Blog: Joram John

The outreach worker for street children in Mwanza, Tanzania, on his unique understanding of their plight

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I don’t have any happy memories of my life before I ended up on the streets. I never knew my mother and my father wouldn’t tell me anything about her. He was drunk and violent. When he remarried there was no room in the family for me – my stepmother had her own children. I felt unloved. They made me do all the work. Eventually they abandoned me.

I was six years old. I had nowhere to go but the streets of Mwanza in Tanzania. I was frightened and alone.

I started off sleeping in trees. I thought I’d be safe up there. I made a kind of bed out of ropes and boxes. But the police were always moving me on. Once they woke me up by firing warning shots at my tree. I was leaping from tree to tree like a squirrel, trying to get away from the gunfire, then I fell and injured my arm. I didn’t sleep in the trees after that.

On the streets I met other children who had nowhere to go either. We stuck together. We were always moving around because the police kept harassing us. Sometimes we stayed in a kind of tent by the lake, which we made out of plastic bags and bits of rubbish tied together with ropes and pond weed. At other times we slept out in the open in the streets around the marketplace. We used to take it in turns to stay awake and act as look out.

We all got into trouble sometimes but we never did anything that bad. The police would make up charges against us – or if we’d been playing roughly or begging they’d exaggerate what we’d done. They hated us and they used to beat us up a lot. It wasn’t a good idea to fight back, I learned.

When I was 10 years old I got into a scuffle with the police and I ended up spending eight months in an adult prison. I was terrified when I was sent there. It was a vicious place. I learned how to survive and protect myself.

Most of my street family are still on the streets. Some sleep in rubbish dumps. A few have their own families – their children were born on the streets. Some are in prison. Some are dead. One has lost his leg.

My life started to change when I was about 13 years old. The director of a local organisation that helps street children used to pass us every day as we were begging on the streets. He’d give us money but he also talked to us. He said to me: “You can’t spend your whole life begging for money.”

That got me thinking. I needed a way to get off the streets. I decided to start my own business carrying people’s luggage. I asked the charity for help. They gave me a trolley so that I could carry heavier loads and lots of practical support with the business. Eventually I was earning enough to be able to rent a room to live in. Finally I felt safe.

That was 15 years ago. Today I work as an outreach worker for the British charity Railway Children. I support children on the very streets where I used to sleep.

Every morning as soon as I wake up I head to the streets. I need to check if the kids have been OK overnight. Lots of children put up barriers because of the trauma and abuse they’ve been through so it can be hard to build a relationship with them, but my own testimony can really help. They know I’ve been where they are now – and my story shows them there’s still hope for them.

We want to persuade the children to let us help them get off the streets and make a long-term plan with them – but in the short term we try to meet their basic needs on the streets as best we can. I regularly need to get the children medical treatment – they’re often injured on the dangerous streets and many suffer from infectious diseases or malnutrition.

I think it’s important to bring some routine to their lives, so every day we play football with them and run an informal mobile school. In the afternoons I take the children down to the lake and get them to wash themselves and their clothes.

I really love my job because I never thought I would be here today – alive, settled in a job and a home and helping children every day.

There are two of us outreach workers trying to look out for all the children on the streets in Mwanza. That’s not enough. Children are killed on the streets of East Africa most nights. We can’t always be where we’re needed. We’re devastated when something bad happens to a child on the streets and we weren’t there.

My life has changed so much since my unhappy childhood. Without Railway Children and its local partners I’m sure I’d still be living on the streets – or worse.

Now I’m very happily married, with four children. My youngest child was born a few weeks ago.
I often talk to my own kids about my life on the streets. My experiences have taught me to love my children fiercely and to really listen to them. Their lives are so different to how mine was at their age. Our eldest son, Steven (13), wants to be a priest. Our 10-year-old daughter Teresia wants to be a pilot. Veronica (seven) wants to be a soldier. I didn’t have any dreams when I was a child. I thought my life was a punishment. I didn’t think I’d live.

Our programme in East Africa can only continue with support from the public. If you donate to our If I Grow Up appeal before January 22, 2016, your donation will be doubled by the UK government – meaning we can reach twice as many children.

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