July 15, 2015
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — As Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, comes to life with people jostling to conduct business, a group of boys in dirty, torn clothes assembles near a railway line in Kamwala, a commercial district of the city.
The boys are sniffing petrol from dirty bottles as they play cards. Among them is 17-year-old Felix Mwenya. Like all the boys in the group, Mwenya lives on the streets.
During the day, he does odd jobs, such as washing cars, and sometimes steals money from people to buy food. At night, he sleeps on cardboard boxes under bridges and drainages and in shop corridors.
Twice, Mwenya has tried to leave the streets and live a decent life, but he has failed.
“I think street life is addictive,” he says. “Drugs are addictive, and I could not do without them.”
Drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and sniffing petrol and cobbler’s glue had been a big part of his life. Children living on the streets in Lusaka commonly use those drugs.
Mwenya started living on the streets at age 10, when his parents died. When he was 14, Chikumbi Children Center, a rehabilitation center in Lusaka, took him in, hoping to reform him and enroll him in school.
But two months later, addiction to drugs and quick money got the better of him and he left the center.
“I was not used to living a life of rules,” he says. “There were no drugs, no roughing up each other, and no money. So I left and went back to the streets.”
A year later, he joined the Zambia National Service’s youth training camps, a government institution that teaches young people vocational skills. When he completed the one-and-a-half-year course, the center gave him carpentry tools to start a furniture-making business.
But he sold the tools and returned to the streets, again.
Despite efforts by the government and charities to get children off the streets in Zambia, thousands still roam the nation’s cities and towns. The children say addiction to drugs and quick money makes them return to the streets after rehabilitation.
Street life poses grave problems. Young people who engage in unprotected sex risk contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, officials say. Because some steal to survive, it also raises crime rates.
Some organizations are trying out new strategies to get children off the streets. The government plans to expand a resettlement scheme for young people and publicize a social support program for poor households.
An estimated 13,000 children live on the streets of Zambia, according to UNICEF. Most have been forced into that life by poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, says Samuel Mwenda, the chief child development officer in the Ministry of Gender and Child Development.
About 60 percent of Zambians are poor, according to the World Bank.
Thirteen percent of adults have HIV/AIDS, according to 2012 UNICEF data. AIDS has caused thousands of deaths in the working-age population, leaving many children destitute.
Zambia had an estimated 670,000 AIDS orphans in 2012, according to UNICEF.
However, a 2006 UNICEF sponsored survey of children in Zambia revealed that only 25 percent of the young people roaming the streets are homeless. The rest, ever scraping by, spend their days begging for money or stealing, and then return home in the evening; their families force them to beg in the streets to supplement household income, Mwenda says.
Rehabilitation centers in Lusaka, such as Chikumbi Children Center and Fountain of Hope, take in those children and enroll them in school.
However, many return to the streets.
Forty percent of children admitted to Fountain of Hope go back to street life, says social service and outreach manager Kenneth Hau. The center admits about seven children a week.
Caregivers at Chikumbi Children Center, where Mwenya made his first attempt at rehabilitation, say three out of 10 children enrolled at the center return to the streets.
Since 2004, the government has run youth training camps in Eastern and Copperbelt provinces at which children learn skills such as carpentry, farming and plumbing, says Vincent Mwale, the minister of youth and sport. Children 16 and older are enrolled in the training camps established under the Zambia National Service.
As of September 2012, nearly 1,100 children had been trained at the ZNS camps, according to information presented to Parliament in February 2013.
In 2011, the government also set up a land resettlement scheme at a former refugee camp in Northern province, Mwale says. Kids who have had vocational training and are at least 18 are given land to start a life away from the streets.
Fifty-three children who formerly lived on the streets have settled there, and the government plans to resettle 300 more, says David Musonda, the chief youth development officer for the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
The size of each plot depends on the career path a settler chooses. Those who want to farm are given more land, Musonda says.
Some youths, however, decline to be resettled and return to the streets after rehabilitation, Mwenda says.
Growing up in the comfort of his parents’ home, Mwenya says he never envisaged living on the streets, let alone becoming a drug addict.
Life took an unexpected turn when his parents died and left him in the custody of his aunt.
“At the time my mother was dying, I was in grade one, but when I moved to my aunt’s place, she kept promising that she would find me a school while I was helping her sell secondhand clothes,” he says.
Tears well up in his eyes, but he quickly sniffs petrol from a disposable plastic bottle and grins.
“Two years passed without going to school,” he says. “That is how I lost interest in school.”
His aunt also beat him brutally, he says. He eventually fled her home and ended up in the streets.
Mwenya says he began using intoxicants on the streets because he needed to brave the cold weather and muster the courage to beg or steal for survival.
“That is my home, my bedroom,” he says, pointing to a carton-cluttered space under an overpass. “How do you expect me to survive in a sober state?”
Substance abuse is relatively low among children on the streets in general, including children who spend their days on the streets but return home at night. But it is higher among children who are homeless, according to the 2006 survey.
Like Mwenya, Tobias Tembo, who is now a university graduate, attests to the struggle of rehabilitation.
Tembo, who spent five years on the streets, says a do-gooder once tried to rehabilitate him, but the attempt was futile.
Coming from a background of drugs, drunkenness and rebellion, he found school challenging. He dropped out and returned to the streets, he says.
After a year, the Lions Club of Munali, a community volunteer service in Lusaka, readmitted him to school. With the help of teachers, he managed to stay in school although he often found himself in conflict with the school rules, he says.
“It was tough for me, even in school, because I often found myself in bad company,” he says. “It was a struggle to get rid of certain behaviors, like beer drinking and fighting. But I received a lot of support from my teachers who knew my background.”
The school also introduced him to music and theater, which helped him reform.
A trained psychologist, Tembo says most children are pushed into the streets by lack of love at home.
“Children basically just need love,” he says. “They should be allowed to live as children. When you hear most of the stories from the kids on the streets, what pushed them there is not exactly poverty but lack of love at home. Children need to be understood as children. Even when giving guidance, a lot of precaution needs to be taken. Guidance needs to be accompanied by love.”
Children also need to be provided with basic needs if they are to stay off the streets, says Tembo, a founding member of Barefeet Theatre, a theater company that teaches children theater arts, dance and other skills to keep them off the streets.
“The first intervention to the problem of street children is to prevent them from going to the streets by creating an environment that will provide all their basic needs,” Tembo says. “This is what the government needs to focus on.”
Children return to the streets after rehabilitation because they are addicted to street life, Tembo says.
“It’s mere addiction to drugs, alcohol and fast money on the streets,” he says. “Simply, it is addiction to street life.”
Hau says children leave rehabilitation centers because they are unable to live by the rules.
“They are used to a life of no rules, and once you give them rules to follow, it becomes tough,” he says. “Others return to the streets because they are just addicted to stealing, fighting, having sex and so on, and we don’t condone such things here.”
But some government officials disagree.
“This is because they don’t want to be accountable for anything,” Mwenda says. “They want to continue their reckless life on the streets.”
Fountain of Hope has begun a program in which reformed children act as role models for those who still live on the streets, Hau says. The center organizes workshops to children about the possibility of rehabilitation. The mentors sometimes invite children to spend a day with them at work to inspire them.
“A lot of children feel encouraged when they see some of their friends that have reformed,” Hau says. “It gives them hope that they too can reform.”
Hau believes all children can reform with consistent counseling and training.
The government plans to expand the land resettlement scheme to all provinces, Mwenda says. Some youths refuse to settle in the Northern province, where the sole resettlement program is now located, because it is difficult for them to adapt to life outside their home provinces.
“We want the youths to be accommodated in the province they came from,” he says. “The proposal has been tabled before Parliament for consideration.”
The government is also creating awareness about the Women Economic Empowerment program, which provides groups of women with capital to start income-generating activities. The program is meant to alleviate the poverty that drives children to the streets, Mwenda says.
About 2,000 women have received funding; Mwenda says that number is too small. Women are not fully utilizing the program because most of them are not aware of its existence, he says.
“We want every woman to have information about the empowerment program, so we are going in communities educating the women on how they can access the fund and utilize it properly to benefit their families and prevent children from going into the streets,” he says.
The government is also enhancing the implementation of the Public Welfare Assistance Scheme, which started in 2010 to support poor households, Mwenda says.
Under this program, orphans, widows and the elderly receive basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing. The program helps keep children away from the streets – and helps those who have reformed to settle, he says.
“Again, lack of information on how one can access this scheme is what we are working on,” he says.
Mwenya hopes to reform someday, although not overnight.
“The fact that I admire my friends that have rehabilitated means someday, I will too,” he says.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja and Bemba.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.