They are dirty, so hungry that they eat from garbage cans, and sleep on mattresses of cardboard and blankets made out of plastic bags.
They are the homeless children of Tanzania. Chicagoan Michael Stewart met them and decided to do something about it.
In 2007, he visited Iringa, Tanzania, picked up his video camera and spent five months chronicling the plight of the malnourished children as they tried to cobble together a life for themselves on the streets.
The result was a documentary entitled, “Waitoto wa Mitaani,” which means “Children of the Streets” in the Kiswahili language. Stewart has sold the video to universities, raising money and awareness for his mission to help the Tanzanian street youths.
“I wanted to show students here the conditions that people exist in, but the drive and passion they have for education,” says Stewart.
Stewart, who was born in Jamaica and resides in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, is also the founder of The Liwalo na Liwe Foundation, created to raise awareness of the plight of children in Tanzania and to focus resources on the problem.
He received a master’s degree in African Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and was a teaching assistant working on his Ph.D. when he left for Tanzania to do research.
He also had another goal—to show his students here how eager the poor young Africans were to learn.
In the documentary, Stewart follows the life of five boys living on the streets, tracing the root of the problem. Despite their circumstances, the boys laugh and smile and sing, forgetting how bleak their future may be.
One of the boys, Aziz, grabs Stewart’s attention.
“He represents the possibilities if given the right opportunities,” says Stewart. “He’s the only street boy who goes back to school.”
After his trip, Stewart started a non-profit organization, Liwalo na Liwe, the name of which means, “What will be will be” in Kiswahili. The mission of the organization is to bring exposure to the problem of abandoned and vulnerable children in Iringa, Tanzania.
“I see that there’s a need for it and that’s what drives me,” says Stewart about his accomplishments.
Stewart focuses his efforts on Tanzania because of the lack of resources there. More than 45 percent of the homeless population in Iringa is under 15 years of age, which he says is a disturbing number considering that these children are the future generation.
Stewart encourages people to get involved and engage in solutions. He feels that people who do the research and don’t come up with answers end up marketing poverty instead.
In keeping consistent with the mission of the organization, Stewart appears as a guest speaker at many events all over the world, talking to audiences about his experiences and inspiring others to take action. The proceeds from these speaker events go towards funding the organization. Sales of the documentary to colleges and universities is another source of funding for the organization.
Dylan Hall, one of the board members of the organization, wrote a book about one of the homeless children he mentored in Champaign, IL called “This Life Ain’t Gravy.”
Hall, a former student of Stewart’s, also helped to edit the documentary “Watoto wa Mitaani.”
“When Michael first showed me the footage he recorded, I saw that he captured the essence of childhood as well as the gravity of the situations those children confronted,” says Hall. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the documentary because that humanism needed to be seen by more people.”
Building a boarding school in Iringa is next on Stewart’s agenda. The Uhuru Boarding School would provide a space where kids can live and obtain the skills necessary to become an independent and productive part of Tanzania, Stewart said. It would have living quarters for 30 students and three to five staff members.
Stewart already has a plot of land and an architect chosen, but the project has been delayed by slow funding.
Stewart also aspires to build similar schools in Ghana, Jamaica and Chicago.