A couple of weeks ago, Youth and Sports Minister Emmanuel Mulenga revealed that hundreds of street kids who were recently removed from the streets and taken to shelter homes and orphanages across the country had ‘escaped’ and found their way back to the streets. He went to town sensationalizing things a bit further and claimed that street kids were resorting back to the streets in search of sex and drug-related materials.
As expected, this received wide media coverage from both electronic and print media. “Hundreds of recently-removed street kids escape orphanages for sex and drugs,” declared a screaming banner headline in the widely circulating Times of Zambia newspaper. Having interacted and worked with street kids throughout Zambia and beyond our borders for quite a while, I’ve strong reservations about the unsubstantiated claims that street kids are running away from the supposedly safe homes in hot pursuit of sex! There must be better excuses than this.
According to our experience, when a child just arrives on the streets, they immediately get initiated into the ‘family’ by being introduced to illicit substances. “Here, take this……it will help you stay stronger…..” they’d often encourage each other. From then onwards, they’d sniff the glue repeatedly until they become addicts per excellence. You don’t expect such individuals to simply kiss, the small bottles which have been their constant companions, good bye without first working on their problem of addiction. They’ll sneak out to find drugs!
Additionally, the Zambia National Service facilities and indeed some orphanages where some of these children were taken to, things are organized as if it’s a typical military camp. Now wait a minute……..you’re dealing with individuals that are not accustomed to any rules and regulations and you expect them to adjust overnight? Once they feel they’re being pushed against the wall, they’ll simply walk away and gladly trek back where they feel they belong – on the streets! Of course the street kids are fully aware they won’t find the streets glittering with gold and decorated with fresh roses. They’d still be as rough as they left them. Every sentence is punctuated with insults, and one has to be ever on guard as screw drivers or knives are likely to come flying your direction at the slightest provocation. Worse still, enduring blistering cold nights on bare floors in open air places is the order of day and meals often have to be scavenged from dump sites. For as long as they can enjoy their freedom, they don’t care. This is their oyster!
In order to survive the harsh life on the streets, kids have to be tough even if it means pretending to put up a strong posture. This is the reason why many of the street kids seem to be in a permanent state of insobriety – to hide their shame and come out as these macho characters! But who are these street kids? Why are they on the streets in first place? What are they doing on the streets? Where did they come from? Do they have parents or any surviving relatives? Once we start interrogating and finding answers to such questions, then we’ll begin configuring a less obscure picture of the plight of street kids – vital information essential in arriving at tangible solutions to this conundrum. Attempting to provide answers to the problem of street kids devoid of first understanding who they really are is as good as offloading a rapid succession of bullets into the darkness hoping you’d somehow hit the target! In this write up we endeavor to identify and categorize the street kids accordingly.
According to a UNICEF research, there are basically two types of street kids: children on the streets and children of the streets.
Children on the streets: These may have a home and even one or two surviving parents. Mostly likely their parents can’t provide bread and butter for them on the table. Owing to this, they are compelled or even encouraged to take a long walk to town to ask for alms from some good Samaritans or undertake odd jobs such as hauling goods on their backs and cleaning cars. Once they manage to pocket one or two coins, you’ll see them proudly walking back home in high spirits rest assured that they won’t to go bed on empty stomachs that night.
Children of the streets: Having lost both their parents mainly due to HIV/AIDS or probably ran away from the custody of their relatives due to mental and physical abuse, they’ve cut off ties with their relatives. Obviously feeling neglected by society, they consider themselves as having nowhere else to run to – thus begins the arduous journey of practically living on the streets. Quite understandably, children of the streets tend to sniff copious amounts of glue to keep warm at night; they actually euphemistically refer to glue as a blanket!
Given the above, it would be totally illogical and irresponsible to apply similar interventions to either case scenario. The problem of street kids deserves to be tackled on a case by case basis. Suppose you’re a medical practitioner and two patients come calling on you; one is complaining of a severe headache while the other has a running stomach, would you prescribe the same medication? This is the most common mistake those in leadership tend to repeat time and again – prescribing similar remedies to the cancerous ailment eating up our street kids as if they’re all affected the same way. In our next offering, we amplify our calls for a national INDABA on street kids.
By Prince B.M. Kapinga
Street kids advocate