in the place, with people working or selling, moving goods on either foot on motorcycle. There was such a strong smell of wood smoke, as everywhere people cooked or prepared food. There were huge fire pits where people worked to roast ‘G-nuts’; a lovely snack, if ever you get a chance to try it. I was amazed at how people worked so hard over these fires, in what is an already hot country – and in such small quarters. Again, I was amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of the people, as they used the things they had around them to produce whatever it was that they needed. People who had very little but managed to find a way around all sorts of problems.
After winding our way between the small homes (smaller than my bathroom – and I only live in a small apartment) and visible industry we came to an open area – a large square of land where the traditional Ugandan taxi’s parked. The staff explained to us that the kids would hang out in this area as they felt safer as it was more open and observed. We walked across the square of land, which was covered in huge piles of rubbish, and over to a handful of small huts. As we walked across a kid of about nine or ten came over to us. He was really friendly and clearly knew the staff, but it was clear from his eyes and how he was carrying himself, that he was high. We had been told to expect this, but it is not easy to see – the streets kids in Uganda sniff aviation fuel because it staves off hunger pangs. So yes, the very little that they can get from selling empty water bottles they find, they use to buy aviation fuel to escape the pain and distress of starvation. This made me ask all sorts of questions about who was selling the fuel, had they told the police, what were they doing? But I also thought about the repercussions of taking the supply of aviation fuel away from these children – this was their only form of coping as they slowly starved. The answer was to get them off the streets, or even better – prevent them from ever being there at all.
As we got closer to the edge of the open area and the group of huts we were approached by about five children. They were dressed in shorts and tees, some had flip flops, some not. All were clearly dirty, their clothes had holes and were thread bare and ripped. These kids had nothing but the clothes that they were dressed in, and then that wasn’t much – but they all came with big smiles on their faces and a welcoming fist bump. As I was talking to one kid I felt a small hand slip into mine – I looked down and there was a tiny girl of about two or three smiling up at me, eager just to hold the hand of an adult. Quickly we were surrounded by children, eager to chat and learn our names. At no time did I feel any threat or intimidation. It was apparent to me that if I had been in the same situation in a number of other cities I would have been in a lot of danger – here in Uganda it was obvious that all that these kids wanted was to be friends and to be loved.
We moved around the area talking to different children – again I could see different levels of industry going on. In one hut there was an adult male weighing items that the children had brought in, it looked to me that they were selling what they had found. Next we walked round to the side of an old ship container that was wedged in the sandy dirt, in here older teenage boys were hanging out. These boys clearly had a relationship with the staff and chatted away with them. One young man was selling animals carved out of black wood – I learnt that his name was Isaac. He seemed really happy to see the staff and greeted us all with big smiles, he chatted happily away as we took in the impoverished surroundings he sought to exist in. As I looked around me I could see the reddy black earth, typical of Uganda, and mounds of rubbish, some separated into empty water bottles, other; items that I couldn’t distinguish. Behind an old barrel a dog and her puppies camped out, almost indistinguishable from the dirt that they lay in. Children played in the earth with whatever they could find – laughing as they went.
(Children sleep together in the day to stay safe).
I bought an elephant off Isaac, I don’t know how much it helped him, it certainly added to his smile. For me it is a very much prized possession that is a constant reminder of these beautiful people existing in the most dire and terrible circumstances.
As we walked out of the slums two children of about three or four years ran along with us and one took my elephant out of my hand. We all laughed as he showed his playmate, swooping the elephant in the air whilst making aeroplane noises – who knew elephants could fly? Children play here like they play anywhere else in the world. As we left, the staff asked the children to go back to whoever was looking after them – worried that they would follow us too far. Without being asked, the child handed the elephant back. What struck me was that this elephant was more than this child had, either as a toy or simply as a possession. A child who had nothing sought not to try and keep what was not theirs, but happily handed it back with only a smile as acknowledgement.
Now that we had an idea of what conditions the children experienced on the street we were keen to understand what it was that Retrak could do to help them.
My next blog will cover the work of the staff at the boys transition centre Tuda; reintegration, and prevention services – working with families and communities.
If you want to help these wonderful children who can’t ask for help themselves – please donate at my just giving page – the money goes direct to Retrak, and from there to the children that need our help. You would be amazed what £1 could do for a street child.