GULU-UGANDA: A United States of America Non-Governmental Organization, “Sweet Sleep”, based in Tennessee, February 24, 2016, gave out mattresses, blankets, mats, mosquitoes-nets and bibles to twenty street children who used to sleep on the streets of Gulu Municipality.
Although Sweet Sleep could have spent a little under US1200 dollars to procure those items, the impact and significance of the donation to the children who had known the streets of Gulu as their only home, means a lot to the community.
One of the beneficiaries, fifteen-year old Lalam Brenda says she had never slept on a mattress all her life before and she found it so comfortable that she overslept. Instead of waking up at 7.00 am (04.00 GMT), she woke up at 9.00 am (06.00 GMT).
“I found the mattress so comfortable that I overslept last night. I woke up at nine instead of the usual time of seven o’clock”, says Lalam
“We are giving out beddings to children who are vulnerable. When they receive the beddings, they find out that they now have something of their own. This is a process of trying to move these children to permanent homes”, says Madelene Metcalf, president of Sweet Sleep while giving out the beddings to the street children on Wednesday, February 24, 2016.
Lalam Brenda ran away from her father’s home which is located at Lacor village near Gulu town in 2014 after the death of her mother, Akello Christine. Her father, Otim David, who now suffers from a violent mental illness, eloped with another woman who was already a mother of eight children from early marriage. The new step mother was hostile and would mistreat Brenda by giving her most of the domestic cores but not give her food despite the heave work she does.
“She now ties my father to a tree the whole day because he in violent and does not want to see people because of his mental illness. She became hostile to me.[i] She would always deny me food to eat but would give me most domestic cores to do. I had to run away from home. I am now four months old on the streets of Gulu”, says Brenda. She is now a Primary five dropout of Obiya West Primary School in Gulu Municipality who found herself on the streets of Gulu town.
She recalls that she spent the first night on the streets of Gulu was at the Gulu Bus park terminal from where she was introduced to street life by some of the girls of her age who had come to the streets earlier than her.
“Very early the next morning, they woke me up. They told me that in order to survive and get something to eat she must join them in going out to look for empty mineral water and metal scraps for sale to those who deal in those products”. She says.
On a lucky day, Brenda would earn two thousand shillings (under one dollar), just enough to buy the day’s only meal. On other unlucky days, bigger street boys would violently grab away the little she earns. That means sleeping hungry without eating any food.
“Big street boys would violently grab away the little we get threatening to beat us up if we refuse to give them our money. That means sleeping hungry”, says Brenda.
Then luck struck her and her colleagues one day as they were going about their usual business of collecting used water bottles and metal scraps for sale so as to eat. A staff of Surface Uganda, a local NGO based in Gulu, found them and invited them to visit their office for some assistance.
“They gave us water to bathe and new clothes to put on. That day, they gave us food and a place to spend the night. That is how I found myself here. I am now learning how to make ladies’ bags and purses using beads”, says Brenda.
Sweet Sleep started operating in Uganda in 2009 by helping some orphanages which are based in Kampala, but moved to Northern Uganda the following year assisting child headed households, widows and single mothers.
“People in Uganda are already doing what we (Sweet Sleep) teach others in other countries and continents. You find that widows here care for children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS, mothers who can teach skills to their children. This is one of the ways of getting rid of orphans from Uganda. We are developing a stronger generation”, says Madelene Metcalf while giving out the beddings to some of the Gulu street children.
Surface-Uganda was established by its Executive Director, Samuel Okwir, to empower vulnerable individuals, especially children and women, to live a dignified life. Its primary drive is the holistic development of vulnerable children with a special emphasis on the street children who live void of care and protection accorded in families. It aims to create awareness among stakeholders on the plight of street children and stimulate tangible actions that sustainably enable street children enjoy their rights to survival, development and participation in their remaining lifetime.
A recent study which was conducted by the LUID Consults indicates that 66.25% of street children survive on collecting and selling used water bottles and metal scraps, 10% on begging, 4% on food found in garbage and 4% on petty theft. The rest, especially girls, engage in commercial sex trade, house help works, vending, car washing and being paid in kind from services to small eating places in slums. Whereas 95% of street children had ever been in school, they had all dropped out of school in the struggle to make ends meet.
According to Okwir of Surface-Uganda, re-integrating these street children with their families is the ultimate aim of his organization. He was however quick to add that each child has unique conditions which drove them to the street, which also demands for unique solutions.
“Everybody must play his part if we want these children to leave the streets. Our local leaders must come out openly to support us”, he says.
Surface-Uganda is looking for funds to transfer the current rehabilitation center from the town center to Koro sub-county, a suburb of the town, in a more spacious place.
“We have the plan, but we lack funds to rehabilitate these children. Some of them are so young that they should be taken back to formal education while others need skills training.
According to Ms. Oyella Doreen Otoo, a psychologist working with Mental Health-Uganda, most patients of mental health don’t adhere to drug use, once they notice light improvement on their conditions.
“You need to take your drugs constantly. Unless one know his sickness, it is difficult to recover or sustain recovery process like the father of Brenda.