Life on the streets, a 12-year-old’s story

Many developing nations struggle with the problem of street children and only a few have made any meaningful impact in dealing with this global difficulty, a result of poverty, strife, displacement and war.

By Phyllis Mbanje

Zimbabwe is no exception and although over the years the number of these homeless children has gone down, there are still many children prowling the streets of the country’s towns and cities.

Recently I had an encounter with a 12-year-old street urchin who confirmed to me how these children have become part of that torn fabric of humanity that no one cares about.

I had bumped into this kid almost every morning when he would be huddled in a makeshift cardboard tent by the entrance of a hotel in the city centre.

Like everybody else, I would casually look at the pitiful bundle before skirting around him to carry on with my business. The over powering stench of urine and other bodily odours around him were enough to make one throw up.

On this particular day as I passed by, a raspy voice called out to me. Initially I ignored the voice but when it was repeated, this time with a note of desperation, I stopped.

My first thought was to throw the few coins in my hands at the boy who was struggling to sit up. Something in his eyes, though hardened by his experiences on the street, reached out to me.

As I approached cautiously, since the streetwise boys are notorious for snatching handbags, the smell hit me and I tried to mask it by covering my nose with my open palm.

But as I handed him the coins I was taken aback when he started thanking me profusely clapping his hands repeatedly.

As if that was not enough, he closed his little fist around the precious coins and knelt down to show his gratitude.

Now embarrassed by this little act considering I had only given him 20c, I came close to him just so I could make him stop.

I casually asked his name and that opened up a conversation that not only tore at my inner self but put me to shame, as it should everyone else who never bothers to help these homeless kids.

He gives his name as Jeremiah Makoni and says he was born in the slums of Epworth. His mother abandoned him when he was just three years old and went into full-time sex work. He has not seen her since. He knows nothing about his father.

“I do not know what she looks like but our neighbour who helped bring me up says I look like her,” he reminisces.

He is small for his age and looks malnourished. But his most engaging feature are his soulful eyes that burn deeply into one’s soul.

His skin is covered with sores and a nasty rash that spreads from his neck right up to parts of his face. It also covers his thin arms and legs.

Throughout the conversation he continuously scratches and I noticed he has a dry cough that requires treatment.

“My mother just left me and our neighbour took me in. She was very nice to me but her kids, who were all grown up hated me with a passion,” he says, his eyes recoiling at the memories of the horror that he suffered at the hands of his guardian angels’ children.

Aged seven, he was sodomised by the neighbour’s teenage boy who had dropped out of school due to numerous brushes with the law.

“We slept in the same room all four of us and on that day it was just me and him [name withheld],” he recalls.

That night he lost his innocence and his childhood.

He was threatened with death and the next morning he feigned sickness so that his foster mother would not notice the limp.

“Zvairwadza pakugara apa saka ndakaswera ndirere [it was very painful whenever I tried to sit up so I spent the whole day sleeping], ” he snuffles a bit, an indication that the experience still haunted him.

Strangely, after that encounter other kids from the neighbourhood also started sodomising him and by then his only protector was bed-ridden and suffering from dementia.

“It is as if my rapist had told them I was available or they were paying him to abuse me,” he shudders at the torture and I wonder how this little body had taken in all that abuse.

A year after his foster mother had passed on, Jeremiah ran away from home and has never looked back.

According to a study on street children conducted by Unicef, over one half (56,6%) of the street children that were interviewed were concerned with child sexual abuse. Forty percent of street children mentioned sexual abuse.

Focused group discussions with street children and street adults confirmed that street children were also engaged in risky sexual behaviour.

The study shows street children in Zimbabwe experience casual sex, rape, prostitution and sex for goods and other services. It was reported in the focused group discussions that younger boys were engaged in sex for protection, while other boys were raped by older male youth or adult street people. Some had “girlfriends” or “boyfriends”, others bought or sold sex while some had sex with friends.

Was Jeremiah ever sodomised on the streets?

“No one touches me, they know it. I am a very good fighter,” he says with as much venom as he can muster.

But has he ever sodomised anyone?

His eyes become shifty and he suddenly becomes agitated and scrambles up and starts packing his “bed” which he stashes in a small opening.

He has lost all interest in the conversation and informs me he has to go to Mbare. I watch him as he scampers off, clutching his few coins.

Research has demonstrated that no amount of intervention programming for street children can be successful unless the community is prepared to respect, protect and provide opportunities for them.