Kinshasa’s street kids
[Photo Credit: AFP. It was used in the article ‘Congo’s street kids choose prostitution over death’. Available at: http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/congo%E2%80%99s-street-kids-choose-prostitution-over-death]
Pers-Anders Pettersson’s photo series on the street kids of Kinshasa captures moments in the life of Kinshasa’s street kids. His photo series is telling. Do look it up. Its heartbreaking. Its frustrating. The magnitude of this problem also tends to leave you numb at times.
He tells of Betty Nginamawu, aged 14 at the time:
“Betty Nginamawu, age 14, smokes marijuana in a drug house on May 4, 2006 in Matonge district in central Kinshasa, Congo, DRC. Betty is homeless and works as a prostitute together with four friends. The girls live outside next to a polluted river. Betty has been on the streets for a few years, and has been rejected by her family. From time to time, she lives in a homeless shelter for but doesn’t like the rules there.She was recently rejected from the shelter as she brought in Valium to give the other girls. She usually smokes cigarettes, marijuana and drinks whiskey. She charges the clients as little as US$ 1”
The grass is always greener on the other side. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve said that. Never though have I wondered before about places that are less green. Nor, for that matter, about places where the proverbial grass does not exist.
Home to roughly 10 million people and Africa’s 3rd largest city, Kinshasa is a grass-less, concrete jungle. Located on the Congo River, it offers no benefits typical to the cities situated by lakes, rivers or sea coasts, which in my experience develop to becoming local havens and centres of economic or cultural activities. Rather, the Kinois (a French name for Kinshasa’s inhabitants) seem to be living their lives along a vast, 8-lane, Chinese-built boulevard that splits the city lengthwise.
Named after the country’s Independence Day, the lavish boulevard was supposed to be emblematic of the new-born nation’s pride and future-oriented thinking. Instead, it has become the emblem of its galloping poverty. The numerous junctions gather street sellers and beggars, who patiently await the moment when traffic lights turn red, waving down dilapidated cars and offering one of the few opportunities to make a so-called living.
Driving down the boulevard for the first time was quite an experience for me. You really have to have guts to pretend you don’t notice hordes of street kids. As soon as the car comes to halt, at least one child gets glued to your car window, begging for 500 Congolese Francs. To give or not to give, is the recurrent question. Would you give? Easier said than done; do believe me. A single, ad hoc donation of 0.50 USD is likely to get the kid a meal. But more likely, it gets you a clear conscience. But how does it help in the long run? Does it help at all considering that your donation will you push the kid into the street again for they know it is the only way to get something to eat?
The problem with Kinshasa street kids is not straightforward. Although the post-colonial state has failed to cater to the needs of its citizens, including children, in 2009 the Congolese Government did its job and adopted a well-rounded, cross-cutting Child Protection Law. It surely was a laudable step.
In practice, however, the law is anything but a piece of nicely written, decently published leaflet, distributed by the Government to humanitarian workers, donors and NGOs with pride and sense of achievement. And that’s where its raison d’être ends. For example, despite being prohibited by the Law, Kinshasa’s central prison, Makala (‘charcoal’ in Lingala, the local language) hosts approximately 300 children, accompanied by adult prisoners as their only ‘guards’. Kids in the prison are grotesquely deemed lucky as they were not executed on the spot, but taken to the prison for something which – according to the Law – should be a “fair trial”.
You could claim that the Law is not likely to eradicate the phenomenon of street kids anyway, considering that these children are often victims of their parents’ incapacity to cater for their own families. You would also be right to point that this is where the safety nets should come in. As a matter of fact, this is the gap that various international donors have been filling for the last two decades or so. You could also claim that a lack of financial means to feed the family remains a concern across the globe. Sadly, you would be right.
Yet there are things that are not predestined to be eradicated by the most innovative laws nor by the international donors’ recurrent support. Stigmatization and a medieval way of thinking are some of these.
An easy, widespread way to explain misfortunes affecting a family in DRC has been to accuse a difficult, misbehaving or simply unwanted child of witchcraft. Worse still, the phenomenon occurs irrespective of the families’ socio-economic background.Literally thrown away onto the street like broken toys that nobody needs, children have no other place to go. Police is not a response either: their main job is to figure out how to make their own living, since their state pay is ridiculously low. By the same token, some kids choose the street to escape sexual or domestic violence, or both. They know that the grass will not be greener on the other side, but they are offered no choice.
According to one source, 44% of all street children in Kinshasa are girls. In the society where married women have no legal right to request bank loans or purchase land without their husbands’ consent, girls are particularly vulnerable. Scarily enough, street girls quickly discover how to make their living. Using body as their only asset allows them to survive. “Survive” in the conventional sense of the word for they are highly likely to fall victims of sexual abuse or violence, to be infected with STDs or to become pregnant when they are hardly 15. The vicious circle continues. So does the international community support.
Before I came to Kinshasa, I was convinced that targeted international support was the key to move things around and to improve the lives of many. A month of working for an international, donor-funded NGO was an eye-opening experience. No willingness on the side of the Government to stand on its own is appalling. International NGOs are doing a wonderful job, helping the national NGOs and CSOs to access and manage considerable grants and to measure the project impact on the beneficiaries. But what will come next, when they are all gone? Put differently, will they ever be gone? Only recently has “to give or not to give?” become the key question on the side of donors; and it is not an easy one. Withdrawing from this fragile state is likely to result in increased abuse and negligence, especially towards children. But is the on-going financial support helping at all, if it can’t guarantee the Government buy-in or durable accountability mechanisms?
Somebody said that setting the right economic incentives is the precondition for the effective, sustainable and efficient policy-making. If so, offering endless financial support is not likely to benefit the Congolese in the long run: To date, the international support has mainly incentivized the Government to prioritize its own affairs and to let the others – outsiders – take care of its citizens. The exception to this ‘negligence’ rule is several high-level public servants and their happy-go-lucky relatives who are looked after by the Government, and whose self-complacency stems from the fact that the less privileged people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are – with the help of international aid – also taken care of.
Unidentified street children swim and play in a river at a yearly summer camp run by Orper, a local NGO on July 4, 2006 in N Djili outside Kinshasa, Congo, DRC. The NGO has several shelters for homeless boys. Image copyrighted to Pers-Anders Pettersson
The author of this blog post is a development worker in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and has been working with the rehabilitation of Kinshasa’s street children.