Mwanza, Tanzania - Nineteen-year-old Kulwa Joseph recently was able to get off the streets. "I have been on the street more than 10 years, since I was six. I work with Roots and Culture Foundation and earn money by making and selling artworks to tourists."
His prized possession is his Techno phone, with neon green earbuds that dangle around his neck.
"I bought the phone with money I earned selling paintings and culture," he said, adding that he "uses the phone so people can call about jobs and to talk with customers about the art. This phone has saved me from a bad life."
Al Jazeera conducted its own sidewalk investigation, interviewing 24 street boys. While only five of them actually have mobile phones, all of them said they know how to use one. Thanks to the mobile phones, each of the five boys is able to pay for his own room and is able to make a modest income.
Thus far there are no projects to bring technology to street children; however, even without any institutional support or programming, mobile phones are improving the lives of the youth.
Mwanza is the second-largest city in Tanzania with an estimated population of 700,000 people, and is perpetually plagued by thousands of street children coming from villages across Tanzania. The real number of vulnerable children in the region is unknown but is estimated to be 17,000 by Railway Kids, a British non-governmental organisation that operates in Mwanza.
Handheld devices in the hands of vulnerable children can make a difference according to Simeon Oriko, a development expert and community leader at Open Institute.
I bought the phone with money I earned selling paintings and culture.
"Communications are one of the best ways street children can use technology to improve their lives. What information is of value and who wants that information is important to know. Commerce is a way to use technology in a more inclusive ecosystem, and the youth can use Facebook as a marketing tool or learn more from schools online. Then they can teach the younger children marketable skills," Oriko told Al Jazeera.
The children reported running away from home due to poverty, physical and sexual abuse, or guilt because they engaged in petty theft to try to make money for their families.
Joram Joel, 13, told Al Jazeera: "My parents got divorced. Mama went to the island to fish and disappeared. Baba married a new wife and I lived with them. One day a hawk came and ate a baby chick from the farm. When the Baba asked what happened, [he] said if I lost the chicken I would have to leave until he was able to bring it back. So I took a chick from a neighbour to replace the one the hawk had eaten. The neighbour found out and told my father. My father beat me and told him to get out. Now I clean dishes for the mamas who run food stalls, watch TV at the bar and sleep in the cracks of the rocks."
Wezo, 18, leads a group of eight street boys. According to Wezo and "his" boys, they are harassed daily by police and arrested for no reason. He said: "When one street child commits a crime, all are considered guilty. We have no direction and no protection." Wezo explained to Al Jazeera how "the thugs have a system for forcing the younger children to steal for them or face more physical abuse".
He wants to start a business selling tea or eggs to support himself. "I can use a mobile phone and wish I had one for myself. I know people use Facebook on their phones to talk to far-away friends." Now, he "just wants to be busy and not go to jail".
Valentino Mlowola, the regional police commissioner for Mwanza, described street children as a "cross-cutting issue".
"No one can tackle it alone, and many departments have a duty to play. The police department is meant to control criminal activity. Other agencies and the community should also approach the reason why so many children are on the street. The police have some solutions and social welfare has to be involved as well as the local government. If they are arrested they end up mingling with the serious criminals and then have been changed... How many can you put into jail?"
Section 176 of the Penal Code of Tanzania states that children who are idle are liable for fines for up to 1,000 Tanzanian shillings ($0.61) per event and imprisonment for up to three months. Wezo said: "Boys who can call someone for help on their phone are less likely to be beat or detained, as they can be seen as more legitimate business people."
Joseph Mwandwanga runs Roots and Culture Foundation, a small community-based organisation that helps street kids. When asked about the number-one need of street kids, he replied: "Education and marketable skills. Kids have different kinds of skills. One street kid was an especially good artist, and was sponsored to be sent to an art school in Bagamoyo. The sponsor also sent a laptop and now he is learning graphic design, is on Facebook, and uses email and Skype."
While many Tanzanians lack mobile phones, the technology is making a dramatic impact in improving these boys' lives.