There’s a little boy on the street in Jamestown, and for the moment, he is oblivious to the fact he is surrounded by chaos. He doesn’t notice the uneven and scarred rocky road or the pieces of trash that sit in its trenches. He doesn’t take note of how the air smells, a way that’s slightly off from most places he could ever dream to visit. For a few seconds, he doesn’t consider the fact that everything around him is makeshift and make-do. He, in that moment, could be any little boy in 2016 obsessed with flipping water bottles. This broken place is his playground, and in that instant his only toy is suspended in midair in front of his eyes. He’s wearing clothes. He has sandals on his feet. Those things set him apart from many other kids around him. He looks, for this millisecond, like one of the lucky ones.
Jamestown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Accra, the capital of Ghana. In this city, they do not mince their words for the sake of politeness. They call Jamestown a slum, a word that doesn’t begin to describe the community by Western standards. It’s a port neighborhood rife with history that has become home to the most vulnerable families in the city of 2.7 million people. Jamestown’s streets–such as they are–are lined with rusted metal, husks of old cars, and clapboard homes that are often less protection than a cheap tent. There is no way kind way to describe the place. It isn’t humble. It isn’t modest. It’s a slum.
The crackle of the water bottle as it falls on the street sounds just like it does anywhere else in the world, but everything else sounds like something different. It sounds like desperation.
“We are out there on our own”
To fully hear it all, you have to know what true desperation sounds like. It’s different than misery usually sounds in America or the UK. Even if these kids have a roof over their heads, they are often known by another blunt classification. The people here call them street children.
Paul Semeh was a street child. He’s not far enough removed from the hell of it to forget his father dying young and leaving him and his five brothers with their illiterate mother.
“Six boys. She was a housewife then. She had to do a lot of selling on the streets. I learned how to crawl on the street,” he recalls.
Street sales–hawking bags of water, tourist trinkets, or raw fruit in the middle of busy city throughfares–is one of the few legitimate ways the poor here survive. Semeh remembers it could be much worse. Children will do whatever they can to survive.
“There are people who try to take advantage of us, take our money. ‘Go buy drugs for me. Go call a prostitute for me.’ Those kinds of things that a normal child wouldn’t do. We are out there on our own. We are made to do some of these things,” he says.
There’s something haunting about how he talks. He’s removed from that life by many years, but he talks about it as if it’s happening to him in the moment.
In a way it is, because he’s still in the slum, and he’s surrounded by children who look like he did.
It’s a couple of hours before sundown, and there is a line of children outside the metal door. They are shouting and grasping at the metal bars that divide the crooked streets from the relative safety on the other side of the wall. They plead to get inside where other children are laughing, skipping rope, and chanting in English. Some of the children will get inside. Many will leave without having a chance to get past the gate.
This safe zone, an area not much bigger than the inside of a fast food restaurant, is the Street Children Empowerment Foundation (SCEF). Its play area is a dusty open-air courtyard. Inside the small offices, there are books, computers, and craft areas. Each day after school, children can come here for extra tutoring, playtime, and a snack. Semeh founded the Foundation in the hope he can pull more children out of the slums than might make it on their own.
On this day, Kay Hullock is in the craft room. She’s traveled to Ghana with Right To Play, a charity her employer, PokerStars, helps fund. For the past 15 years, Right To Play has developed games to teach and empower children all over the world to overcome the sometimes overwhelming challenges of poverty, disease, and conflict. It’s a daunting task, but one that has proven to work in more than a dozen countries.
Right To Play’s Neil Child-Dyer has led Hullock and the rest of a visiting team onto the streets of Jamestown. He was just a few months removed from becoming a father for the first time.
“Hearing the harrowing stories of the challenges facing street children was particularly difficult. The plight of street children in Ghana is very tough with poverty forcing many children into child labor,” he said later. “This deprives them of a childhood and the basic right to an education. Right To Play’s partnership with SCEF is really important and a great example of how using sport and play in lessons can make school fun, encourage kids to attend school, as well as teaching skills that benefit them in the long term.”
For now, Child-Dyer is playing with some kids in a half-built dormitory on the edge of the SCEF courtyard. In a scene that appears all over Accra, the local government has halted construction on the facility until the Foundation can come up with more money for permitting. The cost will be 100,000 Ghana cedis, the rough equivalent of £20,000 ($25,000). There is no telling when the Foundation will come up with that kind of cash.
Meanwhile, Hullock has sat down in the craft room to make a tiny paper crown. She finds herself sitting next to a little girl named Ernestina. When Hullock finishes her crown, she signs her name to it and places it on Ernestina’s head.
“Now you’re a real princess,” Hullock says, for the moment unaware of just how grateful she’s made the little girl.
The cost of a free education
For now, the business of the Right To Play games is taking everyone’s attention outside. The children inside the courtyard are jubilant and flashing the kinds of smiles reserved for the most optimistic and hopeful people in the world.
Right To Play and the SCEF have engaged these children where they know they’ll reach them. Not every child loves to learn, but nearly all love to play. When the games begin, the children barely know they are learning. When they’re finished, they have gotten an education without even knowing it.
That’s especially important for the street children. Despite hearing from the adults in Ghana that free education is their right, they have come to learn that their so-called rights come with serious sacrifices.
“The kids want to be in school. They want to get an education, but there is a huge cost to free education in Ghana. What I mean is, they have to buy their own exercise books. They have to pay for their exam fees. They have pay for their water bill, electricity bill, and all sorts of bills in the school,” Semeh says.
Six years ago, Semeh says, it cost a child $300 for a free education. Since then, that figure has doubled to $600, a fortune in the Jamestown economy. He tells stories of children suffering physical punishment for not paying their fees. He’s exasperated by the seemingly inevitable result.
“They’re not eating at night. Probably they were leaning against a wall when it was raining through the night, or somebody’s trying to defile them,” he says. “That is just a put-off. ‘I’m not eating. I’ve not slept well. Somebody has convinced me that this is my right. I’ve come to school. You want to hit me. On top of my hunger and lack of sleep? Take your school!’ They just leave. Literally.”
Once Semeh made it out of his slum, he dreamed of a place children like him could go to escape the abuse. He envisioned a center where the children could do the homework their illiterate parents couldn’t read. In his mind, he saw children playing, learning, and leaving the slums. He pictured giving them all clean water, decent toilets, and adults who take a sincere interest in their education. He saw children learning to read and finding a path around the countless pitfalls of street life.
“They are not frustrated. No matter what their teacher may be doing to them, they still see education as a key to getting out of their misery,” Semeh says. “If you can do this, this is what Christianity is all about it. It’s about giving to people, making people better, getting people to become better themselves.”
As the sunlight starts to cast long shadows over the courtyard, the children pick up their backpacks and line up at the gate. Volunteers and staff members are there with a boxed drink and a packet of snacks. There’s a good chance it will be the kids’ best chance at healthy food for the rest of the night.
At the front of the line, the little princess, Ernestina, wears her Kay Crown with pride. She takes her drink and snack and, instead of leaving through the gate, doubles back into the courtyard. She spots Kay Hullock not far away and goes to her.
Ernestina looks up at Hullock and offers her food and drink to the woman who made her a princess. It’s a thank you from the child who may have nothing else to eat to drink until morning.
Hullock, tears forming in the corner of her eyes, says in a kind voice, “Keep them…and the crown.”
Ernestina finally turns away and finds her way out into the Jamestown streets. That’s when Hullock’s resolve finally collapses, and she cries.
“I have never experienced such generosity before and it came from an 11-year-old girl with nothing more than the torn clothes on her back,” she says.
Sunset in Jamestown
The sun has little time left before it sinks over the nearby sea, and the streets of Jamestown are getting purple and dusty. Children run in every direction, and it seems few adults are watching over them.
The kids see the tourists milling about in the gravel and trash. The kids smile and call the white-faced people “Obruni,” the go-to name for any obvious outsider who doesn’t usually walk the streets here. Some of these children have a place to go when the sun finally sets. Some do not.
A couple of years earlier, Semeh walked the slum’s streets at night and found a boy named Bernard curled up alone in a clapboard kiosk. Stricken with a disease that made his legs almost useless, the then nine-year-old child had been abandoned by his parents. He’d been on the streets by himself for three weeks.
Semeh took Bernard in, gave him shelter, crutches, and a way to learn. On this day, he’s made best friends with every member of the Right To Play group. He doesn’t want them to leave, and they don’t want to leave him. There is something about his laugh and smile that make everyone believe Paul Semeh’s dream can come true. It’s pure, refined, infectious optimism in the middle of one of the most hopeless places the Obrunis could possibly imagine.
Bernard, balancing himself expertly on his crutches in the middle of the dust, looks up at Kay Hullock as she stands next to me. The little boy turns to me and asks in perfect English, “Why is she crying?”
Hullock takes one quick breath to steady herself, looks Bernard in the eye, and through a wash of tears says, “Because you’re smiling.”