His father was the sole breadwinner such that when he died, the family’s living conditions worsened.
“We could hardly have meals, hence the idea of moving to Zomba to start fending for myself,” Justin Michael, 19, told Malawi News Agency (Mana), recently.
Michael made the sentiments in an interview on the sidelines of this year’s commemoration of the International Day for Street Children, which falls on April 12.
Malawi commemorated the day on April 26 in Zomba under the theme: ‘Commit to equality’.
This year’s commemoration was different for Michael who has been living in the streets of the country’s old capital city since 2013. He has now left the streets courtesy of Malawi Health and Social Trust (MhEST).
Michael explained that he migrated from Machinjiri Township in Blantyre to Zomba when he was 13, following the death of his father.
“Life became unbearable because my mother could hardly afford to take care of me and my two siblings,” he said.
Michael explained that he used to carry people’s luggage at Zomba Bus Depot, just to earn a little something for food and basic necessities such as soap.
“All I needed was money for survival and such was my life since 2018.
“Each time dusk approached, it was a difficult moment for me because I used to sleep on the verandah of a shop and sometimes under benches in Zomba market,” he recollected, with a tinge of regret.
He added that he used to encounter all forms of abuse from older street children who treated young ones ruthlessly.
“Older boys usually force younger one into sex as well as giving them money targets to be surrendered to them on a particular day,” he said.
“There were days when police officers could arrest street kids for being found loitering around the town. I was once arrested on that charge, too,” he added.
This means Michael has spent six years of his life fending for himself while facing all sorts of abuses that street children have to go through on a daily basis.
However, for Michael all that trouble ended after interacting with a fellow street kid who abandoned street life, courtesy of MhEST.
“My colleague introduced me to MhEST where I was embraced by the whole team from the first day I stepped my foot at the place,” Michael said, his face glowing with pride.
Currently, Michael is in Form One at Likangala Secondary School in Zomba and his life has enviably changed since he left the streets.
Michael is one of the 58 street children that have gone through MhEST under a programme which focuses on supporting vulnerable street-hardened children and youth.
The programme accords the children access to basic human needs such as health care, education and psycho-social services.
MhEST’s youth and children programme Officer, Jessica Gondwe, says the programme targets street children aged between seven and 14 and the youth in the 15-19 age bracket in Zomba.
She says the programme was rolled out in July 2018, starting with a baseline assessment using participatory action research to understand the life realities of children living in the street and the youth in Zomba.
“Every child has his or her own rehabilitation plan and we aim at having a safe reintegration where a thorough assessment of the family and the child is made to determine readiness for reintegration,” Gondwe says.
“This process starts with family tracing, then a series of counselling and finally reintegration,” she adds.
Gondwe further says 42 street children out of the 58, who once accessed services through the resource centre, have gone back to school.
“We provide the children with all the necessary learning materials, inclusive of school uniform to make sure that they are at par with other learners in their respective schools.
“Some children are doing extremely well in class and most of them are able to read and write,” Gondwe says.
Apart from encouraging school attendance, the resource centre provides meals like breakfast and lunch every day to the children, besides providing bathing and washing facilities at the centre’s ablution.
“We also give them clothes. Quite often, we also provide counselling for behaviour change and modification and link them to health services and social protection,” she says.
Gondwe further says for older children who cannot catch up with school, the organisation plans to rehabilitate them through vocational skills training and other entrepreneurial activities that can lead them to independent life.
Eye of the Child executive director, Zipporah Jede, says about 6 000 kids need to be withdrawn from the streets across the country and prevent them from going back.
“The streets are harmful to children. This is why non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are playing key role to ensure that children are protected by removing them from the streets,” Jede says.
She, therefore, feels that on their part, NGOs are doing enough but government needs to do more in promoting child rights, particularly of the underprivileged.
“We need to find homes for the children as streets are not a safe environment,” she says.
Even the Child Care and Protection Act stipulates that parents have a responsibility to protect the child from neglect, discrimination, violence, abuse, exploitation, oppression and exposure to physical, mental social and moral hazards.
To this effect, Zomba District Social Welfare Officer Joseph Stephano commends MhEST for the programme, saying it is in line with government’s efforts of ensuring growth, development and survival of children.
“At national and district levels, we are also implementing the programme aimed at assisting children to reintegrate into their communities.
“Where parents are not around, we reintegrate the children into other existing community structures including facilitating their shift to independent life,” Stephano says.