By Charlotte Penketh-King and Jasmine Jenkins
A young British woman has taken in a staggering 14 Tanzanian children she met while volunteering in an orphanage on her gap year.
Letty McMaster, 26, was just 18 when what was supposed to be a month-long trip to Africa changed her life forever.
She ended up staying for three years to support the children she had met and when the orphanage shut down, Letty took in nine youngsters who would have been left homeless.
Seven years on, she lives with the children after becoming legal guardian to them all – as well as five more she met on the streets or at a safe house she runs.
Letty, from Tunbridge Wells, said: “These children are my whole life. I raise them all on my own and they keep me going through the long hours of juggling everything.
“I’d always had in mind that I wanted to help street children so my family and friends weren’t surprised but I never expected to end up doing all this.
“I am the parental figure in the house – some of the little boys who never had a parent view me as their mum but most see me more as a big sister as I’m not that much older than some of them.
“I’m just like any mum raising teenagers – I made a commitment to them and I just feel so blessed to have two families!”
Letty had just completed her A-levels in 2013 when she flew to Tanzania with the plan of volunteering at an orphanage for a month before returning home for university.
But she said she soon realised the children were being physically and mentally abused, claiming staff only fed them once a day and pocketed the cash donated for schooling by tourists.
Letty said: “I chose to fly to Tanzania after seeing figures that showed hundreds of thousands of children living on the streets.
“Voluntourism and white saviourism at this orphanage is why I’ve done all this.
“I saw the awfully damaging impact it was having on the children and how it was fuelling an ongoing cycle of abuse.
“Many orphanages are like this – it’s all just a money-making scheme and an exploitation of the children.
“The kids still don’t understand it and I’m sure the Westerners had no idea – they thought they were helping but were actually causing so much damage.
“The abuse the children were going through in the orphanage was horrendous and I saw the impact that it had on the kids and knew immediately something had to change.
“I couldn’t leave them in that situation so my new goal was to get them a family home.”
When the orphanage was closed by the council in 2016, Letty fought for the right to open her own home, in Iringa, for the nine children left homeless.
She founded Street Children Iringa as a UK registered charity and has taken another five children into her home after meeting them on the streets and through the safe house she runs.
None of the children were attending school and lived in between the streets and the orphanage when she first met them but their lives have changed immensely since moving into Letty’s home.
One of her boys, Eliah, was found on the streets in the middle of winter wearing just a t-shirt after his mum died.
He is now in the top 20 of pupils in his year at school.
Fred, 11, had not eaten for days when he was spotted cowering in a dump.
Since moving into the family home in 2019, he’s been accepted into a prestigious football academy.
After his parents died when he was just two, Iddy had spent most of his life between the streets, gangs and the orphanage where Letty first met him.
He moved into the family home in 2016 and is now a talented boxer and musician with his music being played on local radio stations.
Letty said: “Since having a place to call home, they have all excelled in education and in every aspect of their lives.
“I decided I wanted to create a place for these children to call home where they would be safe, stable and loved and no longer treated as if they were in a zoo.”
“Gosberth is one of the boys that I’ve looked after for the past seven years and is now studying at one of the top private schools in the country and is the number one pupil in his year.
“Eva is 19 and is chairperson of her year at university – she’s doing so well and has got a volunteer internship with an international NGO.
“Obviously it takes time to settle into the house from street life and traumatic experiences and it can take a while to get them into family life, routine and leaving street behaviour behind.
“Razarlo is studying to become a tour guide at the national park whilst Plshon and Iddy have recorded music that is played on local radios.
“Seeing their drive, determination and success is what makes all the balancing that I have to do worth it.”
She added: “I decided I wanted to create a place for these children to call home where they would be safe, stable and loved and no longer treated as if they were in a zoo.
“I wanted them to have a normal family life and the charity has helped to pay for running the home and food costs as well as medical and educational needs.”
She lives in Iringa with the children nine months of the year, coming to the UK for the rest of the year to fundraise through sponsored events and an annual charity ball.
She often works 12-hour days but managed to graduate with a degree in Development Studies from the University of SOAS, London.
Just like mums and dads around the world, she squeezed revision and essays into the few hours after the children went to bed.
“If these children are not guided on a path, they very often get caught up in gangs, drug violence and criminal activities with the risk of jail or even ending up dead.”
Letty, who is fluent in Swahili, said: “I can’t even give you a normal day – it changes every single day.
“It’s basically a 12-hour day, if not longer, waking up early but not going to sleep until very late.
“When everyone comes home from school, they’ve all got their own stories to share and homework, football training and music commitments.
“It’s a family home all the way.
“I’ve raised them so they feel I’m the parent and then the two workers I have are like their aunties.
“I’d love to have my own children in the future but obviously my life is so hectic that dating isn’t something that I have time to think about right now!”
Letty also runs a safe house, which she opens three days a week, to give street children a safe place to come and access shelter, food and resources.
Accompanied by the eldest boys in her home, she takes to the street at night to find homeless children in need.
Letty said: “There are always more children that need help out here in Tanzania.
“The most challenging part in what I do is securing the funding to support all of this.
“Over the next five years, my plan is to help as many children off the streets as possible.
“If these children are not guided on a path, they very often get caught up in gangs, drug violence and criminal activities with the risk of jail or even ending up dead.
“The more donations the charity is able to get, the more children and young adults that are supported in a life off the streets.”