Researcher Profile: Wanjiku Atterhög

Wanjiku Atterhög researches life on the street and how to help by listening.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Her method helps children on the streets

In the late 1980s, when she was working on her Master’s degree in sociology in Kenya, she experienced how hard it could be to try to help boys she had come into contact with in the streets. She found they did not want to leave the streets and thought it was because they were streetwise. Today, 20 years later, she knows better.

Wanjiku Atterhög’s long experience of working with street children has led not only to an entirely new way of working with children in the field; she has also influenced the work of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) through their advanced international training programme and spread the method to several countries in Africa and Asia.

When Wanjiku Atterhög talks about her research on street children, she lights up with her passion for research and her work.

“Fantastic things happen every single day working with these children”, she smiles.

That first insight that the children don’t want help in leaving the streets proved to be wrong. And it took her a while to realize this. The boys had shown that they trusted her, but they nevertheless ran away when she took them to an institution of care that could provide them with food, shelter, and education.

A few years later Wanjiku Atterhög was working towards her next Master’s, this time in Thailand, and in the field of global health. She had learnt Thai and started frequenting bars to make contact with children.

Again she built relationships based on trust with the children and realised that once they trust you they do not lie. She remembered the boys in Kenya and decided she wanted to do her PhD there as her way of giving back to them.

Back in Kenya she decided to let the children take the lead in sharing their observations and stating their needs. This wound up opening more doors than she could have imagined. To talk with them in peace and quiet, she rented a school and held a 3-day workshop with them collecting relevant data in a playful, participatory way. After the workshop, she felt responsible for leading them to institutions of care so that they would leave the streets but again they refused to go and gave the same reason as the boys she had met eight years earlier.

“They refused to be linked to any existing services and said they would run away and return to the street. I realised that they did not like how they were treated by the caregivers and that I needed to start listening to them and working on their terms”, she says.

Unexpectedly, the children said they wanted to stay with Wanjiku Atterhög because she “treated them like human beings”. So, in response, she started a group home in collaboration with the children. Wanjiku smiles at the recollection.

“That might not have been exactly what a researcher was expected to do, but without that home, they would have returned to the streets, she says. But my supervisor was encouraging, so I continued my research, now integrated with interventions.”

This time the children stayed and began to see the possibility of leaving the streets for good. Once it became clear that having the children involved in designing their care actually worked, the next step was to work with other caregivers to identify ways in which the research results could be implemented on a larger scale.Why did many of the children not want their help? 

“They were devoted care givers and fully committed, but they lacked specific research-based knowledge of what actually works in helping these children. They often yelled at them and were judgemental, and in one case, a caregiver actually tied up the children to keep them from returning to the streets. Their hearts were in the right place, but their techniques were sometimes lacking”, she says.

She taught them her mode of working and then observed them in her research. Wanjiku Atterhög decided to start a training course within Uppsala University and invited caregivers from all over the world to attend: physicians, nurses, social workers, teachers, policy makers from government bodies, aid workers, police officers. To make the training and dialogue more effective she developed subsequent courses to be carried out at the regional level and in 2006 she was invited by SIDA to turn the course into a SIDA International Training Programme for 13 countries in these regions.

This project was the beginning of a scientifically based method that has now been disseminated to multiple countries. Teams that have undergone the training continue to spread their knowledge further and now there are have officially established two regional networks Asia – in order to continue learning from each other, exchange experiences and inspire each other. National teams cooperate in disseminating knowledge and techniques to other caregivers in their countries, and there is an international network to facilitate the exchange of experiences between regions.

Wanjiku Atterhög’s efforts have managed to bridge the gap between academia, government, and practitioners. With an evidence-based method, they are furthermore winning the confidence of experts and governments. And most importantly, they have been successful in reaching their goal, i.e., getting children away from the streets, prostitution and other difficult circumstances.

“Our children are smart and intelligent. Many of them are now grown up and have chosen to pursue an education. Some of them are working with street children themselves. One has just graduated from law school and wants to specialise in child rights to help poor children in the future.”

Wanjiku Atterhög is not averse to working with children and educational activities in Sweden. When the Husby riots were going on, she recognised factors that were similar between the youth in Husby and the youth that she and her network of caregivers work with:just like in Kenya and in Thailand, there were children who felt that no one listens to them.

“I wrote to the government and offered my expertise. I have received a response from the prime minister´s office, but no funding, she says, laughing. But I don’t give up easily. I’m going to find a way to work with these youth in the future”, she says.

Anneli Waara

Facts – Wanjiku Atterhög

Title: Researcher and Social Entrepreneur
Doing research on: Street girls and girls in prostitution in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Cambodia and Myanmar
In her free time: Spending time with her extendedfamily and friends, a sport of cooking and of course reading
Hidden talent: Whipping up incredibly delicious meals in less than 30 minutes (her son has started a recipe book!)
Makes me happy: People taking control of their lives
Makes me angry/sad: People that constantly complain about someone or something without trying to adjust to or change the situation

Find out more

ANoCC – A continental network of caregivers for children in especially difficult circumstances in Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam based on the work of W. Atterhög.