Artery of hope in Africa

One in five Tanzanians is a child, and two million of them are orphans,writes Jekaterina Saveljeva

Mon, Apr 8, 2013, 14:50

In the heart of Dar es Salaam beats an artery of hope. Orphaned children from around Tanzania are delivered to Hocet (Hananasif Orphanage Centre Trust Fund) orphan centre by Hezekia Mwalugaja and his wife, Mama Hezekia, providing them with a second chance. With more than two million orphans in the country (as a result of Aids, maternal deaths and a high number of road accidents), every bit of love is valued.

The centre is a community with a fresh approach. Baba (Swahili for dad) Hezekia and Mama Hezekia live at the centre with their three children, treating the others as their own. In his own words, they don’t go to work there – they live there as one big family. With a city home, a primary school with lodging in the country and a secondary school to be opened soon, Hezekia is a one-of-a-kind activist in Tanzania.

“By educating these kids, we don’t want them to get a job; we want them to create jobs, give something to the community, be the change,” Hezekia booms. “We teach them to save. To give to the more needy.”

The centre provides a rare opportunity to dream. It is 40 per cent self-sustainable and by the end of 2013, it should be fully independent from fundraising and international donations. Accordingly, a chicken farm produces eggs for sale; organised gospel concerts and DVDs with music clips of their own production provide other income.

“We don’t want these children to think that they can only work in a factory making things, or selling things,” Hezekia continues. “We want them to know that they can do anything they want – be musicians, artists, lawyers and so on. There should be no discrimination in the jobs that are available to them.”

Most orphanages in Tanzania are financially strapped. Another orphanage, Mwandaliwa, 40km outside the capital, is home to 79 children, yet only has 29 beds, an unfinished roof and no running water. The children are sent there by the government, which offers no financial support. Mama Arima and her children rely on the community to buy basic food and school stationery. They fetch water from a neighbouring business at night. Sometimes the guard catches them and turns them away with dry buckets as he doesn’t want to risk losing his job.

Mama Arima is a divorced Muslim woman, running the orphanage alone. It started in 2002 when she took two children from an old man who died two days after he was relieved of them.

“For weeks I searched for the children’s parents through local and national newspapers, with no results,” she explains. She decided to keep them. Shortly after, the people in the community and the government started to send her more orphans. Omari Sultani, a young man from Zanzibar, teaches English, organises debates at the orphanage and lives there with the children because he wants them to have a feeling of a family life. The children brought to Mwandaliwa are as young as six weeks old. None have reached the age of 18 yet. “When they do, they don’t have to leave – this is their home,” says Omari. “But we will try to save up some money for them if they want to start a business.”

West of Dar es Salaam, in the region of Iringa (which used to have the highest HIV/Aids infection rate in the country), it is difficult to give an exact number of orphanages. Many are run by Europeans or Americans. In recent years Iringa has been afflicted by devastating droughts which leave many families in despair as 85 per cent of the population depends on farming.

In Tanzania, orphans can be children who have lost their parents or who have been abandoned through poverty. Agricultural projects run by Concern, Irish Aid and other NGOs provide relief. Crucially, these projects prevent children from being condemned to a life on the streets and inevitably consumed by the sex trade.

Before becoming Concern’s Livelihood programme co-ordinator in Iringa in 2010, Edna Lugano worked as an education co-ordinator for three years in the Family Planning Association of Tanzania at a refugee camp in Kigoma on the border with Burundi. She questions why the government has made adoption of orphaned children so complex for both locals and foreigners.

“In the refugee camps run by Unicef, the most vulnerable children were identified and were then distributed between volunteering refugees to be fostered,” explains Lugano. “Most often the children were relocated to their new home countries with the foster family. This should be taken as an example for our orphan situation. There are a lot of fears surrounding orphans – superstition, not being accepted as the new parents. But adoption needs to be exposed more to the people by NGOs and the government as there are families today that have no children at all.”

Adoption in Tanzania is uncommon; the orphaned child is traditionally taken into the uncle’s family. This sometimes has disastrous results for the child. “It’s great if the family is kind, but most often the children are used as free servants and are treated like second class citizens,” she says.

Most recent Unicef figures indicate one in five Tanzanians is a child. A quarter of all these are orphans; possibly many more are not classified as such, but are lacking in adequate care and basic needs.

With HIV/Aids coming under control through free antiretroviral drugs, the number of maternal deaths is falling with medical care reaching more people in hard to reach places; the focus needs to be on those already in care and those that are in danger of ending up on the streets of exponentially growing cities.

The focus is now on those already in care and those in danger of ending up on the streets. “The street children are becoming a big problem, and rehabilitating them will be extremely difficult,” says Lugano. “If they could be adopted easier, that could slow the problem.”

Jekaterina Saveljeva’s trip was sponsored by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund, which was set up by Irish Aid – part of the Department of Foreign Affairs – in memory of the journalist killed in June 2004 while filming for the BBC in Saudi Arabia.

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