Mkombozi (meaning "liberator, emancipator" in Swahili) supports Tanzania's children and youth, including those at risk of vulnerability, through housing, education, research, advocacy, and outreach. Initially established in 1997 as a live-in residential center and safe haven for children living on the streets, Mkombozi has expanded its vision over the years. In addition to working with children already living / working on the streets, Mkombozi works to end the abuse and neglect of children, to ensure that children's rights are recognised, and to identify opportunities for intervention before a child migrates to the street. Today, Mkombozi is one of the leading child-focused agencies in northern Tanzania, working with over 1,000 children and families a year in Kilimanjaro and Arusha Regions.
Mkombozi tackles the complex issues surrounding child vulnerability with a holistic and sustainable approach. Our work involves:
- Researching and addressing the root causes that drive children to come to the streets;
- Enabling communities to value and protect vulnerable children;
- Offering education and work opportunities to each individual child which captures their innate potential;
- Strengthening family-based care of children who live / work on the streets and HIV orphans;
- Offering safety, love, food and medical care for children and youth at our residential centre;
- Working with children who live / work on the streets to break cycles of dysfunction, to build problem-solving skills, to facilitate conflict-management, and to teach life skills;
- Fostering a popular movement to prioritise children and young people.
Researching root causes:
Tanzania's state education system is under performing, and effectively excludes a range of children, who are poor, from difficult family backgrounds or have special educational needs. This means that vulnerable children are particularly at risk of non-enrolment, exclusion, truancy and dropping out from primary education because of economic, educational and familial factors. Problematically, the fact is that there is a relationship between children being out of school and migration to the streets. Mkombozi is currently researching why children are dropping out and playing truant in 10 target schools in the Kilimanjaro region. Students, teachers and government officials in 10 schools are collecting and analyzing data with Mkombozi. These schools will use the findings to pilot responses that will decrease the number of the children not going to school.
Mkombozi also notes that in the current weak economic climate in Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania, many smaller farms are unproductive and there are limited employment opportunities. This is exacerbated by limited access to services in villages and limited information at the community level about the resources and service providers that are available. Consequently, many believe that a better life is easily available in urban areas and flock to town under the impression that the “streets are paved with gold”. To stem the tide of migration to the streets in search of money and work, Mkombozi has developed an Information Guide that identifies services available (in 4 target communities) that can be used with little or no cost. The guide has been distributed to 15,000 households in the Kilimanjaro region and it is hoped this will help to reduce the number of children running to the towns in search of work or assistance.
Mkombozi’s research has shown that familial conflict is one of the root causes driving children to the streets. Children who choose to migrate to the street tend to demonstrate a "fight or flee" response to conflict and it is this cycle of dysfunction that Mkombozi endeavours to break. To this end, we are empowering local communities to identify and support vulnerable children in their communities. For instance:
- We recruit and train community mentors as conflict mediators and positive role models for children in the community.
- We run the first Big Brother Big Sister mentoring project in East Africa.
- We have established Peer Support Groups in four schools and at Mkombozi’s residential centre. In these groups, children are trained to identify and assist other children in distress, and teachers act as mentors.
- Mkombozi youth workers mediate family conflict so that dislocated / homeless children can return home.
We strongly believe in empowering communities, families and individuals to care for the most vulnerable in our society. We are constantly looking for ways to innovate and build on good practice in order to achieve this.
We are frequently amazed that the children we work with show such resilience. Despite their traumatic start to life, the violence they have endured, and the terrible experience they have had with adults, many defy expectations… they are loving, thoughtful and young social activists. They believe passionately in their ability to change the world and demonstrate incredible problem solving skills, empathy and creativity.
Mkombozi works hard to facilitate the psychosocial health of children in our care. For instance:
- Our youth workers work intensively with each child to help them achieve their behavioural, educational and reunification targets.
- Our children participate in non-formal or formal education at primary, secondary and even tertiary levels. The focus is on enabling children and youth to function as productive members of society, who strive to build a socially just and democratic world.
- We collaborate with local companies to place youths in apprenticeships and work placements.
- We are piloting the WHO’s Modified Social Stress Model and Street Kids International’s Street Business Toolkit as innovative new methodologies to use as part of youth rehabilitation.
Mkombozi’s youth workers conduct high quality family re-unification of children who have been on the streets. We focus on genuine re-unification whereby the problems driving children to the streets are resolved, rather than mere relocation of children back into their home environment. The process, which prioritises the best interests of the child, involves:
- Raising the potential for reunification with children who are either in care at our residential centre or who continue to live on the streets;
- Interviewing the children about their personal history;
- Understanding the original act of separation between the child and his / her family;
- Assessing the potential for reunification by finding and verifying the child’s family and assessing the suitability of the family for reunification.
- Making a decision to reunify the child or not (ensuring systematic and integrated follow-up of the child and family once they have been reunited).
Mkombozi works hard to reunify families so that long term institutional care of children is only used as a last resort.
Offering a safe space:
Mkombozi has a residential centre in Moshi which is open to any child or youth in need. Our youth workers spend time on the streets during the night and the day to identify vulnerable children who want to be helped. We have also built up a network of "informers" on the streets who tell us of new arrivals - this enables us to reach new children before they have been sexually abused or encouraged to sniff solvents.
At the residential centre, medical care, nutritious food, clothes and education are key services provided to all children. Additionally, youth workers are responsible for working intensively with each child to respond to their individual psychosocial, educational and reunification needs and to help them build relationships and break cycles of dysfunction. Mkombozi also provides opportunities for the children to develop a wide range of skills, such as drumming, acrobatics, drama, gardening, art and sports. In fact, on the last Saturday of each month, a performance is organized by the children to showcase their diverse dramatic and musical talents - almost 300 community members regularly attend “Jioni ya Msanii” (Evening of the Artist) for an evening of entertainment and art.
Although Mkombozi believes institutional care of children should be a “last resort”, it is also true that the Ministry of Community Development Gender and Children is one of the most under resourced departments in Tanzania, and thus, it is imperative that organisations like Mkombozi continue to offer basic child protection services. Moreover, because children who live on the streets face a one in three chance of being raped if they sleep on the streets, Mkombozi is compelled to offer the safe space of our residential centre to over 70 children a month.
Children on the streets are often perceived to be a nuisance in Tanzania. Consequently, they are excluded from many social and spatial areas in the city and they are marginalised due to perceived "deviant" characteristics and their homeless status. Many people are scared of these children, and thus they are condemned, abhorred and avoided by the public and harassed by the police. It is often forgotten that these children have no where else to go, that they are on the streets because of adults' mistakes, that they are the citizens of tomorrow, and that they need our respect and our compassion.
Mkombozi campaigns to break down common prejudices about children who live / work on the streets. Specifically:
- We raise awareness amongst policy makers that children on the streets are not a problem in themselves, but the manifestation of wider communal dysfunction.
- We are facilitating a national movement to value children and young people; acknowledging them as decision makers of tomorrow who are jeopardised by continued marginalisation.
- We advocate for children's rights at national and international levels and emphasise that national development will not take place whilst 50% of the population is unheeded by society.
- We have convened the Arusha Caucus for Children's Rights as a platform whereby civil society can advocate for child-focused local development.