Travel Journal II: From Groenlo to Soroti

Blogger: Dirk Naaijkens*

Day 18 – 6th of June 2016

‘We thank you, God, that we can be here all together, and thank You for the presence of Dirk, who came here for us from the very far Netherlands. We are grateful for the food You provided, and for the faith You put in us. Amen.’ With this ‘morning devotion’, yesterday on the 6th of June, the street children project has officially started. This, thanks to the many donations which we have already received. About 15 children participate, although some more than others. Some arrive in the morning, under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This means it is barely possible to even speak to them properly. In the night they sniff plastic bottles which are filled with a piece of cloth, drenched in a mixture of gasoline and glue, which makes them high. This keeps away the feeling of hunger, but it also negatively affects their lungs and brain. The best thing to do is to let them sleep it off, even though this might sound strange. After the communal praying they can wash with some water and soap. The facilities are not fantastic, but we manage with what we have. After we have a breakfast of ‘porridge’, which reminds me a bit of Brinta. Then we start to get ready for the ‘psycho-social programme’.

Our project manager Julius, starts the first group session. He speaks about the idea and goal of the project: ‘You are here because we want to help you. You will learn from us, we will learn from you. We are trying to help you with what you want. If you want to go back home, we will help you with that. But, this will not happen immediately. Some of you lived on the streets for five, six years. Life back home is different than life on the streets. So, we have to prepare you, to get a different mindset. And we have to talk to your family, because you changed during the time you weren’t back home. Life on the streets has no future’. It appears that there is a lot of suspicion: some doubt our motives, they are afraid that we will hand them over to the police. Not without reason; in the past other organisations promised to “care for them”, but instead used them for their own profits. This mostly made them worse off than before. We managed to take away most distrust, but there is still a long road before we will truly gain their trust.

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Of course some open up quicker than others. Especially the photo wall of the previous street children project gets an enthusiastic response. These pictures show youngsters that they know from the streets. With the help of RICODE these children went back to school, returned to their families or created their own home. The pictures contain many well-known faces. ‘Look, Washington!’, one of the boys screams.  Washington went back to school and is now enrolled in high-school. These pictures show a very concrete image of what their future might look like, but: ‘The ball is in your hands now’, Julius emphasises. ‘The question is: what do you do with it? Do you throw it away, or do you keep it in your hands?’ This question will be answered in the upcoming four weeks. The children have until Wednesday to show they are serious about the program by having a sort of intake interview with a psychologist. Those who do not show their commitment, or those who just show up to fill their bellies, will not be accepted in the program. Although of course I hope, as does the rest of the team, they will hold on to the ball with the right guidance.

This will not be easy for all of them. Especially the older ones, there are four aged 20, are very serious. They have reached an age at which their future becomes very concrete if they do not change their way of life: then there is no future. Some of the younger ones take it lighter. ‘You know boxing?’, Otim asks me cheekily. I take my chances: he is way smaller than I am, about 13. So I answer ‘Yes, of course’. Two minutes later they accept me into the group as a hero with a big applause. ‘Haha mzungu, very good!’ I think they start to like me. Another boy, barely 12 years old, says something in Ateso (the local language) which makes the others laugh. ‘What did he say?’ I ask his neighbour. ‘He said, about you: “you look cute. If you were a girl, I would take you”.’ And with that, my feeling of being “one of the guys” crumbled to the floor within minutes.

*Dirk is a student from Utrecht University currently doing his internship in Soroti / Uganda.

Translation: Akeo Veerman