Breaking ties with the street

Published Jun 9, 2008

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By Vivian Attwood

Fundu Shezi (nicknamed "Bandlani") has just turned 20. He has spent more than half his life on the streets of Durban. His skull and face are badly scarred and there is an aura of great sadness about him.

When he speaks, it is in a monotone, and his eyes have no lustre. He wears a plastic rosary around his neck - a special totem to ward off fear and darkness. It is a sign of hope on a child who has seen more darkness than anyone his age should be subjected to.

Shezi has just joined a three-month life skills programme for street children, run by I-Care at the Durban Children's Home. The course represents his strongest chance of abandoning street life, conquering glue addiction and resuming his education. He wants this opportunity with all his heart. The alternative is a hopeless downward spiral.

His story is sad even by the standards of a street child.

"When I was a baby my mother did not want me," he says.

"She threw me into an open sewer at Umlazi. A social worker found me and took me to the police. They put me in the Ocean View Children's Home.

"Later I went to a foster mom, but I was unhappy. She took the government grant, but was unkind about my mother. She was looking after five children, but she drank a lot. I was with her from six years old and when I was 10 I went on the streets.

"As I grew up, I started to smoke cigarettes, and then zol (dagga). I became addicted to glue on the streets. When I came here I decided to leave those things.

"I have been told that I have a brother and a sister who live in a place of safety. I would like to meet them one day. I have a lot of anger towards my mother for throwing me away. I dream about it all the time. How could she do that? I have so many questions.

Rejection

"I used to get food at Addington when they handed it out, and I also used to beg. I was very often hungry. It is a hard life. The police would hit us for loitering, and then we would run to the centre (the drop-in centre on Queen Victoria Embankment, run by I-Care and Umthombo). They heard my story and brought me here to get help. I want to finish school and find my family one day. Then I will look for a job."

Keegan Zulu, 16, is a well-spoken youngster with an obvious intelligence. He has spent more than a year as a street child, but wants to be reintegrated into his community and to return to school.

"I stayed in Durban North with my dad," he says.

"He died when I was 14. Because he worked for white people, I stayed on at their home. My gran used to visit and then she came and took me away with her to Umlazi. I wasn't happy. She hit me every day and then she told the social workers she didn't want me any more.

"I went on to the streets last year. I used to eat and sleep at a place of safety and go for a surf in the daytime. I had reached Grade 8 and now I want to go back to school. Tom Hewitt at Umthombo told me to come here and join the programme.

"I dream every day about having my own family.

"I love to surf and one of the lifeguards taught me to swim."

Three months later, the boys are about to graduate from the I-Care Adolescent Development Programme.

When I drop in at the Durban Children's Home to get an update on their progress, the transformation that has taken place is striking.

When Melta Jali, the programme's co-ordinator, summons the two from the craft project they are engaged in, I do a double take.

Two clear-eyed, straight-shouldered youths match my smile of recognition. They have obviously been eating well, because their skin is no longer chalky, but luminous.

Melta praises the efforts both youngsters have made during the course. "Fundu has been doing so well. When he applied for the course he was older than our cut-off age of 16, but he pleaded so hard to be given a chance that we accepted him.

"We have located members of his extended family and they say he must come to live with them. We hope he will continue his schooling, because he wants so badly to get a proper education."

Of Keegan, she has this to say: "He was initially disrespectful and grumpy and unwilling to do chores. You won't believe the way he has changed. He has learned to apologise when he is in the wrong and to accept responsibility. He also does chores without being reminded. Really, he is a different child."

"While Keegan's grandmother has said she is willing to care for him again, he says he isn't ready to move back in permanently. Instead, he will visit her regularly until he feels safe in her home.

"We need to exercise a lot of patience and understanding with these children. Forcing them into situations where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable won't make a difference. They will simply end up back on the streets," Melta says.

"We often feel that 12 weeks simply isn't enough for a programme of this sort," she says.

"The children have gained hope and learned to see themselves and their prospects differently. The programme has provided them with routine and a sense of stability, but they don't know what will happen next in their lives. There is a sense of restlessness as the course draws to an end."

Melta says that the families that will take the children in have a lot of adjustments to make.

"All they have experienced still plays on their minds. This is hard for their families to deal with. They expect discipline and perfect behaviour. The children have been exposed to things they should not have been exposed to at their age, and that is hard for others to understand."

Zulu comments: "It's been really nice on the programme. I've learned a lot of things; to respect myself and others and to show love. I have more discipline now."

Excited

"I have learned that I am equal to any other person," Fundu says.

"I am excited that I have found family that wants me. I will go to school and one day I will find a good job. I will live like other people, in a house, with food to eat."

The Adolescent Development Programme was kindly funded by the Southern Suns group. I-Care welcomes donations from the public and private sector to help with their work in rehabilitating street children and finding them safe homes.

The organisation's contact details are: Nedbank, Account Number 1648064566, KZN Business Branch, Code 164826. Visit their website at: www.icare.co.za

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