Focus on Africa: Face to face with Accra's street children

Nine years after her first visit to Ghana, working trustee Nicola Barranger returned to photograph and write about the results of her fundraising efforts.

During a particularly long board meeting in the summer of last year, I heard a distant voice say: "OK, I'll go." It was only in the following, sobering few seconds that I realised the voice had been mine and that the question was: "Who is free to go to Ghana?"

It is one of the joys of being a working trustee of Street Child Africa that there is the opportunity to travel, provided one has the inclination and the time.

There were several reasons for this trip: to update Street Child Africa's library of photographs; to find individual stories of street children for the fundraisers; and to report back to donors. As a freelance broadcaster and journalist, I was an obvious choice.

Street Child Africa was launched in 1998 to address the growing problem of children flocking to Africa's streets in search of work, money and the hope of a future. What they usually find is hunger, disease and violence.

Ghana, like many African countries, has no welfare system. If you are unlucky enough to be too sick to work, tough - you are on your own. Perhaps that is why so many businesses seem to say a prayer in their very names: Jesus is Wonderful Beauty Salon or In God We Trust Car Repairs. Mind you, after looking at the state of the workshop, one might indeed have to say a prayer.

Even though city life is tough, for many it still offers a better chance of survival. All street children live by their wits. HIV/Aids often thrusts children into the role of head of a family of several younger siblings, although in Ghana this is not as acute a problem as in other parts of the continent. Street Child Africa is the only UK charity solely dedicated to helping Africa's street children, and it works with its African partners in Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Ghana is often known as "beginners' Africa" - it is considered the easiest country in which to ease a westerner into the continent. I was not a beginner, however - nine years before, I had visited as a reporter for the BBC World Service. I was so impressed by the work of two non-governmental organisations that I became involved in fundraising in the UK and joined the board of the newly established charity Street Child Africa. I was returning to visit two of the charity's partners: Catholic Action for Street Children and Street Girls' Aid.

New projects

One particular project is very exciting - the new House of Refuge for Street Girls' Aid. The project helps young pregnant street girls at their most vulnerable - when they are about to give birth and in the few weeks afterwards. Girls receive ante- and postnatal care, as well as advice on how to look after their new babies. For years the project has been working out of a refuge in the Mamobi district of the city, but after some fantastic fundraising efforts it has managed to purchase a new House of Refuge. I needed to see and take pictures of the new building, and talk to director Vida Asomaning-Amoaku about how much funding is needed to refurbish it.

What is so valuable about the trip is the personal contact. As a radio producer, talking to people is what I do. And it's a wonderful job if one happens to be nosey. You have a perfect excuse for asking some appallingly direct questions: "Why did you come to the streets? Are you an orphan? Do you have HIV? What happened to your boyfriend?" All of this within five minutes of meeting one poor girl whose only future is the street.

Maintaining a strong bond

The trip strengthens the relationship between the UK charity and its African partners. When I visited nine years ago, George Ansah was a dedicated and passionate young worker for Catholic Action for Street Children. Today, he is married with two children of his own and is deputy director of the organisation. He is still just as passionate; his grin is as wide as I remember and I still struggle to understand his beautiful Ghanaian English.

Face-to-face contact helps us to understand Ansah's problems, while he can get an idea of what life is like trying to raise money from what he sees as the rich man's table.

If personal contact in Africa is precious, so is the link between trustee and donor. Street Child Africa grew through the support of one parish group in Thames Ditton in Surrey, but we now have donors throughout the country, and a particularly active trustee and fundraisers in Scotland.

Supporters often hang on every word - as if, just by listening, they can reach out to these children. Being a trustee is an extremely humbling experience - one that brings with it a quite frightening responsibility, to both the children and the donors.

If things go according to plan, Street Child Africa will eventually be able to add to its current staff of four, enabling it to grow, find more partners in other countries and, hopefully, make more trips. Will it, at some point, be time for me to resign from the board and perhaps combine voluntary and professional work? Unlikely - I can't imagine ever bringing myself to charge Street Child Africa for my time. I have seen the charity through conception, birth and its first faltering steps. Now it is a young adult. Like any parent, it will be extremely hard to let go.

The diary of Nicola Barranger's visit appears on the following two pages.

SUNDAY

When I arrive at the airport, I am met by the wonderful Simon, confidently holding a placard with my name on it. Having a personal driver at home would be considered the height of luxury - here, it is essential. Simon is not only my driver. He is my minder, and helps me with such things as money (17,000 cedis to the pound stretches my feeble mental arithmetic). I trust him with everything, and slowly I tune in to the rich Ghanaian vowels that will ring in my ears all week.

MONDAY

The first day of any trip is usually pretty exhausting, as you settle into the culture and climate and assess what needs to be crammed into five short days. During my stay I need to visit Street Child Africa's two partners: Street Girls' Aid and Catholic Action for Street Children.

I start by meeting Vida Asomaning-Amoaku, director of Street Girls' Aid.

She reminds me about the trauma of their work: "The youngest pregnant girl we found on the street is 13." Vida believes that out of an estimated population of a million, Accra has about 20,000 street children, 5,000 of whom are babies whose mothers live and work without homes. To help these mothers during the day, Street Girls' Aid looks after about 600 babies in four creches and an annexe.

It is time to have a look at one of them. About 30 beautiful four- to six-year-olds catch sight of me. "Oburoni, Oburoni!" they all shout as I approach, surrounding me and jumping up and down as if I am some curious Pied Piper. It's difficult to walk as they cling to my thighs - goodness knows what they think I'm going to do. Then I remember that "Oburoni" means "white". They don't see many white faces. Even for an amateur photographer, it's impossible to take bad pictures of these gorgeous children in such excellent light.

Later in the afternoon I manage to talk to some of the street girls who have recently given birth. They are beautiful and allow me to photograph them with their babies. There is Hareeta and her baby Malisa (above), Comfort and young Rasheed. All the girls have dreadful stories to tell.

Comfort was ejected by her boyfriend's family, who managed to convince him that Comfort was little more than a prostitute. At eight months pregnant, she was out on the streets, carrying heavy loads on her head during the day and sleeping in rainy alleyways at night. These feel like tales from 19th-century novels. One day, she tells me, she would like to work in medicine. She smiles at 'Aunty Fosty', who is listening. Fostina Napashi is the 'house mother', who sees the girls through the last weeks of pregnancy and helps with the new infants.

TUESDAY

Today I visit our other partner in Accra, Catholic Action for Street Children, and catch up with its Dutch-born director, Jos van Dinther.

I speak to some of the young, streetwise boys who come to the centre for free lessons and a place to wash. I need their stories for our fundraisers, but they are apprehensive of a white, middle-aged woman with a microphone.

Who can blame them?

You can tell that two of the boys, Stephen and Desmond, are lifelong friends - neither will talk unless I promise to interview the other. The look in their eyes suggests that they have been through some bad times together, but I know that it would take seven days, not seven minutes, to begin to get them to open up.

In the afternoon, Jos invites me to Hopelands (see picture, far right), an initiative allowing children who are determined to start a new life to spend six months on a farm. The idea is to get them used to discipline and responsibility before returning them to formal education. I meet Seth, who wants to be an engineer, Linda, who wants to go into catering, and Razak, who wants to be a musician. All these children have is their ambitions.

On the bumpy, 90-minute drive back to the city, I am sandwiched between two other passengers. During the incredibly hot journey, Jos and I have the nearest thing to a meeting. He laments that fundraising for Vida Asomaning-Amoaku's baby care programme is always going to be easier than raising funds for his young adults.

WEDNESDAY

I feel as if I've been in Accra for two weeks, not two days. Today turns out to be the easiest of the week - I need to see the new House of Refuge for Street Girls' Aid. It's an enormous but ramshackle house in a quiet residential area, a wonderful building, but in need of massive refurbishment. The fundraisers need photographs to see where more money is needed, and the donors to see where the money has been spent.

In the afternoon, I pay a social visit. One particularly generous director of a local mining company has given us funding for specific needs such as the brochure and software. I arrive to say thank you and leave with an invitation to stay with him and his delightful wife. As I am spending the charity's money by staying in the friendly, but basic, Airport View Hotel (with no view of the airport), I feel accepting would be a wise move.

FRIDAY

Today is my last day, but I need to take some pictures of the shanty, which earlier in the week I had failed to do because of the understandably aggressive reaction. These pictures are very important for fundraising - I give Sammy the camera and tell him I need at least two dozen pictures.

He returns, half an hour later, with excellent shots. Many are taken at an angle of 45 degrees, but I do not have the heart to ask why.

Nine years ago, I remember flying home over the Sahara at night and pondering the old chestnut - how can we send a man to the moon but not solve poverty on earth? As I travel home today, my thoughts are quite different. With a better understanding of unfair trade agreements and third-world debt, I realise that the west just doesn't want to solve the problem of poverty enough. But with so many millions now championing change and supporting charities like our own, might there be a different mood?

One has to remain optimistic and hope that we might just see world leaders shamed into action.

THURSDAY

If yesterday was easy, today makes up for it. Simon takes me to Street Girls' Aid to meet Rose (pictured, right), and together we head for the market to see her work with street girls. In Africa, life is in the marketplace, and Accra is pretty typical - noisy, vibrant, desperately hot and scary if you don't know your way around. It is here where new street children invariably end up.

Almost all of the women are carrying large pans on their heads - to my untrained eye, they could all be street girls. Rose eventually spots one, but in order just to see this bedraggled eight-year-old, we need to stop the customer she is working for. I hate to snap this girl, but if it means just one more regular donor then it will be worth it. Rose keeps the customer in conversation while I take the photograph. I smile at the young girl and give her 15,000 cedis, which is probably more than she will earn for the job.

Rose is excellent company and we get on well as she takes me to meet street mothers. They gawp at me, while I take as much interest in them and their wretched lives. One asks if my hair is a wig. Another wants to play with the camera and takes a photo of what I can safely say is me looking my worst.

Next, we move into the shanty town by the market. Rose stops in front of a small, squalid shack where a 'granny' looks after 15 or so under-fives (above). Many have skin diseases and diarrhoea. I have seen animals kept in better conditions in the UK. The heat is terrible and the air is stale. Predictably, in these conditions, when one child catches something it spreads instantly.

There is no time to linger. At this point, I am in need of a cool shower and an even cooler drink, but there is a busy evening ahead. I need to experience something of how the children cope after nightfall, and Rose hands me over to two other Street Girls' Aid workers, Sammy and Fred.

Shanty town in Accra at night is different: a Dickensian world with an African accent.

I need to see an area known as 'Noah's Ark'. This is where old railway buildings were built on stilts. "Look underneath," Sammy says. There is no electricity, so it takes at least a full minute for my eyes to get used to the utter darkness - the sort that would traumatise a young child growing up in the UK.

Very slowly, I begin to make out a bit of bedding here, a scrap of clothing hanging up there. Eventually, after taking a closer look at the bedding, I can just about see a very small form - it's a child, about four years old, fast asleep. I can only make out the 'bed' nearest to me. Who knows how many infants are camping down here for the night?

Eventually, late in the evening, Simon takes me to my host's house. Caked in sweat and dirt, I hardly dare to enter their spotless home. After some serious fumigation, I enjoy their excellent company over what is now a very welcome meal. I realise it is the only time I have eaten all day.

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