Asks Joe Kingsley Eyiah, University of Toronto, Canada The issue of street children among Ghanaians both in Ghana and in Canada, especially in the cities of Kumasi, Accra and Toronto continues to raise many questions. For example, are the education systems (in Ghana and Ontario) not inclusive enough? Are Ghanaian youth in Toronto exploiting the social system of the province to their detriment? Could it be that the children are facing cultural dilemma in their new country of abode? Or, are parents and guardians miserably failing in their duty of providing the needed support to the children? Perhaps, the society is not caring enough! In whichever direction one points the “accusing fingers” I think the problem of street children among Ghanaians both in Ghana and elsewhere deserves our attention. The future of our community is seriously threatened by this phenomenon. Therefore, there is the need for this discourse and action to redress the situation. The Nature of the Problem: My personal philosophy as an educator is based on the fact that the greatest aim of education is not knowledge, but action. Though it is good to have knowledge about or in something that knowledge fails to ‘serve’ society if it is not put into action. Action brings results. Results bring improvement and progress for the benefit of the community. Knowledge becomes creative and open when there is action. Africans have an adage that says, “it takes the whole community to raise up a child.” Undoubtedly, children are our heritage and it is the responsibility of us as adults to identify, talk about and take action on any factors that put our youth “at risk”. According to the National Crime Prevention Council of Canada (1997), “risk are the things or experiences in a young person’s life that increase the chances of a youth being victimized or of developing one or more behavior problems which might be harmful to the youth or/and other persons or property.” Could it be argued that the society puts the youth at risk. I am tempted to agree with Jean Jacques Rousseau in his assertion that “society has enfeebled man, not merely by robbing him of his own strength, but still more by making his strength insufficient for his needs” (see Classics of Western Thought, Volume III edited by Edger E. Knoebel, 1988, p. 149). I could not agree with Rousseau the more when I consider risk antecedents such as poverty, neighborhood and family dysfunction that increase the individual’s vulnerability to future behavior problems in the family, school, or community. These environmental risk factors are obviously the products of society. The society must be ‘healed’ of these ‘diseases’ as a means to rescuing our ‘youth at risk’. There are many groups of “youth at risk”. Among these is the marginalized group of street youth. Types of Street Youth: Three categories of street youth are identified. They are the voluntary, homeless and the mentally ill.
1. The voluntary group supposedly comprises of children who have chosen to be on the street as a way of life. Unfortunately, the police, schools and most social work agencies in Ghana have viewed all street children in the country as belonging to this category. Their policies and practices toward the street children have therefore often worsened the life situation of the street child in Ghana. More disturbing is the position the community has adopted toward street children in Ghana. People hold the voluntaristic explanation that this population of the “youth at risk” are on the street largely by choice. The street children are regarded as good-for-nothing kids in the community. They are called derogating names like kuboro and asan in Ghanaian language. Perhaps, Ghana is not alone in such voluntaristic reasoning. This reasoning has considerable currency within the political arena of even developed economies such as Canada and USA. Snow and Anderson (1993) quote the American President, Ronald Reagan as having consented to this reasoning when commenting on the problem of homeless people in America in 1984. He said, “one problem we’ve had is the people who are sleeping on grates, the homeless who are homeless by choice.” This notion has not changed much over the years in America and unfortunately in Ghana too, where economic problems facing poor families continue to drive Ghanaian youth onto the street. Even though it is generally believed that street youth are on the street largely by choice, findings of recent research I conducted on the phenomenon of street children in both Canada and Ghana did not confirm that opinion. As matter of fact, if there are any street children who belong to this category, they would not constitute more than one percent (1%) of population of youth roaming the streets. I discovered “peer attraction” as one of the factors that keep some youth on the streets. Street children often clashed with the law by following their street friends who engaged in “shop-lifting” to survive on the streets. 2. About ninety-five percent (95%) of street youth come under the category of homeless. In Ghana, many street youth between the ages of 12 and 20 are without homes to turn in during the night. They sleep in front of stores and in abandoned motor vehicles. These youth have traveled from the countryside mainly to fend for themselves in the cities and urban towns due to lack of family support. Poverty or economic dislocation has driven them from their homes. Unfortunately, some single mothers have even encouraged their teen daughters to go to the streets to make ends meet. Such vulnerable young girls have landed in prostitution and have become homeless, hanging around with pimps whose help is just of exploitation of the children. Male street children often engage in street trading. Other constitute cheap labor for market women who hire these children to cart their goods to and from the market places. There is among this group a handful of school dropouts. 3. The remaining four percent (4%) of children roaming the street are mentally ill outpatients. Cut off of funds to Ghana’s asylums at Pantang and Ankaful have led to the inability of these institutions for the mentally ill to cope with increasing number of cases that come to them. Unfortunately, some youth are among these numbers though not alarming for this population of “at risk”. Pathways to the Street: The ever increasing numbers of homeless street children in the cities of both Canada and Ghana pose a big question that ought to be considered carefully by those who bring intervention programs to this population of “at risk”. Where have they come from, and why? My personal experiences with street youth in Ghana and, the recent brief study I embarked on to discover more about street youth in Toronto have convinced me that the roots of homelessness could be traced to structured factors. “Structural factors”, according to Snow and Anderson (1993) “refers to social arrangements and trends that affect the probability that specific events or life trajectories will be experienced.” They go on further to mention the two sets of structural factors which are often referred to in most discussions of root of homelessness: One set concerns the scope and sources of residential dislocation, the other concerns the nature and sources of economic dislocation. As much as I agree with the assertion that residential dislocation is one of the main causes of homelessness in general, I would contend that it could not be considered on the same degree for homeless street youth. Many street youth have found “safety” in the streets not because they have no houses or homes to return to. Instead, they have either suffered abuse by adults in the homes or suffered lack of family support. The former is true in most cases of street youth in Canada while the latter is equally true for majority of street children in Ghana. The embattled argument that some youth have chosen to go against their parents’ advice and live in the streets is not sufficient to negate that factor that society and many parents/adults are mostly to blame for pushing our youth onto the streets. Suggestion: One could argue that Africans being the latest immigrants to Canada are facing the problem of adjustment. The raising of the African Youth in the apparent emergence of two (2) cultures has become an issue of major concern to the whole African community in Canada, especially in the city of Toronto. However, it is also an undeniable fact that many African/Ghanaian families in Canada are breaking down and children are being compelled to fight and struggle for their own survival. Family violence and divorce are on the increase among Ghanaian-Canadians. Emotional and “physical” abuse of children and spouses as well as neglect of children (especially, their educational needs) are becoming chronic problems in the community. I repeat what I suggested some time ago on this forum that as parents we need to put our knowledge in child upbringing into action to save our kids from waywardness. The home could be likened to a greenhouse where children grow to their fullest potential under the care of wise and patient gardener. We are like the gardener who nurturers each plant in the greenhouse to come to flower as the Creator has endowed it. “Train up a child in the way he should go....” Proverbs 22:6. Also, it is unfortunate that there is very little or on support from the community to individuals, families and our youth. Though some Ghanaian community churches are trying to meet such needs in organizing family and youth programs/seminars their efforts are not enough. All churches and cultural associations must pay the needed attention to supporting our youth. It could be argued in some circles that our youth exploit the laws of Canada to their own detriment (e.g. leaving home early to depend on government welfare; lying about their parents to government authorities; and dropping out of school due to non-inclusive education system in Canada) and find themselves roaming the street eventually, most youth are pushed onto the street by the negligence of their parents and the community at large. Let us remind ourselves that we can’t take our children past where we are. We must therefore, be good examples in both words and deed to our children. 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