‘We used to drink, do drugs, I saw people get murdered and raped. Often kids would do stuff when they were high not realising the consequences of their actions. It was not safe, but it was home and they were my only friends.’ Charles lived as a street child on the streets of Kampala for five years and explained to us that life certainly wasn’t easy. ‘Finding a cardboard box to sleep on, stealing bags to get money for food, and hiding from the government who hunt children down and put them in a prison for children were just some of the worries of living on the street.’ This is something that we witnessed first-handwhen Charles took us to see where he used to live. Boys and girls as young as four were walking around, dirty, deprived and lost. Children as young as 7 werehigh from sniffingglue; they grabbed you, hugging you and pleading for money. So many children. Too many children. For us it was an exhausting, emotional and disturbing experience. For Charles this was life and he was pleased to catch up with some children who he used to live with.
Life as a street child in Kampala was difficult so when the opportunity arose for Charles to sleep in a nearby church he seized it. This of course was not a long term solution so Charles found a job as a barber and soon could move out of the church and rent his own room near the streets. ‘It was a small room, with no furniture or bathroom, but it was mine so I went to get my two best friends from the streets to say that they could stay with me. When people saw me they were surprised at how much I had changed.’ Charles went to work the next day but when he arrived back there were 12 children sleeping in his room. ‘I realised then that I could be an example.’Charles had to limit how many were allowed to stay there and established his own house rules (no smoking, drinking, drugs etc) as well as starting to sponsor some of them through school. Charles knew then he needed a bigger room- he needed to save to rent a house.
Fast forward to 8 months ago and Charles was renting a house that was housing 98 street children, and Branches of Life International had been born. Paying for the children to go to school and finding sponsors was proving too difficult so he started a kindergarten of his own called ‘A-Z nursery’, teaching around 90 children, aged 3-7, from around the community. On top of this Branches of Life ran counselling sessions, support to get off drugs, a football academy (as when children are good at football they can get into a school for free!) and organised break dancing classes.
However this story doesn’t have a happy ending, well certainly not yet anyway.‘Paying teachers, paying school fees, providing food and paying rent on the house was difficult with no fixed income. So in the end the debts got too much and I had to close the school, and find a smaller house.’ This is the house where we met Charles. He had to resettle as many of the kids as possible yet some ended up back on the streets. Just 7 live and rely on him now, but he still has big plans for the future. ‘I have always wanted to create a sustainable children’s village where street children can live and be educated- but I know this might take a long time.’ For now the focus is on saving money and creating income. ‘We are starting an internet café, we make handcrafts and school chalk but in the future I would like to run chapatti stalls as this is an easy way to make profit in Kampala.’ There certainly have been setbacks, but Charles is learning all the time and what is clear to us is that he is extremelydriven.
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