KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Eric Mboso has had to grow up quickly. Three years ago, his parents died, and Eric moved in with his aunt. While she offered him a place to stay, that’s about all. Eric, 14, had to find a way to pay his own school fees.
“I started collecting old metal scraps from various neighborhoods and selling them,” he says.
Every morning before school, Eric spends three to four hours collecting and selling scrap metal to garages known as “buying houses.” Then, he goes to school. The alternative — becoming a beggar or a thief — would be worse, he says.
He is among hundreds of children and young teenagers in the city of Kisangani who spend hours every day roaming neighborhoods and streets searching for iron bars, old car and motorcycle parts, and other pieces of discarded scrap metal — sometimes with their parents’ encouragement — risking their health and freedom in the pursuit of income.
“People often call me a thief when they see me searching for metal scraps on their street. They shout at me and some of them also chase me with a bat sometimes, but what other choice do I have?” says Eric, who is an only child.
An estimated 22% of children in Democratic Republic of Congo perform either economic activities or household chores above age-specific hourly thresholds, or work under hazardous conditions, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund and DRC’s national statistics office. In Tshopo province, of which Kisangani is the capital, this number is even higher, at 31%. The same survey found that 22% of children in Tshopo province work in dangerous conditions, compared to 13% nationally.
Fidèle Muya, the president of Kisangani’s juvenile court, says children like Eric are selling scrap metal out of necessity.
“It is most regrettable that some parents let their children perform this type of work, which can be particularly dangerous for them,” Muya says, adding that property owners often beat the children they catch scavenging on their land.
In some cases, when locals catch the children collecting scrap metal in private property, they bring them to the authorities. In an average month, the juvenile court handles about 15 such cases, but lately, these numbers have increased, Muya says.
While DRC’s child labor law strictly prohibits child labor, some parents still allow it due to their economic circumstances, says Bernadette Furaha, the provincial minister of gender, family and children in Tshopo.
But the ministry is alleviating the situation.
“We have launched a campaign to sensitize children in schools, churches and neighborhoods to demonstrate how minors must be protected, which is not at all easy for us,” Furaha says.
Jeanne Kavira knows the law prohibits child labor, yet she encourages her 11-year-old son, Exaucé Mumbere, to do this type of work to help support their family. While the country’s unemployment rate is 5.4%, Kavira says finding a job remains a challenge.
“My husband and I are both unemployed and our son is the only one with a job. We use the money he earns from selling scrap metal to buy food,” she says.
Adults rarely do this kind of work, Kavira says. It is “not normal” for an adult to trespass on people’s property and collect scrap metal, she adds. It is also considered a low-ranking job that only children can do.
“I can’t forbid my child to do this kind of work because we need that money,” she says.
Exaucé does not go to school. He leaves home in the morning and rummages for metal for at least seven hours. Sometimes, he makes about 10,000 Congolese francs (5 United States dollars) a day, which helps him support his parents, two younger brothers and sister. There are days he might make less than that, or barely collect anything to sell.
Augustin Kakoto’s buying house has sold scrap metal to buyers in Uganda for the past five years. He knows what the law says about children working, but no one has stopped him from doing business with them — and he needs to support his own family, too.
“As long as I do not see the justice or people question me for my work, I will continue without fear,” Kakoto says.
There is a good side to it, he says, since the children can at least make money.
Kakoto says he pays between 150 and 200 francs (up to 10 U.S. cents) for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of metal.
At these prices, it takes hours to collect enough metal to earn a living. “I can sell 1 kilogram for 200 francs, but school still costs me 10,000 [about 5 dollars] every month, so I have to collect as much scrap metal as I can,” Eric says.
Muya, the president of Kisangani’s juvenile court, says any parent whose underage child is found collecting and selling metal scraps must pay a fine of about 300 dollars. However, given the country’s strained economy, some parents, like Kavira, rely on their children’s income.
“I don’t care what the law says,” Kavira says. “How am I meant to survive if my boy stays at home doing nothing?”