Michael Stewart, 32, led me to a desk in the far corner of the Periodicals section of University Library, where his son Kamau was huddled over some schoolwork. Stewart settled in next to the 9-year-old boy and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“She’s going to ask you some questions, okay?” Stewart asked.
“Da-aad! I thought this was your interview,” Kamau groaned.
Stewart smiled, and took off his glasses. “It’s yours, too,” he said.
When asked what he thinks of Liwalo na Liwe, Kamau cheered up a little.
“I think [my dad] did a lot of hard work to make it, and I think it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Stewart, who started Liwalo na Liwe (Kiswahili for “what will be, will be”) this past September, said the foundation’s main goal is to raise awareness about street children in Tanzania and to solicit support for the construction of a boarding school in Iringa, Tanzania. On May 1, Stewart held a screening of Watoto wa Mitaani (Children of the Streets), his documentary about children living on the streets of Iringa, in the Northwestern library, which he’s also visited for the past 15 years to research Africa.
Stewart first came across the problem of street children when he visited Tanzania last year to study black women who return to Africa to reside. He spent four and a half months with the children. The documentary follows five boys living on the streets in Iringa and depicts the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives, including poverty, HIV/AIDS, sexual assault, health problems and the lack of resources available from the institutions that are supposed to be helping them.
“It’s deplorable,” Stewart said. “A most depressing situation. The kids that I dealt with live completely unsupervised, by themselves on the streets. They wander the streets as stray animals do. They’re homeless: no family, no friends, no advocates. They’re left to survive on their own.”
Stewart said he always wanted to build a boarding school, and his experience in Tanzania afforded the perfect opportunity. He already owns the plot of land where the school, with accommodations for around 30 children, will be built. Construction was supposed to start in June of 2008, but due to slow funding, it’s been pushed back to December. Stewart estimates the building will be done in June of 2009. After completion, Stewart will hire three to five permanent staff members, and plans to use students from the Iringa community to help as well. The cost to complete construction and run the school for one year is about $175,000. Liwalo na Liwe currently has less than 5 percent of that amount.
The presentation and sale of the film, especially to universities, is Stewart’s main fundraising strategy, though it is available to anyone who wishes to purchase it for $35 — Northwestern was one of the first universities to purchase the film. Members also do work, such as Web design, on the organization’s behalf and donate their profits to Liwalo na Liwe. Even though funding has been slow, Stewart said he feels like he is on the right path.
“We have a unique approach to our non-profit where we’re not focusing on just begging money and asking for money, we actually have services that we want to offer,” Stewart said. “The issue, really, when it comes to Africa, is that we want to transcend this idea of dependency and asking for stuff. I think Africa has a lot of things to offer, and that’s what this organization is trying to emulate.”
That attitude shows in the film. While the dire living conditions of the street children are clearly depicted, you can also see the children playing, rapping and tumbling.
“We didn’t want to be another sad story about poverty and AIDS and that,” said Dylan Hall, a former student of Stewart’s, editor of Watoto wa Mitaane and Stewart’s partner in Liwalo na Liwe. “We tried to combine the good with the bad and show both sides of the story.”
Stewart was available for questions after the viewing, and confronted touchy issues such as the lack of African-American involvement in Africa and the “colonization” of Africa by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) head-on and with his characteristic articulate poise.
Stewart often speaks at engagements to raise money and promote the film. For places that might normally expect an older, dry academic, Stewart comes as something of surprise. He is young, intelligent, and extremely passionate. He said that he has been overwhelmed by the response he receives. At a presentation in Dayton, Ohio, a contemporary dance group performed a piece based on Watoto wa Mitaani which moved Stewart to tears.
“A lot of times people come up to me like ‘How long have you guys been in existence?’ because we’ve accomplished so much,” Stewart said. “But that’s because I don’t sleep anymore.”
Liwalo na Liwe is Stewart’s full-time job now, along with taking care of his son and continuing his research on educational approaches, race, identity, and literature, usually at Northwestern’s library –his mother, Beverley Stewart, works at the Medill School of Journalism, and the library itself has a world-renowned collection of Africana materials.
Stewart has a master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Illinois and used to teach reading to all levels in the now-defunct Caribbean Academic Program at Evanston Township High School. He says his friends know him as ‘Professor’ or ‘Teach.’
“I think everything I do is didactic,” Stewart said. “I’m always teaching.”
One of the points that Stewart emphasized was how easy it is to help these children.
“Coming from the States, you’re enabled,” he said. “No matter how poor you are as a student, you still have more money than people who’ve only made a dollar in a week.”
Kamau is Stewart’s right-hand-man through all of this. He was at the Northwestern screening of the film, and says he often helps out at events. At the end of the interview, Kamau handed me his business card. Liwalo na Liwe Foundation, it read. Kamau Stewart, Assistant to the Director.
Watch the documentary: