Shadia’s life changed the day her mother died.
From what I can tell, Shadia grew up in a loving home; she attended school and was taken care of by her mother. But when her mother passed due to complications from AIDS, everything changed. Now 17, Shadia has been on the streets of Kisenyi for more than 2 years.
She says she left home because her grandmother was not nice to her, she tells me she was forced to leave school and go to work instead. We are still piecing together her story, as we do with all the kids we meet. It takes time to figure out what exactly transpired, what has motivated these kids to leave home and not want to go back.
Kisenyi, one of the largest slums in Kampala, attracts children from across the country because of a myth that has been conjured up over time. Many children run away to Kisenyi to escape the abuse and mistreatment they face at home, thinking life on the streets will somehow be better. But they quickly become disillusioned by the harsh realities of street life.
Shadia is just one of many adolescent girls who have made their way to Kisenyi. She tells me that her life in Kisenyi is much harder than the one she left behind, but that she prefers life on the streets over living with her grandmother – something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Could her home life be that bad since her mom died, I wonder. Could living in the confines of a slum, not knowing where her next meal is coming from, sleeping on the ground and being easy prey for sexual assault really be better than living with her grandmother? We are working to find out.
Living on the street forces these kids to grow up fast, but you can still catch glimpses of a child in them. With Shadia, it’s watching her play football or listening to her talk about becoming a singer and dancer one day. She mentions that she wants to go back to school but, like so many other girls her age and older, she is no longer age-appropriate for the level at which she should return. This conundrum leaves girls like Shadia vulnerable to abuse, childhood marriage, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, STDs and HIV.
I found Shadia to be an impressionable teenager who can be easily talked into things, and this makes me scared for her. I quickly caught on that her “friends” were using her to try to get things from me for themselves. But I had an immediate connection with Shadia. All she wants is to be liked and to fit in, to have somebody care for her and love her. She asked me over and over, "why do you like me so much?" And I would look at her and say, "I just do."
Life on the streets is not a life for Shadia, or any kid for that matter.
Shule Foundation has rented a five-bedroom home to be used as a rehabilitation center for the children of Kisenyi. In groups of 20 at a time, we will move at-risk children like Shadia off the streets of Kisenyi and into our home. There we will provide rehabilitation services, help locate their families in the hopes of resettling them, and prepare them to go back to school.