Monday, December 6, 2010

St. John of Malawi? one institution is managing to keep Mzuzu free from/of street kids

Thirteen year old John Banda’s (not real name) world turned topsy turvy when he was accused of being a witch. His parents labelled him persona non grata and teachers shunned him. Ching’ambo Township had failed him so he moved to the streets of Mzuzu.

Umoza Dance Troupe, captured at a rehearsal

St. John of God (SJOG) Community Services spotted John and he was soon transformed into a responsible boy his community and parents never thought he would ever be.

Many children of John’s fate are not as lucky but in the middle of it all is the Umoza outreach project by SJOG which has so far managed to keep kids away from Mzuzu‘s streets, I went to find out more about Umoza Project.

Aidan Clohessy, SJOG Director said his institution saw the problem as early as 1996 and only commissioned Umoza after the stakeholders initially drafted in the community response team lost steam and enthusiasm.

Under Umoza scouts from SJOG patrol the streets for any signs of children. Once identified the kids are invited to the institution’s drop in centre where they are either repatriated or rehabilitated.

Part of SJOG
“If they are from around Mzuzu, we contact their parents or guardians to try to validate their story before we can start rehabilitating the child,” said Clohessy, “If they are from outside Mzuzu we arrange for repatriation of the kids.”

The problem

Clohessy believes the problem of street kids stems from poverty as exacerbated by HIV, alcohol abuse, gender violence and cultural practices with some kids being accused of witchcraft.

ALex Nkosi, SJOG Umoza Cordinator

“Here [North] in the patrilineal system, the problem comes when a father remarries. He is likely to chase and ignore the step-children who then go onto the street,” he said, “In the street, they can be raped, exploited by businessmen and they are likely to take up crime.”

Clohessy said the problem gets compounded when society rejects the kids as vermin chasing them and calling them names as if it [society] wasn’t responsible for the children’s plight.

Said Clohessy, “They say ‘sweeping kids off the street,’ what impression does that give? Are the kids dirt?”

Intervention and Restoration

The kids once coaxed into SJOG are encouraged to go back to school, this after undergoing counselling in behaviour change. Religious and psychological counselling is also conducted apart from the medical care that they kids get.

With 95 percent of the children wanting to go back to school, SJOG prepares them for integration into conventional schools around Mzuzu and provides basics such as uniform and fees as the children advance in their education. The programme boasts of 65 and 16 children in primary and secondary schools respectively.

A special need teacher is always on standby to follow up their progress in terms of academics and behaviour and to provide remedial lessons and counselling.

For those that cannot go back school, SJOG instils vocational skills into them. They can take up carpentry, horticulture, brick-laying or homemaking (tailoring). Vocational skills are also taught to the rest during holidays to cultivate an earning culture to kill the dependency that might have set up camp in the children when they roamed the streets.

The project also furthers personal talent in the children. Various sports disciplines are available for the children to indulge in, in fact, the 2010 Champion of the under-15 Bingu Table Tennis Cup is from Umoza. A cultural dance troupe also sees the children raise their esteem and vent their energy by performing at high level functions.

Everybody is taught how to cook and personal hygiene emphasized, the result of which is neat looking children that make kids that stayed at home want to go into the streets just to join Umoza.

The project has seen a steep decline in the number of street kids on the streets of Mzuzu - actually there are no street kids in Mzuzu. Umoza currently has 95 students on the register but has rehabilitated about a thousand since the project’s initiation in 2003.

Looking ahead

Alex Nkosi, Project Coordinator of the Umoza Children’s Program said it is difficult to win cooperation of the parents and to change the attitudes of the community towards street children. He also bemoaned lack of support from government.

“The City Assembly can do more by regulating alcohol and video shows. The Social Services department should also try to help us more, we are strained,” Nkosi said, “The community should also do something and not expect SJOG to do everything for them.”

Nkosi further said that teachers in schools that absorb Umoza children should stop stereotyping the children as troublesome just because SJOG mainly focuses on mental health.

Mchengautuba, Salisbury and Masasa being the main suppliers of street kids have been earmarked as targets of a community based approach that SJOG is rolling out early next year. Centres will be opened where kids will be tamed before they even think of the street and parents taught positive parenting.

One of the rehabilitating kid in a vegetable  field

SJOG was established in 1993 by Brothers of St. John of God from Ireland who were invited by Mzuzu Diocese to establish a community based mental health care service centre to service the North. It was initially working with the church’s Primary Health Care Department but has now grown into a formidable multi-faceted institution that can now produce graduates in mental health.

As John Banda finishes his plate of porridge and prepare to start hitting the drum for Umoza dance troupe, many enjoy the rhythm without a thought of what could have become of the kid if he was left on the street.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad the children are getting the help they so need. I pray the program grows in strenght an numbers.