Street youth and social networks in northern Tanzania

Last Friday I presented at the RGS-IBG post-graduate mid-term conference. It was fantastic to see so many varied presentations from across the geography discipline. I came home with many fascinating accounts of research ranging from food banks, dance and space to the the geopolitical vision of Cecil Rhodes. The delegates engaged really well with all the speakers and it was a very supportive environment.

One of the challenges of the conference was that there were so many great sessions running parallel, that it was impossible to attend all of the sessions and presentations that interested you. For this purpose, I have published the notes from my presentation below. I'm keen to keep this an open dialogue, so if you have questions in addition to those below, please feel free to add them to the comment box!


My research is investigating the lives and relationships of street-connected children in northern Tanzania using grounded theory methodology. I am partnered with a UK-based charity called StreetInvest who trains street workers - more commonly known in the UK as detached youth-workers - to effectively listen to, understand and assist street-connected children. My research aim was to understand the role of relationships in street-connected children's lives and how the street worker relationship fits into this broader network of relationships.

Methodology and background

I spent a total of 8 months in the field over two visits and conducted 25 individual and group interviews with 55 street connected children and young people, former street-connected children who are now adults, community members and practitioners. I conducted the research through a process of induction and deduction. Briefly analysing each interview before developing questions for the next interview. With grounded theory methodology, the purpose is not to collect data to produce findings that are representative of the whole population, but instead to build theory through a cycle of theoretical sampling and concurrent analysis and memoing. Later when categories are produced through analysis, theoretical coding is used to understand the relationships between themes that emerge in the data.

Interviews were conducted with children and youth who identified as street-connected children, aged between the ages of 11 and 23, with a median age of 17. However, it is worth noting that knowledge of age is fairly sketchy in this part of the world and so these ages should be viewed as indicative rather than absolute. We also interviewed community members, adults who formerly lived on the street and practitioners who work with street-connected children. 

Interviews with children were carried out most often in the evening by use of voice recorder and with semi-structured interview questions. The research assistants were trained in active listening and open questioning, and told that the main priority was to make the children feel listened to and to seek to understand what they were saying rather than keeping to a strict question order. In return for participating in an interview, we bought the research participants dinner.

There was only one street-connected girl in our sample, and she returned to her grandmother in the evening. Other than this, we did not come across girls living on the street. Research from other countries do include girls living on the street, and so the absence of girls in the field area may relate to cultural attitudes towards girls. Some of the participants told us that if girls wanted to leave home, they would more often get married or end up working as house help.

Discussion of data and Analysis

My current analytical findings span across 13 different categories. It is too early in my analysis to draw definitive conclusions. However, for the purposes of this presentation, I want to focus on initial findings concerning relationships. This section will outline three different sources of relationships that street-connected children and young people referred to during the interviews. These three sources are peers, community members and NGOs.

Being able to live on the street as a street-connected child or young person is contingent on being able to build a network of differing reciprocal relationships. Children reported, and we observed children, building a wide range of relationships throughout their time on the street, and these relationships served different purposes.

Firstly, Peers

Through relationships with their peers, street-connected children and young people were able to keep one another company in finding work or socialising. Peers also acted as a safety net, sharing food or money should a child not make any money or fall ill, for example. There was an expression of loyalty and understanding among the children who were living on the street.

"What am looking for from my friends is that I stay with them and are my relatives because when I am in trouble in the street they are the first ones to know." (I1.1, age 18, male)

However, some peers could be a source of danger. If one of them was thought to have committed a crime, it was likely that the police would find them and take them all into custody rather than just the perpetrator. Younger children complained of older peers stealing from them and older peers were known to use younger children to assist in theft, since the younger children looked less threatening - although it is likely that younger children would be paid for this work it still exposed them to a level of risk. Some children talked about how friends would introduce each other to new drugs, and that if a friend was starting to develop 'bad' drug taking habits, such as taking harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, then children might then consider to break the bond of friendship with that person to prevent also getting involved in taking harder drugs.

In summary, street-connected children depend on their peers for daily companionship and as a first port of call when they need help. They share a sense of solidarity and identity, and look out for one another's interests. However, on occasions, older children may exploit younger children, and some children may choose to avoid people who they consider to be a bad influence.

Second, Community members

Community members may choose to step in to assist a street-connected child for multiple reasons. Some may become familiar to a child over time and take him into their family or give him work to do. Some shop owners would permit children to sleep outside on their verandas, and there were various other locations that served food or showed videos where children were often allowed to sit for free or at a reduced cost - these places became valuable sites of safety and familiarity for the children involved in the study. The women in the market often gave children food or money in return for errands, such as watching their market stall or fetching water. The children would sell things to the women that they had acquired, making the relationship mutually beneficial.

One social worker explained: "Yeah, they are very close [the children and the women in the market] because, you know, food is something that makes everybody survive so it is easy for them to get a good relationship." (Street worker, male)

We observed children joking and talking comfortably with some of the women in the market, which considering children spent most of their day in the market, may not seem surprising.
However, children and youth can experience a lot of hostility from members of the community. Street-connected children and youth experience verbal abuse and suspicion from members of the community who are unfamiliar to them. There are many reasons why the community may be scathing of street-connected children and youth; one is that street-connected children and youth are thought to be thieves and criminals. This is not necessarily an unfair label, since the children and youth do admit to stealing in order to make money, but many of them say that they do this regrettably; secondly, street-connected children and youth are observed engaging in activities which are regarded as improper for their age, such as smoking [see discussions in literature on 'status offense']; and thirdly, a great deal of suspicion is aroused by street-connected children and young people living apart from their family. This third point was referred to often in the interviews and a number of studies in the literature (Hollos, 2002) point to the importance of family responsibility in Tanzanian society. Depending on the observer's approach to family life, children may be viewed as having abandoned their family and not fulfilling their duty of care to their families. They may be considered as naughty or stubborn children who are escaping hard work and punishment - with punishment being something that is considered a prerequisite to becoming a good citizen (Frankenberg et al., 2010).

One young person said to us on the topic of getting a job, "When they see you it also becomes hard to give you a job because they ask themselves what made the relationship between him and his parent [go sour], what is it, how can I hire him while his mother has no time with him." (I7.1, aged 22, male)

In summary, while there are many individuals in the community who treat street-connected children well, the overwhelming response from the interviews is that street-connected children are not trusted and suffer stigmatisation and marginalisation. This affects some children's self-confidence and sense of self-worth, but it also makes it difficult for children and young people to access the job market.

Third and lastly, NGO's

Many street-connected children develop relationships with NGOs or have been involved in interventions delivered by NGOs at some point in time. The relationships they have with NGOs vary depending on the type of intervention that they have been involved with. Some NGOs are known as places where children and young people can visit to get food, medicines and assistance if they get into trouble with the police. Children and youth also talked about how they appreciated the street workers, and even researchers, coming to listen to them and give them advice about the right things to do. Some children and youth talked about missing the advice of an older person, or someone who can advise them on the directions they should take in life.

However, at times the priorities of the NGOs do not align with those of the street-connected children. This could be because some NGOs do not take time to understand the children and youth and their desires. Or, it could be because NGOs are often thinking to a different time-scale than the children and young people are. Many of the NGOs in this region work exclusively with children aged 15 years and younger. During the research, we found that as children aged, they became better at anticipating the future and developed a desire to plan for future success. When children are younger, the target age for NGOs, they are much more concerned with immediate needs - food, clothes, leisure and drugs - and are less likely to see or believe in the benefit of going to school or obeying rules in order to stay in a shelter.

One street worker told us: "They pretend that they want to go to school. But the truth is not that they want to go to school they have their own goal that 'we are using this person to get what we want.' So they know it is a certain survival mechanism they know that this person has money so because he has money 'I will get close to him when his money gets over I will pass another way'." (Street worker, male)

It was only the older children and youth who seemed aware of the possible negative consequences of growing up on the street without an education.

One young person told us: "When you look at them you feel that they are supposed to be in school but are collecting scrap metal." (I1.2, age 17, male)

The older children and youth presented themselves as more receptive to receiving guidance, support and training in finding a career and voiced disappointment that they were too old to receive help from the NGO programmes.*

In summary, street-connected children and young people have mixed relationships with NGOs and their interventions. In one sense, they use NGOs to help them meet their immediate needs, but find themselves negotiating their freedom to remain on the street since for many NGOs, removing children from the street is the main priority. On the other hand, older children regret the opportunities they missed when they were younger and begin to realise the benefits of more meaningfully engaging in education and training interventions.


At this stage, it is too early in my analysis for conclusions. Building a support network on the street is just one way that children and young people are taking responsibility for themselves in the face of adversity in order to find their own means of safety and stability. Children and young people may be encouraged and assisted along this path by increasing the number of people who visit them on the street to listen to them and to give advice. For the younger children, it may be necessary to put significant effort into guiding them along the process of imagining their future and where life on the street may lead them. For older youth, a population which has a reputation for being difficult to engage, there is clearly scope for harnessing their concerns about the future to offer them the opportunity to access more sustainable livelihood paths. Such interventions take time, patience and imagination. Street workers and NGOs have numerous stories of the times they have helped children, only to find them back on the street again at a later point. It is important to remember that these children and young people are often living on the margins and making decisions based on securing their immediate needs. However, no child wishes to be an adult living on the streets, so it is important that interventions help children to think beyond immediate needs and to actively work towards long-term goals.**

*I elaborated on how it isn't just a lack of education or training that kept young people out of work, but also the impact of being unable to accrue cumulative gains. For example, one young person was trained as a cook, but was unable to use this as a livelihood strategy since he had no where to keep a cooking pot or uniform necessarily to do this kind of work. Even if he earned enough money to buy a cooking pot, the absence of a location to store the pot would make the purchase futile. Therefore the challenges for this population are both skills-based and material-based.

**I also talked briefly about how children are known to save money with women in the market or shop vendors and use this money in times when they are ill and unable to work, to buy new clothes at Christmas or Eid, or as an opportunity to not work for a while. This indicates that children plan to sustain themselves in case of shocks in the medium term. 

Delegates asked the following questions

Q: What about the importance of freedom for street-connected children?
A: Yes, this is definitely important for a lot of the children and young people we spoke to. This is certainly something that they want, and once they've had freedom, they find it very difficult to let go of it again. But I would argue that there are benefits from cooperation and building trusting relationships that may mean that they need to take responsibility for their actions and give up some freedom that may be good for them. Their desire for freedom is something that should be respected, but also challenged.

Q: Some literature talks about friends on the street being a substitute family, do you see this in your data?
A: I've seen this too and in some parts of the world there are literal more 'nuclear' families who are living on the street. 

In my research, I don't think the children considered their friends a family substitute. They were very close to their friends and they looked after one another, but I would argue that in such patriarchal societies, family lineage is very important, and so friends wouldn't be considered as a substitute for family in their minds.

Additionally, although the children really depended on one another and supported one another, they still made decisions based on their own basic needs. So, if they thought that leaving to go to another town was the best thing for them in terms of earning money, for example, they talked about how they would leave and do this without much regard to the friends they left behind. So they had a strong sense of solidarity balanced with a strong sense of individuality.

Q. How did you define 'street-connected child'?
A: There are many definitions, and lots of scholars include children who work on the street and go home to their parents/family in the evening. Those children were present in my field location, but the children and young people we interviewed didn't include them as 'street-connected children.' To be a street-connected child in their view was to live, work and sleep on the street, or to have done this at some point in the past. These are the children and young people that we were most likely to meet while we were conducting research in the evenings.

Q: Are there any ways of challenging the stigma street-children face?
This is a real challenge. My NGO partner also runs training for police in order to challenge some of the negative attitudes they have towards street-connected children. One young person we met was actively trying to challenge this perception through the way that he behaved - he was reliable, asked around for small jobs and built up trust with people in the market over time and set up his own fruit carts to sell oranges on the side of the road. He told us, "I wanted to get rid of the name 'street-connected child', and now, I can't fail to get work." Really, there's still a lot of work to do, because the stigma is very ingrained, even as it is in this country towards homeless people.


Frankenberg, S.J., Holmqvist, R., Rubenson, B. (2010) 'The care of corporal punishment: Conceptions of early childhood discipline strategies among parents and grandparents in a poor and urban area in Tanzania.' Childhood 17 (4): 455–469.

Hollos, M. (2002) 'The Cultural Construction of Childhood Changing Conceptions Among the Pare of Northern Tanzania.' Childhood 9 (2): 167–189.

For more on the concept of 'status offence', see the introduction of the following book:

Qvortrup, J., Bardy, M., Sgritta, G., Wintersberger, H. (1994) Childhood Matters: Social Theory, Practice and Politics, Public Policy and Social Welfare. Germany: Druck Partner Rubelmann