Diary of two street children
BY CHARLES MPAKA
13:12:33 - 15 January 2008
It is around 6:30 am. It’s a cold January morning. It has been raining so hard in the past night. Elias and his brother had to move to the corner of their house to avoid getting wet.
Elias (14) wakes up his brother, Harry (7).
If statistics accounted for everyone, Elias and Harry would have been among the estimated 1 billion children worldwide deprived of normal childhood and condemned to face poverty.
They could have been among the 4 million children in Malawi deprived of at least one of the seven basic rights.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), these essentials are water, schooling, information, health care, food and proper shelter.
Elias and Harry stay in Mgangala. This is a slum reportedly relocated from another slum called Mtopwa, a place east of Limbe town and famous for prostitutes and abundance of the traditional brew, Kachasu.
Mgangala lies squeezed between Limbe-Luchenza railway line and the slum part of BCA on the Western side and Luchenza River and Namiyango on the opposite one.
There is no adequate safe water supply here. So the Luchenza River, heavily polluted as it passes through the Namatapa area of Bangwe Township, supplies the water for most domestic requirements.
A considerable number of dwellings here are grass-thatched mud walls. Elias and Harry come from one such shelter.
Most blind begging families common in Limbe come from this location, together with their children who form a good number of street child beggars in Limbe.
But Elias and Harry are children of blind parents. Their father died sometime back and Elias does not remember when that was.
Their mother is alive but she is usually away for a longtime on menial jobs. Currently she is in Chilomoni, working at a house building project. She fetches water for use at the site.
“Months pass without us seeing her. She comes when the project finishes,” Elias says.
So the children stay in their hut alone. When they have money, they buy their own food. But that is rare. So they eat at their sister’s place.
She is the first born in their family. Elias came next. She stays somewhere within the location. She is not employed, but she is married — to a young man whose job it is to carry people’s luggage at Limbe main market.
“It’s not so often that we are with our sister. We are in town almost all the time. We go to her house usually in the evening, if there is anything for us to eat.”
Neither do they travel with their brother-in-law to and from their work. He comes back late everyday and leaves very early, usually hours before Elias and his brother are awake.
Harry takes off their blankets Elias calls rags. There is no breakfast for them. There is nothing like washing their faces. Nothing is unusual in these things. There is no changing their dirty clothes they have worn and slept in for the past two weeks or so.
It’s showering but they join other Mgangala residents on a
4-kilometre walk to Limbe, barefoot.
It is estimated that there are between 100 and 150 million street children worldwide. Elias and Harry might not be in those figures.
And it is projected that by 2020, the year many countries in the world dream of near perfect economies, development and governance, there will be about 800 million urchins in the world’s streets.
No one would know toady where Elias and Harry would be at that time.
But for now, they are in the streets looking forward to nothing. Elias has been there for a long time. Harry is growing up there, according to his brother. Everybody sees them. No one cares for them.
In its State of the World’s Children (2006) report, Unicef says street children are among the most physically visible of all vulnerable children everywhere in the world.
“Yet, they are among the most invisible and therefore the hardest to reach with vital services such as education and health care and the most difficult to protect,” says Unicef.
Elias, a boy of robust stature and a face harder than his age, doesn’t remember when he and his brother took to the streets. But it was after their father had died.
“It’s a long time ago when Harry was very young,” Elias says as he scratches the scabies plaguing his right arm.
But he remembers that some organisation did approach him one day and advised him to go back to school.
The organisation gave him some exercise books. But that was the first and last time he heard about an organisation helping street children.
He quit school in Standard 4 at Naizi Primary School in Bangwe. He went back into the streets of Limbe.
The township is often cluttered with shoppers, motor vehicles, minibus touts, vendors and prowling pickpockets and roughnecks. It is a filthy nauseating place, with terrible buildings, bad streets and wretched pavements.
Here, in this ugly township, Elias and Harry lead their lives everyday.
They separate as soon as they arrive at the start of their day.
Today, like yesterday, like last week and last year, Harry is at the People’s main shop now, then at the U-Save Shoprite and at Metro later. He visits the same places twice, thrice and more. People are not giving him anything.
A few hours ago, he and his friends broke off from the main course of duty. They do that often. They went rummaging through piles of rubbish at the old bus depot behind the toilets. Some of the mess is stuck on his greyish shorts.
Before that they collected recyclables especially cigarette packets, cooking oil bottles and beer cans.
“We sell them at the market. Somebody uses them. But he said he did not want them today. So we threw them away,” says Harry.
In good days, he does get some K30 from this errand. But sometimes the bigger boys take the money away from him.
Often he buys some food with the money he gets.
“When we are sorting the rubbish sometimes we get bread. So we keep the money for tomorrow.”
But today has been special. Somebody invited him and his friend for rice with meat.
For his lunch, Elias has had porridge down near Limbe River. They sell porridge there and he bought some for K10.
He could have shared it with his brother. But he doesn’t know where he can get him.
Elias does not beg.
“People tell me I’m grown up. They say I should find work or go back to school.”
He cannot tell what 3 times 9 equals to now. He struggles to give the product of 3 multiplied by 3.
“I do want to go to school but it’s difficult.”
He carries people’s luggage.
“It’s hard work but I do get good money out of this. But on unlucky days, you carry luggage and people refuse to pay you. You don’t protest for fear that they might beat you.”
But today, since morning, he has been selling plastic bags at the Shoprite. This is somebody’s business and Elias will get whatever his employer wishes, may be K30 for selling K200 worth of bags.
Time is inching closer for them to leave for home. He will soon have to go to the owner of the plastic bags who has a bench of groceries near where Machinjiri minibuses park.
From there he will be going home. His brother will come at the Shoprite very shortly. That’s where they meet at the end of their day.
And at around 5:15, little Harry appears on the other side of Customs Road. It’s a busy street at this time of the day. The pavement is bubbling with humanity.
Vehicles are whizzing past in the double lanes. Harry waits for a break in one of the lanes and then runs before the approaching car arrives. He ducks through the slow cars in the other lane.
Unicef says street children become prone to engage in illegal work such as petty thieving.
“Many are led into illicit, thrilling and dangerous world of crime syndicates that run rings of pick pocketing, burglary, drug trafficking and prostitution,” says the organisation.
Elias says he has not come to this yet.
But as Unicef observes, Elias and his brother accepts they are growing up in an environment of aggression that is part of the subculture of the children.
They fight amongst themselves, sometimes for the sake of it or to initiate one another into the filed. And they are beaten frequently by bigger boys, ridiculed and exploited by people.
“We experience these things everyday. We are growing up with them. They are painful but may be that’s about being in the streets and we are used,” Elias says.
In 2020, Harry will be 19 years old. Elias will be 26. They may have become lords of gangs of burglars and drug traffickers then.
May be not, but that depends on what happens now for them.
By 2004, the year Elias thinks he left school at Naizi, Council for Non-governmental Organisation of Malawi (Congoma) had over 175 paid up local and international member organisations.
36 of them were in the orphan care sector. 51 were in the food security and nutrition, 70 were in health and 22 were in advocacy. Some of them cut across the sectors.
Elias has been reached once for all the time he has been in the streets. Harry, clever like an imp, says he doesn’t know what else he could be because no-one has ever told him about life away from the streets.
Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) is one of the emerging organisations working on minority groups such as vulnerable children.
The organisation says strides have been made in terms of awareness of the plight of children in general.
“But we need to come together and evaluate our performance. Individually, you can point out some successes,” suggests Gift Trapence, CEDEP Programs Manager.
Trapence thinks that one thing certain to come out in such joint evaluation is that organisations have been dealing more with results than roots of the problem.
“The problem of street children does not start in the street. It starts from elsewhere and it is cyclical. That’s where efforts ought to be directed now and we have to move fast,” he says.
Consortium for Street Children is a 54-member UK based organisations. It is dedicated to welfare and rights of street children and those at risk of taking to street life.
Some of its members include Save the Children (UK), Every Child, Goal and Friends of Chisomo, a UK fundraising arm of Malawi’s Chisomo Children Fund.
In its State of the World’s Street Children (2007), the consortium suggests strengthening research, developing an inclusive society and promoting state protection for the street child.
2015, the year targeted for attainment of Millennium Development Goals, is barely 7 years away.
Time flies. 2015 and 2020 might shatter people’s expectations just as the promise of darkness closes the day for Elias and Harry.
It is almost 5:30 pm and cloud is gathering. Soon it may start to rain and they have to be running home.
Harry remains behind and exchanges a bit of Karate with friends who sleep in town behind shops and other corners.
Tomorrow, Harry tells his inquisitive friends, his other brother (11) might come. He could not come today because he broke his foot in the streets yesterday.
Elias, well ahead, shouts at Harry to be going. A friend lays into the little boy’s ribs a parting punch. Harry takes it bravely but swears at his friend, to the shock of passers-by, and runs off after his brother.