The tattoo on sixteen-year-old Halima Bintu’s forearm is faded, but you can still see the scars. The thin crooked letters engraved across her dark skin read: “Halima Bintu”, “Takordi”.
It is common for children migrating from around the country to be given tattoos indicating where they came from, but who those details matter to is unclear.
Catholic Action for Street Youth (CAS) is a leader in attempting to keep track of the approximately 60, 000 children living on the streets of Accra though.
According to CAS’s founder, Brother Jos Van Dinther, the problem isn’t necessarily this literal head count, it’s that resources for projects like his are drying up and the problem requires much more than foreign aid for support.
In her local language of Twi, Hamila recounts the past few years of her life.
Halima tells me how her sister was murdered in a knife fight brought on by a gang of territorial girls. She describes her work as a hawker on the streets of Accra, where she has peddled sachets of pure water for 10 GH₵ (.06 CAD) per pack. She goes on to describe the brutal rape and violence she has endured – and continues to endure – while living on the streets.
Some might say it’s a wonder she ever left home.
Dutch-born and founder of CAS, Brother Jos Van Dinther, sat beside Halima and excused her from the interview.
“Many people believe that all street children are criminals, he says”. We [at CAS] know that many of these kids are good children. The just need love and support. That’s all. They have a family. They have somebody behind them who could have them if they wanted them,” explains Bro Jos.
Who could have them, but may not want them.
According to Bro Jos, these children come to Accra from all over Ghana and surrounding countries. If you want to send the child back you have to investigate why they left for a variety of reasons – abandonment, broken families, abuse, or perhaps, defilement.
“That’s why we don’t send any child back home. All this ‘reintegration’ is very nice, but it won’t work,” he says. The children return, but the problems in their family homes remain.
During the course of my hour-long conversation with Bro Jos, Halima’s story began to blend with other accounts of children seeking solace at what CAS’ calls their “House of Refuge”.
Established in 1992, Bro Jos and his staff support an average of 40 to 50 children each day at the CAS drop-in centre in the heart of Accra.
“[Often] the children don’t know how to take a bath, keep their clothing clean, speak to an adult,” says Bro Jos, and so CAS teaches them how.
That’s step one in CAS’s approach – teaching basics such as hygiene and health care on the streets, where Bro Jos and his street team seek these children out to let them know – first of all – that CAS exists.
Step two is to invite the children to CAS’s drop in centre where they are given rudimentary education and art classes. For those who show interest, CAS sends willing children to a training centre in Ashaiman – a district in the Greater Accra area – where they are taught vocational skills and begin the prep work for a formal education.
“To send a child to school and to a workshop, that costs €1,160 Euros, and we have to ensure that we have the money to make sure that the child can stay there,” Bro Jos says.
And this is where the plot thickens.
CAS is completely dependent on donations that they acquire through writing to donor organizations, embassies, and associations. They always seem to find support, “but it’s getting less and less”.
According to Bro Jos, the decline of the global economy effects CAS’ work with the Accra’s street children.
“People are very skeptical to see where the money they give is actually going and if it’s really used for the right thing. So, it’s very difficult to convince people that it’s worth while to give money.”
So where is the government in all of this?
Director of Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare (DSW), Steven Adongo, says: “There are several interventions that Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare takes, though there are many things that the general public won’t see that we are doing. That is because the problems are so large. Because even when you deal with a few children, it doesn’t seem like you are doing anything.”
Bro Jos works closely with the DSW and is encouraged by the fact that two years ago they decided to open a subset of their department that deals with street children, but more needs to be done.
CAS conducts it’s own surveys of street children by partnering with other NGOs and the Ghana government to release these statistics.
The service they provide the Ghanaian government is integral to combating the issue, though there are no provisions made by government to hand over that responsibility.
“We as NGO’s can never solve this problem. We as NGOs should not solve this problem. It’s a government problem. A social problem. So, we should find the root causes. Why are these kids on the street? Once we find what these roots causes are, we can solve the problem.”
Further Listening: Former street child “Michael” shares his story of hardship on the streets of Accra and how Catholic Action for Street Children helped him.