Bleak outlook for Zambia's street kids

The festive season is traditionally a time of giving in Zambia, where the streets of the capital, Lusaka, are awash with people caught up in the buying frenzy that characterises the end of the year. Accordingly, the city’s street children are tracking the mood of consumers as carefully as any economist.

“People tend to have more money at Christmas; this is the only time we make a decent amount of money,” says Duma Goma, who claims he is 14 but looks years older.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates there are currently more than 75 000 children living on the streets of Lusaka, Livingstone, Ndola and Kitwe, the main cities and towns in Zambia. This marks an increase from the 60 000 that were thought to be living rough in 1994.

Initially, children could only be found on the streets during the day, when they were trying to earn money.
At nights, they returned home to sleep. Now, children are spending more time on the streets—and often end up making homes there.

“Increasingly, girls are also spending nights on the street. It’s a reflection of eroding incomes, unemployment and just people’s inability to look after their families,” says Youth and Sport Minister Marina Nsingo.

The children beg, pickpocket or do odd jobs such as watching cars, sweeping shop corridors and helping shoppers with their parcels. Some sell food; others become involved in prostitution.

Financial need is frequently cited as being the main factor that pushes children on to the streets, although some also say family problems and abuse prompted them to leave home.

No improvement

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this situation is likely to improve in the near future.

According to a recent study by Unicef on orphaned and vulnerable children, the number of street children is likely to increase in the next couple of years as Aids claims the lives of their parents. There are currently about one million Zambians living with HIV, while 94 000 people die every year from Aids-related diseases.

According to Nsingo, more than half of street children are single or double orphans.

As the number of orphaned children swells, a severe strain is being placed on the extended family that has traditionally taken care of orphans in Africa.

Living under conditions of virtual starvation and unable to attend school because of the cost of education, an increasing number of children have little option but to fend for themselves on the streets. Even there, the going is tough.

Goma says that on most days, it is the younger children who most easily gain the attention and sympathy of passers-by. He has to beg a little harder, perform menial tasks for shop owners or simply steal in order to survive.

“I don’t like stealing but there is no choice, I am out of the market, I am too old for people to have pity for me. They think I am just a thief, but I was not always a thief; I was forced to become one because of hunger,” he notes.

Nsingo says that while there has been an increase in children living on the streets, an overall deepening of poverty has made the prospect of them earning a reasonable living there is dimmer than ever.

Poverty

The World Bank estimates that 73% of Zambia’s 10,3-million people are poor, living on less than $1 a day.

“We used to find meat pies or T-bone steaks in the bins at eating places or even hotels, but now people do not throw away food—they have leftovers packed to take away,” says 16-year-old Nonde Mumba. “The hotels and other eating places sell left-over food to dog owners. It’s hard to find food to eat, so we are malnourished and prone to diarrhoea from eating rotten food.”

Another 16-year-old, Masuzyo Muhango—said to be the “longest-serving” street child on Cairo Road, a major thoroughfare in Lusaka—began living rough at age seven. Just three years ago, she says, it was possible earn about $20 a day from begging. Now it is difficult to raise even $5, because there are so many more children clamouring for attention.

“I have to offer sex at night or go to some other place where they are fewer street children, because there are so many of us begging,” Muhango notes.

As girls like Muhango often find themselves in situations where they have unprotected intercourse, they are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—which are said to be on the increase among street kids. Yet, Zambia’s deteriorating health system has little to offer people who cannot afford to pay for care, making it unlikely that street children will receive adequate treatment for STDs or other illnesses.

Crime

Muhango says the streets are also a lot more crime-ridden now.

“Before we were like a family. I remember some boys would look after me on the streets; we would share whatever food we scavenged and sometimes buy each other clothes,” she observes.

“But these same boys now want to beat me up and rape me if I do not hand over my day’s takings. It’s because it is difficult to find money: that’s why our cooperation has broken down and it’s dog-eat-dog.”

Mumba also complains of gangsterism.

“You have to belong to a strong gang to protect you on the streets, but you also have to pay for that protection—either in cash or kind.”

He says “turf wars” have become frequent events as gangs vie for supremacy.

Some of these skirmishes result in serious injuries. But, Eugenia Mbuyambango—who works at the police victim support unit in Lusaka—notes that these are more likely to be reported by passers-by. Among the children, there is a code of silence.

“If they are seen to be squealing on their friends, then they have to move towns because they are no longer safe. They will also be seen as weak and easy prey for further attack. Much as we would like to help them, street kids do not report violence,” observes Mbuyambango.

Substance abuse

Inevitably, substance abuse is on the rise as children seek some sort of escape from the realities that confront and confound them.

A study by social worker Ruth Mendosa on street children in Lusaka, Livingstone, Kitwe and Ndola showed that drug taking among the children was high, with nearly one in four over the age of 11 admitting to substance abuse.

Marijuana was used most commonly, along with glue for sniffing, jenkem (fermented sewage), petrol and cocaine. Street children also smoke, and drink alcohol.

Mendosa, a South American, says when she first arrived in Zambia in the early 1980s, she thought Zambian street children led a comfortable life by the standards of their counterparts in Brazil.

“They could get food and money from people, shop owners threw blankets [and] old clothes at them—and they slept in friendly [groups]. I thought they were lucky,” she notes. “But over the years, I have seen this eroded. Now, the streets are not so friendly; they are now like the urchins in Rio, which is really bad. I never thought it could come to this.”

Nsingo says the government is hamstrung by lack of funds, and that it simply cannot afford to improve the lot of street children. As a result, it is looking to Unicef, churches and NGOs for assistance.

The minister would like children to be taken off the streets, and put in the care of centres that cater for their needs. But, while these centres may have the best interests of the street children at heart, they can have a difficult time convincing their charges of this.

According to Mendosa, the children find it extremely difficult to start living organised lives with routines, rules and responsibilities after having been without discipline for lengthy periods of time. They also find it difficult to make do without the money they gained while on the streets—meagre as these earnings might have been.

“The situation for street children is getting worse,” says Mendosa. “The only thing to do is empower families so that they can look after their children.”—IPS

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