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When children turn into breadwinners

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By Vincent Khonje:

CONSTRAINED – Magombo

The innocence on their little faces subtly veils the struggle they endure each and every day. They do not have the luxury of staying home or playing with their friends to return to already prepared sumptuous meals.

For the family to eat, they have to go out and seek money for buying food.

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Hamilton,13, and his sister Agnes, 10, stay with their grandmother Margaret Magombo,71, at Gumbo Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwase in the tobacco-growing district of Kasungu.

They are the family’s breadwinners, ensuring that there is something to eat for their grandmother and four other children.

Magombo is frail and cannot fend for the six children. In her advanced years, her hope for a meal—and the family’s—lies in Hamilton and Agness, whose future is also being threatened by their poverty.

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“I go out with my sister in town to sell drinking water in plastic tubes. After that we buy food which we eat with our grandmother,” Hamilton explains, a distant look registering in his eyes.

The children are orphans and are looked after by their grandmother who, conversely, looks up to their efforts to have meals in the house.

She had 10 children with her husband, now late. All the 10 children are dead with one of her daughters leaving behind six children who are now her responsibility—in delicate ways.

Hamilton is the eldest and the only one who has a different father from the other five.

“These children were staying in Nkhotakota with their father and mother. But my daughter passed away and they were brought here by the father,” the aged woman narrates.

Apparently, the father disappeared and has never sent a word to the family after bringing the children to their grandmother who is lucky that her husband built a family house

The hassles are where to get food to eat.

This is where the two eldest children, Hamilton and Agnes, play a crucial role of setting off to town with as little as K50 and buy water in plastic tubes at K10 each to resell at K20.

The profit is 100 percent and they repeat the multiplication business until they have enough to buy food for the family.

“I am used to this business. What else can I do?” Agnes says.

The part of the town where the children are seen moving around with basins full of water in plastic tubes is where there are stalls selling chips.

The place is close to a tavern and some shebeens.

Agnes’s life is in constant danger in this place where men get drunk to the point of forgetting their own names. The innocence in her may make her not to see the darkness the street corners have but she needs protection.

But then her family has to eat.

The water business is not out of choice but rather a necessity.

The children are forced to go out to sell the drinking water and what they make is what is used to buy food, Magombo says.

Sometimes, if neighbours do not come to the family’s rescue, they go to bed on empty stomachs. The water business is not always successful.

Additionally, now police are strict on children selling any kind of stuff on the streets on Kasungu town.

Thus, Hamilton and Agnes can no longer go in town and make money for them to eke out a living. The family is relying on handouts from well-wishers, a habit which is not sustainable.

A WhatsApp group calling itself Support Agnes Foundation made a donation of financial and material resources to the family.

Founder of the Group, Richard Maliwu, who initially met Agnes selling the drinking water, reveals he was shocked to hear the little girl’s story.

He pleads with well-wishers to join them in supporting the family with long-term solutions since the children also need a good house and education.

Government has some social support schemes that help those who are labour constrained and some who are labour capable.

Recently, there was an exercise on a Unified Beneficiary Register (UBR) exercise which provides a single source of information on households eligible for social support services.

According to the classification, some people are selected for Social Cash Transfer (SCT), Farm Input Subsidy Programme and some on Public Works Programme (PWP).

But why can’t people like Magombo benefit from SCT?

Kasungu District Social Welfare Officer responsible for Social Cash Transfer, Victor Nyirenda, says Magombo was not even recorded in the UBR because she stays in an area considered urban.

“It is impossible for her to be considered for Social Cash Transfer as she is in an urban setting,” Nyirenda says.

A well-wisher has given Magombo one acre of land but then there are issues of inputs and labour for her to grow crops.

“It is a field I have just been given not permanently. Any time the owner can decide to rent it out so it is not mine,” Magombo says, adding that she will need fertiliser and seed apart from someone to work on the garden.

But what is it that government is doing to help people like Magombo who cannot be on Social Cash Transfer Programme and is also labour-constrained to be considered for PWP?

Currently, the Social Cash Transfer Programme targets only 10 percent of the ultra-poor, although government is working to increase the number of beneficiaries to up to 15 percent.

According to Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Public Relations Officer, Lucy Bandazi, the ministry uses case management and referral approaches.

She says the ministry first does an assessment and depending on the results of that assessment, appropriate support is given.

“For the children, the office further does assessments in the best interest of the child that is support at home, education, alternative care (extended family or fostering), adoption, and the last option is placement in child-care institutions,” Bandazi says.

The ministry has linked the family with two groups that are going to provide support. It will then do a follow-up to see how the family is fairing.

Perhaps, Hamilton and Agnes will have a new lease of life and realise their dreams in the midst of their struggles. The pain of being orphans may eventually seep away. — Mana

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