This country started experiencing a surge in the influx of street kids early 1990s just after the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) dislodged the post-independence ruling party, United National Independence Party (UNIP) from power in a scintillating battle that would leave the founding father of the nation Dr. Kenneth D. Kaunda stunned!
Following mounting pressure from the Bretton Woods institutions, former trade unionist turned politician Frederick Chiluba would embark on an ambitious structural adjustment programme (SAP) to resuscitate the ailing economy. This would see a number of state owned enterprises and the mines switch to private hands whilst those with a less impressive balance sheet simply folded up.
As predicted by skeptics; things would somehow go haywire! A good number of people in the city lost employment in the process, dispatching many of them to the grave prematurely, due to depression. Robbed of sole bread winners in the family, many households in urban set ups would be struck with severe hunger and poverty. In the fullness of time, children from such dwellings would start flocking to central business districts for survival.
As a stroke of misfortune would have it though, a new pandemic would equally be wreaking havoc in communities. As scientists and researchers raced against time to find a cure, many more people of productive age would succumb to HIV/AIDS leaving scores of children behind as double or single orphans.
Faced with uncertainty as to whence their next meal would come from, a second wave of street kids would hit the streets! Hundreds of these fatherless kids stormed the streets and positioned themselves in strategic places where some good Samaritans would feel pity and splurge some loose coins on them.
In what may be perceived as ambivalence about what to do with the army of children teeming up on the streets or simply lack of a master plan to unravel the conundrum, the Chiluba administration watched from the terraces as the figures blossomed!
A flicker of hope would only be ignited once Chiluba reluctantly passes on the baton to Levy Mwanawasa after a botched third term attempt. Mwanawasa would immediately introduce a robust street kids’ rehabilitation programme under the auspices of the Zambia National Service (ZNS). But lo and behold……he would pass on before the initiative could even take root and start bearing fruits.
When Mwanawasa’s vice president Rupiah Bwezani Banda finally takes over as President after fending-off stiff competition from Hakainde Hichilema of opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), many street kids’ practitioners like the writer have hope the new President would continue on the trajectory of rehabilitating street kids and probably inject some improvements in the programme; particularly the manner ZNS officers treated the street kids.
Upon receiving disturbing reports that some kids were running away from ZNS due to abuse and ill-treatment at the hands of instructors, (flogged out bed at 5 AM to go jogging, being screamed at incessantly and severely punished etc.) we wrote President Banda proposing that government should consider calling for a national indaba on street kids. It was envisaged that the indaba would come up with a coherent policy on street kids to provide answers to the question of street kids once and for all. But to our utter shock and dismay, we got an absolutely outlandish response from the Ministry of social welfare and development.
“Thank you very much for your proposal for government to call for a national indaba on street kids. If your organization is in a position to sponsor the same, we are more than happy to collaborate with you,” the letter read in part.
We didn’t know what to make of the letter. Anyway…..this was hardly surprising coming from the administration of a leader who was always being bashed and lampooned in the media for his penchant for globetrotting while the economy was slipping in comatose, earning himself the moniker “Vasco Da Banda!”
To date, the plight of street kids remains unchanged if not worse! Recently, those in government panicked when young people took to social media complaining about rampant corruption in government, lack of employment opportunities and the shrinking democracy, among others.
We wish to remind those in authority that street kids actually pose a far greater risk to national stability than those youth activists, combined. What we are sitting on is a volcano! As street kids continue enduring pain and suffering on the streets while society looks the other way, they are gradually getting embittered and tempered, systematically. And as age starts catching up with them, they’d surely start organizing themselves into gangs……this is when the volcano is going to erupt! And when this happens, they’re going to reign terror never witnessed before in the nation as they go on rampage unleashing a spate of a myriad of violent crimes.
On the Copperbelt we had or still have remnants of gangs such as Tokotas, Mbwambwambwas, Sons of the devil, Malinsos, where do you think members of such groups came from? What about those that constantly harass the traveling public at intercity bus terminals what does their conduct and behaviour speak of?
Would we rather fold our arms and wait for things to completely spiral out of control?
We’re privy to the fact that government can’t address the problem of street kids alone. We would therefore like to reiterate our appeal to government to consider calling for a national indaba on street kids. This should of course be preceded by district indabas that would finally culminate into a national one.
The following is a suggestion of would be participants coupled with the respective roles and responsibilities, moving forward: the church, donor community, Zambia National Service, Zambia Police, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Community Development, the media fraternity, senior citizens, corporate world, civil society and all the registered political parties.
In Biblical times, a man who was lame from birth was being taken to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was laid every day to ask for alms from those going into the temple courts (Acts 3:2). The church must be encouraged to consider ‘opening their doors’ to potential street kids in the community. Once they start conducting literacy lessons and providing snacks to potential street kids in their vicinity, they may resist the temptation of walking to town to ask for alms. We have several churches in our communities, imagine the impact this would have in addressing the problem of street kids.
Long ago, we used to have a stronger family extended system, but nowadays it’s one couple for their immediate family, and God for the rest of the family. Senior citizens must lead the way in helping the nation reclaim its rich traditional values and culture.
Zambia National Service (ZNS)
In the past street kids have been taken to ZNS training facilities for rehabilitation although many of them have ended up running away due to the ‘military way’ of handling them. If ZNS is to continue being involved in the rehabilitation of street kids, the approach has to be adjusted to a more humane way.
Ministry of education
Some children have ended up on the streets after dropping-out of schools, colleges or universities due to failure to meet certain requirements. Learning institutions must come up with a deliberate policy to allocate a certain percentage of enrolments to orphans and vulnerable children.
Most of the few street kids that have undergone training have been denied employment due to stigma or lack of work experience. It’s high time we started engaging the corporate world to offer the street kids apprenticeship or even employment.
It’s understandable that newspapers have to carry sensational headlines mainly of political nature to sale their newspapers but wait a minute………the media also has inalienable duty to educate and inform the nation about the plight of street kids, accurately without fear or favour.
Opposition political parties
A party in power may not have all the solutions to the problem of street kids; opposition political parties may be sitting on those answers. It may be wise to offer them a platform to demonstrate their ideas. Who knows, UNIP may just have the solutions that have eluded us thus far.
Ministry of community development & social welfare
Most countries are discarding the ‘institutionalized’ way of looking after orphans and vulnerable children and gravitating towards foster care. Children are better off in a family set up. The department of social welfare must therefore initiate a campaign to encourage those with the capacity to consider foster care. We don’t have to be a country in the western world to consider this programme, this has successfully been implemented in South Africa and it’s being practiced in a small country such as Lesotho.
Ministry of Home Affairs
Whenever street kids commit misdemeanors, police have a tendency to detain them in the same cells as hardcore criminals. This way, can they easily get indoctrinated and look forward to joining bandits once they are released from custody. Special cells ought to be created to cater for young offenders.
Equally, those that are handed custodial sentences by the courts mustn’t be mixed with other convicts as they are likely to come under negative influence and graduate into hardcore criminals themselves.
Ministry of Justice
Those tasked with the responsibility of dispensing justice in our country shouldn’t just be quick to send street kids to jail whenever they are brought before them. There may be a history of extenuating factors that forced them to commit such crimes. Judges should therefore be expected to exercise utmost lenience and tolerance.
A number of non-governmental organizations across the nation have been running homes and orphanages for ages. The nation deserves to hear their stories – what have been their successes and failures? What challenges have they faced along the way? How could things may have been done better?
Lusaka based NGOs are able to easily access funding from donors for street kids related porgrammes due to easy accessibility. Street kids are not found in Lusaka alone! They are likely to be found in all of our major cities and towns. Donors should therefore be encouraged to start taking a keen interest in projects outside the capital city.
By Prince B.M. Kaping’a
Street kids advocate