Fellow Since 1996
Association Emmanuel du Cameroon
This description of Samuel Ngnitedem's work was prepared when Samuel Ngnitedem was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
A Christian minister, Samuel Ngnitedem left his parish to rededicate his life to the street children of Cameroon's cities. Samuel is driven to improve the circumstances of street children fundamentally and to that end has devised effective new ways to reintegrate them into society. Among other things, he is spearheading a movement to retrain social workers in light of the special human service needs of street children.
The New Idea
Samuel Ngnitedem's first response to the shock of discovering the phenomenon of street children in 1990 was to evangelize widely about child welfare and to try to care for the needs of individual children that he met. He soon found, however, that this ad hoc, if genuine, response was insufficient to uproot the problem. His next step was to study the lives and needs of street children and then begin to devise and implement ways of delivering effective and humane services that could also serve to retrain the social work profession in light of the special circumstances of street children. The power and innovativeness in Samuel's work lie in the fact that he was the first person in Cameroon to recognize that the special needs of street children were completely ignored by the existing human service providers and, through the organization he established, to demonstrate and promote an effective and extremely well-designed alternative service delivery model. Samuel believes that all citizens must understand and respond to street children. Accordingly, he is a tireless public educator about displaced children, and Association Emmanuel is based in voluntary citizen support.
The number of street children in Cameroon's cities has grown since the beginning of the economic decline in the 1980s. A deteriorating economy and declining social services have also led to an increase in community violence, creating a more dangerous setting for those forced to live on the streets.Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon, is estimated to have well over 1,000 street children, and another major city, Douala, has an even larger number. In virtually every major urban area, the problem of displaced children is becoming acute. Populations of "hidden" street children can be found living in groups under bridges, in abandoned buildings and even in open fields around Yaounde. Until recent years, street children were not recognized by the government. Oddly, the problem was not covered by the local media. Not surprisingly, then, street children were largely ignored by the general public.The traditional social service system of Cameroonwhich includes government, religious and citizen organizationsis small and overtaxed in its primary role of providing subsidies and technical assistance to community development organizations. This experience was poor preparation for the special challenges presented by street children, who, having been "thrown out" as it were, need first and foremost to be brought back into family and community life. When confronted by this complex challenge, traditional Cameroon social organizations were mainly unable to cope and consequently tended to ignore or deny the problem.
Samuel immediately realized that his principal "market" were the traditional social service organizations, public and private. His first task, however, was to demonstrate services for street children that the social work profession could embrace. He devised, therefore, a four-phase service delivery process that is based at an especially created community center and implemented with precision and, as he puts it, "repeated regularity."In the first phase, service providers map out the places where street children congregate and begin to establish relationships with those who customarily inhabit those areasshop-keepers, street vendors, police, delivery persons and so on. During this time the provider spends time on the streets with the kids, without proposing anything.In phase two, the service provider conducts "street sessions," a type of educational meeting in the streets, that are open to all displaced children within the community. Lessons in street survival skills (including self-defense) are offered, and customized information on topics such as violent crime, first aid, nutrition and conflict resolution is dispensed. They are also encouraged to think about their lives and consider alternatives. In phase three, those children who wish to begin exploring further options begin to come to the Center for educational meetings. During this phase, the professionals at the Center attempt to deepen the children's trust, hoping eventually to get them to join in the Center's residential rehabilitation program. Phase four brings the children to live at the Center for an initial six-month period. It is in this stage that children are given intense counseling and training, after which they will be placed in foster families recruited and trained by the Center. The four-phase process begins in January and ends in November of each year. Between November and January, Association Emmanuel facilitates a series of workshops with objectives. The first is to increase community awareness and to recruit volunteers. The second is to present family life seminars to enhance family functioning in the community. This is the preventative dimension of the program and seeks to prevent children in families at risk from ending up on the streets. The third is to train volunteers and social workers and orient them for outreach and intervention in the streets. All the activities of this service network focus on the underlying concern that all aspects of the children's lives are addressed in such a way that they are challenged spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically to maximize their prospects for survival.On a parallel track, Samuel conducts seminars with the Ministry of Social Welfare designed to train social workers on the nature and quality of life of street children. These workshops highlight specialist skills that professional social workers are well placed to provide, such as counseling for drug and child abuse. A high proportion of Ministry social workers taking these courses become volunteer outreach workers for Association Emmanuel. Association Emmanuel is conceived and run primarily as a voluntary citizen organization. A local philanthropist donated a house, which became the Center in Yaounde. Various community fundraising activities generate operating funds. Samuel supplements the Center budget with earnings he receives from appearances as a guest speaker at social and public fora. Finally, the Center now receives a small allocation from the Ministry of Social Welfare.Association Emmanuel now operates in the two main cities of Douala and Yaounde, and plans to expand the program into the largest city of each of Cameroon's ten provinces.
Samuel first became aware of the plight of street children as a pastor in an urban parish in Yaounde in 1990. In fact, he discovered them quite by accident when he counseled some of his church parishioners whose children had run away. As he came to know street children he saw that his Christian background and even his training as a pastor did not fully prepare him to make a fundamental contribution to the lives of Cameroon's street children. Despite the inadequacy of his background, he found that he could not let go of the problem and of his desire to do something that would fundamentally change Cameroonian society with respect to street children.Samuel researched the lifestyle and needs of street children. When he found that parish work was interfering with the growing demands of his work with street children, he consulted with his parishioners and, with their support, resigned from the parish in order to concentrate full-time on his new social ministry. The parish and its members continue to provide moral, volunteer and financial support for the project.Samuel has heard two callings in his life. The first was formalized in 1985, when he became a Christian minister. The second was in 1992, when he rededicated his life to street children. The first calling was to God; the second to his profession. Through the work of Association Emmanuel he is able to honor both, bringing glory to God and society.