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Delicate balance; how to deal with street connected children

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NEED FOOD—Street connected children

Blantyre is not the country’s commercial city for nothing. The city seems to have an invisible magnet, pulling and pushing traffic in all directions minding their businesses, chasing their targets to make ends meet.

Here and there, like white patches on a black pair of trousers un-bathed young boys and girls in groups wearing dirty clothes and unkempt hair litter the otherwise beautiful highways and pavements.

Boss tigayireni hands [spare a K100 for me] is not a strange call and if you dare not give them what they ask for, be ready for a cuss.

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When darkness falls, the deserted highways and pavements become even more dangerous as the street connected children take control, turning the commercial hub into crime hub. At least that is the popular view.

You can say the same without fear of contradiction about the country’s political capital Lilongwe and up North in Mzuzu.

A good number of criminal activities in these cities have, for a long time, been blamed on the street connected children but their voice has conspicuously been missing.

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When it comes to street connected children, the popular voice is that of condemnation.

Paul (not real name) now 19 has been in the streets since he was 13.

Paul is the oldest of the crew and says it was not easy for him to be accepted in the pack.

“The older guys could send me out to beg for them and I could not dare say no. Slowly most of them left the streets and others died,” he said.

Paul concedes that some street connected children are involved in all forms of crimes but said largely, it is the older gangs.

“Some of us come and beg early in the morning to around this time [evening] and retire to our resting places. As we are speaking, other gangs are coming and will be here till early in the morning. They are the ones who attack and steal from innocent people. For me I know all corners of the city now and it’s rare for them to attack me the way they used to when I had just come,” he said.

Paul says he came in the streets to support his sister, a single mother of one who stays in Ndirande Township.

“Our father died a long time ago but our mother is in Mzuzu. At some point she knew that I was begging in the streets but then I stopped. She doesn’t know that I started again. My sister just knows that I come in the city but she doesn’t really know what I do,” he said.

Just like all members of the crew, Paul’s long unkempt hair, dry lips and red eyes give him real looks of a criminal but there is something different about Paul.

He is able to make coherent and complete sentences in English.

“I dropped out of school when I was in Form Two in Chirimba. The school fees was K55,000 and nobody could raise that for me. At first, I could go to school and come here to beg but I couldn’t continue. I really want to go back to school and become a truck driver one day,” he said.

Paul’s life in the street is a living hell.

“Ordinarily, I would not want to be here. Nobody wants to be here. You are fully covered but shivering with cold. You spend a whole day begging and you meet someone who demands whatever you have at a knife point. They are real bullies who can forcefully have sex with you and there is nothing you can do,” he said.

And 13 year old Ben (again not real name) has a single mother too.

Unlike Paul, Ben’s mother knows what her son does in the Central Business District such that he sometimes shares his proceeds with her.

At 19:25, Ben is ready to go home in Mbayani on foot, well aware of all the dangers ahead.

He has a meal pack which some well-wisher has given him and is determined to get it home.

“I know all the corners around here. You know the other main problem we face are the police. They arrest us and keep us for days for nothing at all,” he said.

Without glorifying the age old threat street connected children pose to the society, what is the sustainable and lawful way of dealing with the problem?

Alexious Kamangira, Head of Practice Division of Gender, Child Disability Rights of the Malawi Law Society says the problem must be dealt with while respecting rights of the children.

He said it is important for authorities to bear in mind that in any case, the best interest of the children should be the guiding principal.

“A people are a reflection of the society. In dealing with crimes associated with street connected children, we must ourselves as a society reflect on how we are contributing to the problem itself and how best we can deal with it. The street kids are our collective responsibility and we must all move together in accordance with the law. These children are in the streets yes, but they are Malawians so we should not give up,” he said.

Dyna Tembo, Executive Director for Hope for the Heart Mission which is a personal initiative dealing with street connected children, says the street connected children long for a listening ear.

“We rush to conclude that they are criminals and all that but they have a story. They have a story that goes unheard. Some of these things could be true but there is also a side of pain because they are discriminated even by their own families,” she said.

Tembo said her mission works with families of the street connected children to address underlying issues which drive the children to the streets.

“Most of these children are coming from single parent headed families and the others have parents who remarried and are being ill-treated by those step-parents. That is why they come back when we send them to those same homes. We engage the single parents mostly women to help them be self-reliant so that they are able to fend for their children because above everything else, these children need love,” she said.

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