In Blantyre, there is a world which remains beyond the reach of government arms, United Nations agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other voices that are supposed to safeguard vulnerable children. While change agents look away, our photojournalist THOKO CHIKONDI seizes the World Human Rights Day on December 10 to amplify the muted story of the forsaken minority.
Not many Blantyre residents know Gangala is part of their city. Not few think it lies in Bangwe Township.
The nearly 200 poor Malawians at the foot of BCA Hill, where former president Bakili Muluzi lives, gets no trickles from ‘above’.
From Gangala’s smallness, you can see low-cost homes densely crammed in Bangwe.
But the small village is another world in the city where the gap between the poor and the rich is ever-widening.
The village comprises the poorest of the poor and they are judged for it. Onlookers often call them thieves, beggars and good for nothing. But they are people like any other.
A township unlike any other, Gangala is home to destitute families situated almost 10 kilometres east of Blantyre central business district (CBD).
It is not just a habitat of the abject poor. The majority of them have visual impairment and are often seen begging for a coin or two in many parts of the city.
Like thousands of rural Malawians migrating to urban settings, these beggars, mostly too old to lift a hoe, relocated to the excluded spot in search of better living conditions as early as 1970.
At the centre of untold poverty in this neighborhood are children aged under 15, who are either born of the gray-haired beggars with visual impairment or their grandchildren.
From birth, these young Malawians are destined for worse poverty. Their situation denies them innate rights, including access to education, health and safe water.
While quality early childhood education is a must, they get off to a shaky start in life and spend their vital years scavenging on the streets.
Every child has the right to remain in school until they gain enough skills and knowledge to meet their potential, but the forgotten children of Gangala are human exceptions.
Unfortunately, they say, authorities, including government officials, child rights campaigners and international watchdogs have given up on them. Not even social welfare officials visit the compound. As they choose who to help, the ‘future leaders’ are going to waste every day. They reach age 15 without stepping in a classroom because they have to accompany their guardians on begging sprees daily.
The parents argue that if the children went to school, they would not afford tuition fees, food and other basics.
In an endless reflex action, children as young as four join their parents on the streets.
Between 10 and 12, girls feel vulnerable and shy on the streets. Some complain of constantly suffer sexual harassment and violence. They reportedly even get raped. They prefer to stay at home.
As they grow, the boys switch from begging to carrying travellers’ goods like beasts of burden.
And the parents turn to younger children for support. This has been the trend for three generations.
Most of the girls have no dreams except to marry. They marry their kind—illiterate, unskilled and doomed for worse poverty.
Life is hard. But they find time to play ball games. Boys dream to join top football teams and become famous.
The citizens with visual impairment in Gangala mostly marry within their closed circle.
The uneducated street children also give birth to sons and daughters who become “the eyes” of their blind grandparents.
The old do not see anything wrong with this trend. The irregularity has been normalised for almost four decades, but something must be done to break this vicious cycle.
The generation of blind parents and blind grandchildren may go for good, but the consequences of being born in this excluded society will haunt the children for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, the world around them seems totally blind to the pit of poverty and illiteracy in which these children and their children are trapped. But the question is: who will free the children of Gangala if those in positions of power keep looking away as if this population comprises lesser human beings or second-class citizens?
This assignment was part of this year’s World Press Photo Foundation Master Class East Africa.