By Kudzai Makombe
Out of the dark shadows of the busy section of a street, a small figure emerges, hand outstretched to a passer-by. “Can I have .SO cents sir?” The hand and the plea are completely ignored.
Stephen is only nine years old but almost every day of the week you can find him in Harare’s city centre inconspicuously hanging around outside a 24-hour fast-food take-away. It is two am on a Sunday and there are still plenty of potential customers.
Few even notice his presence except for those who are not yet hardened to the common sight of small children out on the streets even in the pre-da\\11 hours.
Stephen is poorly dressed. The sweater with large holes in it can’t do much to keep out the cold, but he hardly seems to notice. He is dirty and unkempt, a sight which would not seem amiss among children his age who have been playing happily in daytime hours. However, he also looks hungry and any childlike, playful qualities have dimmed from his eyes.
Street kids! Not a week goes by without someone writing in the local press on the subject. The tone of the letters is rarely sympathetic and more often than not it borders on severe contempt. These children are described as a nuisance, a menace, thieves and criminals.
The same sort of attitude can be seen out on the streets where the general public’s treatment of these children falls just short of kicking them aside.
For Stephen, being inconspicuous has become a prerequisite in order to earn a living and survive under such societal hostility. The last thing you want is the restaurant owners considering you a nuisance and calling the police to arrest you.
His vigilance seems out of place in one so young. From the shadows, he assesses the people going into the take-away, then carefully selects those to approach under the hopes that they will dump their change into his small hand. He has learnt from the experience of being physically and verbally abused what types to approach and those to avoid.
A few metres from him, lying on the pavement and occasionally getting up to rummage through the dustbins to see what leftovers the privileged may have thro\\11 away is his brother — a young man in his late teens. He is wild-looking and extremely unkempt, either very ill, but more likely completely “high” on drugs. Every so often, Stephen goes up to him and hands him something – perhaps money, perhaps food.
Stephen returns to his position, crouching in the shadows counting his earnings. Only when he has reached his target will he go home.
For the thousands of street children in the southern African region, working on the streets for a living has become a vital necessity in their young lives. The average working hours are more than those of male adults, generally lasting 13 hours or more or when it is necessary.
In Mozambique, the civil war has left thousands of children orphaned or separated from their families. According to Graca Machel, in 1990, there were 200 000 children orphaned or separated from their families.
Children who have been separated from their parents as a result of the war either end up on the streets, are taken in by extended families, or are trained to kill as members of the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR).
Most have been traumatised by the war. Two preliminary reports by an eminent British child psychiatrist found that a large percentage of abandoned children had witnessed the murder of a parent or a family member. Almost 25 percent of those interviewed were markedly disturbed.
Some escape from the war situation into neighbouring countries to scrounge a living off urban streets. In Zimbabwe, a significant percentage of children on the streets are Mozambic.an children.
In Zambia and Zimbabwe, urbanisation and poverty have resulted in some parents abandoning or neglecting their children because they cannot support them.
The ages of these street children range from as young as five or six to youths in their early twenties. It is often a source of amusement to tourists or extreme irritation to locals to find a malnourished ten-year old offering to carry bags which the owner is finding difficult enough to carry. The fact of the matter is that these children can and will do it because they are desperate for the money.
At the end of the day some like Stephen go home while others sleep on the streets, in communities or at railway stations.
A study on street children in all urban centres in Zimbabwe found that 85 percent had homes, while 15 percent lived on the streets, a significant percentage of the latter being the children of Mozambican refugees.
Many children are forced by circumstances to work in order to help support their families. The possibility of being rounded up by the police and taken into children’s homes is a genuine fear which comes out of the realisation that their families are unlikely to survive without the little additional incomes they bring home.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious problem among street children. The younger children mostly sniff glue and thinners, while the teenagers consume a lot of alcohol and smoke marijuana which is sold cheaply in the lower income suburbs. A constant need for escape from extreme poverty and hunger through drugs leads a few to insanity by the time they are in their early twenties.
Stanford Mashiri, a Zimbabwean sociologist, in an attempt to find out how these children live, spend two months moving around with street kids in Harare.
“They were very suspicious of me at first and they don’t like talking to people. But when they started to trust me, I began to understand how they function.”
Their lives are fairly rough. Generally, the younger ones look after cars, wash them, help to carry luggage at the bus terminuses. Others vend fruit, sweets and cigarettes as paid employment at bus terminuses and market places, or just ask for money from shoppers. Some of the older ones move into pick-pocketing, breaking into cars or selling drugs out of desperation.
On average, street kids make between .50 cents to $70 per day. For the homeless, most of the money is spent on gambling or buying drugs and beer.
Their lives are highly exploited. Younger children guarding cars may be chased away by older ones, particularly where business thrives, or else they pay a small tax to the older ones. They are constantly on the lookout for the police as well as social welfare which places them in homes.
From the age of about 13, the good-looking boys are picked out to work as prostitutes serving a wealthy clientele. In the evenings, fancy cars can be seen cruising the city centre to pick up young boys.
The risks of catching diseases such as AIDS are high. However, prostituting for wealthy homosexual clients who pay well to keep this fact hidden is too lucrative for the desperate children to pass. They make a lot of money not only through paid sex, but also through blackmail.
Within communities, the younger ones are at times sexually exploited by their older authority figures.
In countries such as South Africa, the issue of police and vigilantes targeting street children is
Problematic. The system of apartheid has created children with no form of support who are forced to live off the streets.
In South Africa alone, there are over 10 000 children on the streets, and over 100 000 child labourers. Unlike in Zimbabwe and Zambia where the majority of street children have homes to go to at the end of a working day, most of those in Mozambique and South Africa live on the streets or in children’s shelters.
Social workers dealing with street children in Cape Town, report that more than 500 children under 21, most of them street children, are being held as trial prisoners and awaiting sentencing at Pollsmoor Prison. The social workers claim that the children are held under conditions which do not meet international minimum standards for juvenile justice.
A children’s shelter was recently burnt do\\’11 in Pretoria, supposedly by arsonists. Seven youths sleeping in a small room without a door were believed to have died from asphyxiation while the rest were seriously injured when they jumped out of a second floor window – their only escape.
The shelter remains no more than a charred shell. Nothing remains of the children’s possessions except a few steel beds and desks.
A white man working at a garage next to the shelter expressed delight at the fact that the shelter had been destroyed. He said he was glad the street children, whom he said stole radios from the cars in his garage and sniffed glue, were gone.
It is rare mention is made of female street children. Supposedly that is because they are not as visible on the streets as their male counterparts.
A significant number come from single female households where the mother has had to resort to prostitution as a means of making a living. Sexual and physical abuse from the parent’s clients as well as from extended families from an early age in this environment are major contributors to the plight of female street kids.
According to Mashiri, many of these girls are forced by circumstances to tum to prostitution before they have even reached puberty.
For Stephen and thousands of others like him in the region, the future is tomorrow. What matters is their day to day survival – something to eat, something warm to wear, somewhere to sleep. There is no space or time for childhood. (SARDC)
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