Malawi film producer Ezaius Mkandawire’s feature film, Daily Bread, lasts only five minutes, but it captures the reality some street children face.
Shot in Lilongwe in 2011 at the main dumping site at Six Miles, near Bunda Roadblock, it perfectly mirrors the life of a destitute.
Dirty children, dressed in rags can be seen ambushing a city council’s refuse collection vehicle on its way to dispose of the garbage collected across the Capital City just off the main road. They are looking for a chance to get something out of the trash before it reaches the designated place.
Once there, they have no chance; older people would take over and a sound beating awaited anyone competing for the loot with the landlords.
What the film failed to capture, however, was that not all of them can be called street children or still be living in the streets. Others are best referred to as street-connected children.
In essence, street life is spilled over to the communities. Actually, as child development experts claim, that is where it derives its genesis.
Director for children affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Macknight Kalanda feels society has not been accommodating enough for many a street child.
“Most children found in our streets today are actually products of broken homes; just striving to survive. Others are a product of love that never really came to the fruition of marriage. Street begging, therefore, goes beyond the streets. It involves communities.”
Take, for instance, 13-year- old Samson Gama, from Chiuzira village in Area 23 in the same city. Unlike many of his agemates, life and childhood for him has had a bitter meaning.
Samson is already a ‘parent’ at his age, looking after his three siblings Zondeni (11), Chifundo (6) and three-year-old Hawa. They have different fathers, and none of them knows who or where their father is. And, they are not in school.
Their mother, only known as Fainess deserted them, and some neighbours say she is a prostitute in Salima.
Samson resorted to fend for himself and his siblings by selling roasted groundnuts in the street to make ends meet.
“On a good day, I make about K350 and this is usually before 10am. With more luck, the amount doubles through commissions I get through selling some people’s plastic carrier bags,” explains Samson.
The last time she was seen, according to Samson’s grandmother, she was also pregnant of another child. And now with an old and frail body, the granny also needs close attention.
A day in the life of this young family gives one proof that for some, responsibility comes at a very tender age.
Since the mother vanished, Samson’s day starts at around 4am when he roasts some groundnuts; usually a kilogramme to sell in town. By the time Zondeni and Hawa wake up, he is in town soliciting ways to bring a meal on the table.
Used to the situation, Zondeni has now joined the trend; only that he does menial jobs around the nearest marketplace at Chiuzira. He helps peel potatoes for fried chips where he is paid K50 or K100 for his efforts.
“To me, that’s better than nothing as the ‘bosses’ provide me with some chips for my lunch,” explains Zondeni.
However, not all days are Sundays for Samson’s business venture.
Patrol police frequently chase them out of the streets, sometimes locking them up if they run out of luck.
Such tales scared Zondeni off the streets. The distance between his home and town also contributed to his garnering daily bread closer to home.
The last time Samson was locked up he was bailed out by Tikondane Care, an organisation dedicated to improve the welfare of children in and off the streets.
“If I had a choice, I would quit the streets. However, I am smarter nowadays. I easily evade the police. The thoughts of Zondeni and Hawa back home always make me be more resilient; never to give up too easily,” he explains.
To ensure he gets them at least a meal a day, Samson says he has now diversified his business enterprise by starting selling empty plastic bottles collected from various refuse dumping areas across Area 23.
Is giving out alms the best way to bail out children like Samson? Do street children have to leave their posts in the first place?
Recently, government admitted to the prevalence of some syndicates hiring children to beg on the streets and even engage in crime can be cause for calls to a sweeping exercise.
“Some street children are given targets to meet by their ‘employers’. Others take begging as a form of self-employment while others are being exploited, especially children with disabilities, without consent or to some, the knowledge of their guardians. As such, there is a need for an in-depth assessment to establish the cause of the problem,” says Kalanda.
While there can be little debate on street children causing what nuisance in towns and cities, the question remains whether sweeping them out of the streets may be the solution.
A look at global statistics on the same may try to give a hint:
Streetchildrenday.org reports that China leads the pack with over 1.5 million of its children living in street situations while closer to home the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) leads the pack with over 60 000 street-connected children.
Back home, there are no known statistics on children living or plying their trade in the streets; as government admits.
In 2012, the UNDP conducted some research on the same but its findings were inconclusive as to the true or contextualized meaning of a street child.
On its part, Chisomo Children’s Club (CCC) embarked on a head-count of street children in December last year, but the results are yet to be released.
In the one-party state, government used, especially towards the Independence Day celebrations, to sweep clean all major streets in towns and cities of street children. Consequently, the streets were left looking smart, organised and reduced criminal activity.
CCC executive director, Charles Gwengwe, believes a lot must be taken into account before arriving at such a decision.
“I believe one needs to be cautious before deciding anything on it. We are talking of children; part of society that still needs our guidance to attain bright futures and we are talking of people who have rights as well. But they can be dangerous as well,” said Gwengwe.
His organisation is involved in rehabilitating and reintegrating hundreds of street children back into the communities.
On average, the centre rehabilitates 30 to 45 street children every month. He, however, says integration remains a challenge owing to, among others, funding woes.
Kalanda, while admitting the challenge, said improving street children’s life calls for some concerted efforts.
Previous efforts to address the situation had a weakness of using a one-size-fits-all approach and that is why there has been little or no impact at all.
Church Pastor for Bilila Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) in Ntcheu, Medson Mazengera, observes: “The problems that lead such children to the streets are usually deep. High poverty levels in many homes also tend to aggravate the situation. But above all, street children, just like all of us, want to feel some love.”
Mazengera says what drives them out of their homes is the lack of love. Human nature is such that one easily gives up all they have just to go where they can feel loved, he adds.
Lack of funding remains the daily excuse forgetting that one’s diligence is measured with what they do from the little they are entrusted with.