Street children are an industry in themselves. They make and spend money, and damn the consequences that go with life in the streets. But, as BRIGHT MHANGO saw in Blantyre this week, their fate of an endangered and fragile future is shared by children living in the supposed comfort of the home.
It is a Thursday morning in Blantyre, and most of the people on the road are business-like. The scene has minibus conductors trying to ask every pedestrian to get on their buses, traffic police intervening where traffic lights fail to control the piled up vehicles and scores of low-income labourers going to work on foot.
Swimming with the elders, obviously standing out, yet not visible, are two boys: William Matias, 15, and Chisomo Amos, 13. Being in the middle of the school season, one expects them to carry school books, but the two are in casual wear; one in hoodies and another in a patterned black polyester shirt.
In their hands are cream-coloured 10-litre pails filled with fritters.
“We are going to work,” answers Chisomo.
I took the boys to a shade to listen to their story and though unverified, it shocks me all the same. The boys come from Zowe in Thyolo. They come from poor families with no fathers in the picture.
They dropped out of school and their grandmothers, in conjunction with someone from the city, brought them to Blantyre where they live with an aunt.
William said he was told that his father, who was only a boyfriend of his mother, left the village when William was born. For Chisomo, his father is a sawyer and divorced his mother when he couldnâ€™t even sit. Their mothers are unemployed.
“I didnâ€™t know that I would come here to sell fritters. I thought I was just going to stay home and go to school. When I started selling fritters, I asked my aunt whether it was free and she told me that I would get K2 500 ($10) per month,” said Chisomo.
The two boys look happy with the K2 500 they receive. They said they send some of the money to the village and spend the rest on clothes and other basic needs.
Chisomo and William are lucky. At least they have a place to sleep and food to eat.
Not Juma Joseph, 13, of Safarao in Ndirande, Blantyre.
I knew Juma in 2008 when he and other boys used to beg food from students at a college in Chichiri.
Wherever I meet Juma and his friends, I get a greeting from them, but the jolly boy is not supposed to be the man that he is.
“I am in Standard Four at Kachere Primary School. I live with my grandmother. My mum died and my father went back to the village. When we were in the village, he used to abuse me and when I asked to come to town he told me never to return, saying if I did he would kill me.
“Since my grandmother cannot do anything for me, I started begging here at Shoprite [Chichiri Shopping Mall] and at Chipiku Plus [Ginnery Corner]. When I realise some money, I buy maize flour, relish and other small things for the home,” he said.
Juma claims that he goes to school and only begs after classes. But it is obvious from his hair styleâ€”a mass of unkempt hairâ€”that he does not go to any school.
Of course, I still let him weave his yarn about how he uses the money to buy school books and uniforms.
He makes between K200 (about $0.80) to K700 (about $2.80) per day and he says he is â€˜soonâ€™ finally letting go of begging to concentrate on school.
He started begging in 2008.
William and Chisomo, who have been selling zitumbuwa for close to year, also claimed that they are soon retiring and going home to work hard in school.
It was almost laughable but I let them lie to me. Obviously, they like living in the city.
The children in the streets and those working in homes do not go to school, creating a poor future for themselves.
I walked to a hideout around Chichiri where bigger boys who have graduated from begging converge to take siestas and smoke some hemp. It is also a dumping ground with various rotting things, contributing to some big, nauseating stench.
The oldest person available gives me his name as John Expert. I hesitate to take it down, but he insists and tells me his father is Mr Expert from Bangwe, so I oblige.
John â€˜Expertâ€™ is a scary character; his face is marked with scars of street life, far too many to count.
Before he could answer any of my questions, he demanded payment. I told him that it is against my company policy to pay for interviews, but I later parted with a K50 note because he couldnâ€™t budge.
It struck me how Expert could eat a leftover chicken piece right from the bin without making a face. All he did was shake it to remove the paper and dust that was on the piece, before gulping down some soup from a take-away box.
Somehow, he is alright and not looking like he is catching cholera any time soon.
“I am now 28. I started begging when I was just eight. My father was a beggar, too, and my mum died a long time ago. I went into begging because I couldnâ€™t get what I needed in the home, ” he said.
The expert, Mr Expert, then narrated his life story: how he has been arrested three times for minibus touting; how he cannot even think of marrying because of his poverty; how he wishes he got out of his situation; how he tried to get out by selling apples but lost his capital when city council officials confiscated his merchandise.
At 28, he still lives with his father, a former beggar who now depends on him. Expert is a prototype of the street child. When they are too old to evoke sympathy (a major element in the begging art) in passers-by, they start doing piece work: touting for minibuses, vending, wheelbarrow peddling.
It is easy to make out that some crime in the city is perpetrated by grown-up beggars.
The beggars sleep under culverts and in abandoned buildings, and face abuse ranging from sodomy, rape, verbal abuse and extortion from elder street dwellers.
“When sometimes we lose the money we have realised that day, the owner shouts at us and cuts our pay,” said William.
Juma spoke of how he has to avoid the elder members who lurk in the corner to rob him of his dayâ€™s begging catch. As he speaks to me, one of such men gives him a symbolic greeting and the boy quivers.
The Good Samaritan
There are many people working to help the street children. In Mzuzu, at one point there was no single street child, thanks to the St. John of God which quickly takes them in for repatriation or training while in Blantyre the likes of Chisomo Children Club are also working hard.
Expert, however, said street children are likely going to run away from such institutions.
“Growing up in the streets, you donâ€™t like rules, being told what to do and being fed. We have freedom here, after all sometimes there is easy money. I was taken by The Samaritan Trust, but I ran away and came back. If only I can get a loan to start some business I would quit this life,” he said.
The reality of children in urban areas of Malawi has been captured by Unicef in its 2012 country report.
The report casts a damning picture on youngsters like Chisomo. It quotes a survey which found that 91 percent of domestic child workers are urban-based, mostly from rural areas, from families which cannot support them or have been abusing them.
According to the report, 80 percent of such children have no education beyond Standard Three.
Unicef faults the inequality in the education sector where 68 percent of the total public resources go to 20 percent of the population who are from rich households.
“Ironically, the poor children who would benefit most from education as a way of getting out of poverty and improving their socio-economic status are the ones that are benefiting the least from the system,” reads part of the report.
The Malawian child, however, should breathe a sigh of relief as child health indicators such as infant mortality, nutrition and immunisation are slowly improving, a situation the report attributes to the implementation of the pro-poor Essential Health Package.
HIV is most prevalent in urban areas. This is likely to exacerbate the problems of the urban child as it affects the most productive of the population which may lead to a stress on the available health resources, more orphans, less productivity and pressure on child protection services.
HIV in rural areas is also likely to increase the number of Chisomos who are traded out to the city and become the likes of Juma and later Expert â€“ a very unwanted cycle.
Overall, poverty is the biggest force behind the lag in ensuring that child rights are respected. It is the problem that threw Chisomo and William into a job before age 16, it is the one that dumped Juma into begging and the situation that makes sure that John Expert still gets his meal from the bin.
Until the poor are empowered, John Expert, the son of a beggar, will sire children who will continue to beg or contribute to the crime and other noxious activities in the city.
It a trap and if able Malawians do nothing, unable Malawians will remain in the drain.