Mpendulo from Umthombo, our partner project in South Africa, visiting us in London — May 2018 with Amos fundraiser Azey Bennetts and Street Child lead worker Karin Joseph outside the Amos office. © Ben Harvey, Watering Can Media
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Umthombo’s work with children on the streets in Durban is so successful in reintegrating them with their families and supporting them to stay at home, that they are developing a range of preventative programmes, focusing on substance abuse and working with teenage mothers trapped in street life.
Umthombo Street Children is a pioneering South African organisation based in Durban, providing a fusion of sports and arts activities alongside psychosocial support, training and long-term aftercare; through these programmes they are able to accompany the children and young people as they begin to deal with the traumas they’ve experienced and start to find alternatives to a life on the streets.
Their longstanding advocacy work, which led to the creation of two major street child initiatives — Street Child World Cup and Surfers Not Street Children, has transformed the lives and treatment of many children on Durban’s streets.
Mpendulo from Umthombo visited us in London in May 2018.
Karin Joseph, Amos' Street Child Lead caught up with him.
Where does Umthombo’s work with a young person begin?
Umthombo’s aim is to assist children who find themselves stranded on the streets. We have an outreach team identifying new children and working with those who have been on the street for a longer time. Our outreach requires being intentional — building sustainable relationships in a fun, play-based way.
We have our drop-in centre, providing basic services: meals, bathing and washing facilities. It is a space for social workers to start engaging and build trust with children. How long this takes will depend on each child. Through group and one-to-one sessions, sport and play, we find out their story and how we can support [them].
Umthombo’s aim is to assist children who find themselves stranded on the streets. We have an outreach team identifying new children and working with those who have been on the street for a longer time.
Once a child is ready, we may then start the process of reintegration. Our home assessments are so important to determine how safe a child would be going back into the care of loved ones. If both the child and the family are ready to receive each other back, we will facilitate this. We try to deal with the issues that led the child to the street and find ways to mediate.
It’s not about us merely offering services, but about a reciprocal relationship-building process. We know that if we have that foundation right, the next building block will be easier.
Once a child is ready, we may then start the process of reintegration. Our home assessments are so important to determine how safe a child would be going back into the care of loved ones.
What happens after a child or young person has returned home?
If reintegration is possible, it doesn’t end there, we continue to monitor and mentor the child and family. Aftercare is crucial, many children exposed to street life have a tendency to relapse. We continue monitoring, however, we can: phone calls, home visits, even social media — with parents, and the child — maintaining consistency of contact, and supporting them to rebuild relationships.
As part of this, we run camps during school holidays. Most come from very poor communities where there are no recreational facilities and the school holidays are when it becomes most tempting to go back to the streets. These camps have become something to look forward to, to meet with other young people who’ve been in similar circumstances. They’ve become a wonderful time of peer support.
What about for those who cannot return home?
For those whom it may be difficult to reintegrate, we have our post-16 programme: an 8-12 week programme. They can’t go back to school and lack life skills or any useful educational background which would prepare them for independent living. So we look at how we can really empower these over-16’s.
We start with the trauma they’ve faced and how to deal with that: issues of identity, self-esteem, life skills, relationships. Then we look at how they can give back in their own communities. We run courses on money management, preparing for employment, internships with companies, help with CVs.
What are your current priorities at Umthombo?
About 4 years ago, we did a mapping exercise to look at high-risk communities around Durban that we see kids coming from. We started to identify who had key roles in the community and to partner with churches and schools. They helped us to identify who may be at risk. It’s proven to be a good model and is key to prevention work.
One of the most interesting pieces of evolving work has been with girls. We have been fortunate in the past 18 months to find Hlonphile, our girls’ outreach worker, who has the passion, love and zeal to engage with girls. Since Hlonphile took up her role, we have seen a huge increase in the number of girls we work with.
About 4 years ago, we did a mapping exercise to look at high-risk communities around Durban that we see kids coming from. We started to identify who had key roles in the community and to partner with churches and schools.
She has managed to go to places where most of the previous field-workers were afraid to go, to build relationships with not only the girls, but the people who surround them who are often hiding them and preventing them coming for help. We are looking at how to journey with girls in a way that will benefit them the most.
What are the biggest challenges you encounter in the lives of children on the streets?
For many young people in Durban that we work with, drugs are the main issue. There has been a shift from glue towards stronger drugs that are heroin or nicotine-based, mixed with various concoctions of antiretrovirals [for HIV], housing detergents and rat poison, and then smoked with cannabis.
Umthombo has seen a decrease in younger children coming onto the streets, but an increase of older young people who’ve just finished or dropped out of high school and are facing unemployment or insurmountable problems at home. These substances are readily available once they arrive on the streets, and they soon get hooked.
Do these issues differ for girls on the streets?
Girls also tend to be hooked on highly addictive substances and added to this, form dependence on the boyfriends or the pimps that get hold of them early and use them for commercial sex work. Worst of all, most of the girls are suffering multiple traumas.
The circumstances that may have led them to the street include sexual or physical abuse and harassment at home, and then they find themselves in a similar situation on the street. There are many health issues too — the majority of the girls we work with are HIV-positive.
Girls also tend to be hooked on highly addictive substances and added to this, form dependence on the boyfriends or the pimps that get hold of them early and use them for commercial sex work.
When we first engage with girls on the street,
they share minimal information with us because we’ve not yet built that trust.
By being available to them on a consistent basis, they start opening up. In many cases there is such a lack of self-esteem — they have withdrawn into themselves, and express deep shame and guilt. They normally see their situation as their own fault.
Our work is about enabling them to re-envision themselves as people who can come out of their victimhood and express what really happened to them, and find release.
What are you learning, in your work with girls?
What we are reflecting on is the need to accept that girls’ work is an intense work. It’s not about outreach, reintegration — job done! We need to listen to the girls and find out how we can best journey with them. Their situation is quite unique because of the level of traumas they have faced. What is important is to listen with our heart, and do the things girls direct us to do.
What we are reflecting on is the need to accept that girls’ work is an intense work. It’s not about outreach, reintegration — job done!
This means being there when they are ill; listening to them when they come in having been gang-raped and beaten up the previous night, yet they don’t want to report it to the police; assisting them to access healthcare, highlighting possibilities of seeking redress for what happened, when they feel ready. It is about providing a safe space for them to come and not feel judged, accepting them as they are. It is about saying ‘we are here, even while you are on the street. Home may not be an option right now but what can we do to journey with you?
Do you have hope in your work?
There is plenty of hope in the work that we do. The hope comes from the little stories of success, for me. We are working with human pain. And if one person out of a whole group finds hope, it gives us hope for the next. If one person takes one or two little steps towards empowering themselves, it gives us hope that others can too.
One girl has been on the street for over three years; through us journeying with her she has found hope, and today, she will have finished her first week in training as a supermarket cashier, doing something that she wants. She’s seen people doing this when she’s gone into shops with the minimal money she had; she can now see herself sitting there serving customers. There’s hope in that.
There is plenty of hope in the work that we do. The hope comes from the little stories of success, for me. We are working with human pain. And if one person out of a whole group finds hope, it gives us hope for the next.
There’s hope with families. We receive calls from parents and caregivers to say ‘our child is doing well’. But there is hope too when families know that they can come to us about the struggles they may still be facing, but they haven’t just given up on their children — they say ‘can you further assist?’. There is hope in that. It is exciting.
There is even hope with young people that are hardened on the street — who, when things become difficult — still come to us and say, ‘can you assist us? We know that you are here for us.’ They can come to us, look for our workers, reach out to them. There is hope in that. Just to know that there is somebody there to journey with you.
To find out more about Umthombo in South Africa and how you can support their work, please visit amostrust.org/umthombo
Find out more about Amos’ On Her Terms campaign.