The Guardian (Lagos)

by Kudzai Makombe

Out of the dark shadows of the busy section of a street, a small figure emerges, hand outstretched to a passerby. ``Can I have 50 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 the Harare, Zimbabwe, city center, inconspicuously hanging around outside a 24-hour fast-food restaurant. It is 2 a.m. 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 sight of small children out on the streets even in the pre-dawn hours. Stephen 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 often borders on contempt. These children are described as a nuisance, a menace, thieves, and criminals. The same attitude can be seen out on the streets, where the general public's treatment of these children falls just short of kicking them aside. But for the thousands of street children in Southern Africa, working on the streets has become a vital necessity in their young lives.

In Zimbabwe and Zambia, urbanization 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 the early 20s. It is often a source of amusement to tourists or of extreme irritation to locals to find a malnourished 10-year-old offering to carry bags that the owner is finding difficult enough to carry. The fact 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 or at railway stations. A study of street children in all urban centers 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.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious problem among street children. The younger children mostly sniff glue and paint thinners, while the teenagers consume 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 20s.

Street kids can make 50 cents to $70 per day. They are highly exploited. Younger children guarding cars may be chased away by older ones, particularly where business thrives, or else they will have to pay a small tax to the older ones. They are constantly on the lookout for the police as well as for social-welfare workers, who place them in homes.

In South Africa alone, there are more than 10,000 children on the streets and more than 100,000 child laborers. Unlike in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where the majority of street children have homes to go to, 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 younger than 21, most of them street children, are awaiting sentencing at one prison. The social workers claim that the children are held under conditions that do not meet international minimum standards for juvenile justice.

It is rare that mention is made of female street children. Supposedly, this 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 to make a living. According to Zimbabwean sociologist Stanford Mashiri, many of these girls turn to prostitution before they even reach puberty.

For Stephen and thousands of others like him in the region, the future is tomorrow. What matters is day-to-day survival -- something to eat, something warm to wear, somewhere to sleep. There is no space or time for childhood.

PHOTO: Homeless in Maputo: Almost half of Mozambique's children are victims of the civil war. (UNKEL/SABA)

Copyright 1992 by Stanley Foundation. Text may not be copied without the express written permission of Stanley Foundation.

Shelby, Barry. "Desperate and on the street," Vol. 39, World Press Review, 11-01-1992, pp 26.

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