Young and Homeless Fill Africa's City Streets

At the Sabah children's center in Khartoum, Amad Adel tells a counselor, Nwadar Eltaab, how he left home after his mother was killed.
At the Sabah children's center in Khartoum, Amad Adel tells a counselor, Nwadar Eltaab, how he left home after his mother was killed. "These children look scary and society has written them off," Eltaab said. "But many are at the age where they need us to step in." (Emily Wax - Twp)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 23, 2005

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The morning call to prayer echoed through the city as Ahmed Abdulraham, 14, a small boy with cloudy, yellowing eyes, rose from his version of a mattress: a pile of trash spread across a gutter.

He rubbed some murky brown water over his face. He prostrated himself and prayed, he said, for a day when he would be safe and earn a lot of money. Then he took turns with his five friends sniffing glue.

After they got high, the boys took off across a rocky escarpment on the recent morning, over some aging train tracks and into the choking traffic of downtown Khartoum. They were ready to work.

Ahmed, known in local slang as a "mouse," is one of an estimated 35,000 minors who live and work on the streets of this dusty capital city. Some, like him, have been here less than a year, since fleeing the Darfur conflict in the west. But most are runaways from rural poverty, forced to support their families or orphaned by AIDS.

They are part of an unprecedented and growing phenomenon of homeless youths in Africa's exploding urban centers, according to studies by UNICEF and Save the Children. There is no reliable estimate of their total number, but studies indicate it could be as high as 1 million.

Africa once prided itself on its traditional systems of extended family, which sheltered children even in dire circumstances. But over the past 25 years, a variety of problems -- including drought, wars, AIDS and economic collapse -- have broken families apart and left hundreds of thousands of children to survive on their own.

The problem first became noticeable in the 1980s, when coffee prices crashed and Western subsidies undercut other export crops such as corn and cotton, according to studies by Street Child Africa, a British organization. Many children in large rural families were asked to go out and earn money or simply left home.

Over the past decade, as the AIDS pandemic combined with other regional problems, more and more young Africans had to forgo childhood and school, which is not free in many African countries. More than half the youths interviewed by Save the Children said the inability to pay school fees forced them into the streets.

There, they encountered a tough, adult environment where they were vulnerable to drug addiction, bullying, sexual abuse and devastating health conditions, according to child rights advocates.

Now, nearly every major African city has its own name for them. In Khartoum, they are called "the children of the market." In Nairobi, they are known as "glue boys," because they sniff glue out of old bottles, holding the rims to their lips as if they were whispering into the neck. In Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, they are called "the desperate children" -- barefoot boys who shine shoes, banging a stick with a bottle cap to attract customers.

"Never before have we seen this many children living on the streets. Part of the problem is that urbanization across Africa is pushing these children into very chaotic settings," said Nassirin Dafallea El Hag Yousf, program officer for Save the Children-Sweden in Khartoum, which studied 500 street children in 2001.

When many of them leave home, Yousf said, "they intend on making an honest living by working, but they end up in trouble, addicted to glue, sometimes sexually abused or exploited by adults. Not all of these kids are bad. But it's a huge problem for Africa. And it can't be ignored. These sweet young boys will one day be men."

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