Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.
This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania. Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.
Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.
But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.
And cooking. Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.
A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room. Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber. This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes. One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders. Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?
From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:
This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.
The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.
The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children. It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.
Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him. There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.
This one had used “offensive language.” One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense. Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.
Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.
What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?
The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.”
Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.
The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant. Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy. She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.
At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.
There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system. They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.
And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire. What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.
Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge. On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.
What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved. They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.
“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides. Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.
These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts. Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses. They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement. Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas. These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.