Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rising from the ashes of street life

In a forgotten part of Mudi Bridge between Blantyre Main Market and Blantyre Flea Market, on a spot hidden from human comfort and the noise of freedom, Peter Sithole and a group of other orphaned and abandoned kids ‘founded’ their own version of heaven.

Forgotten at home in Blantyre’s Bangwe Township, looked down upon by the world on top of Mudi bridge, and with no hope for the future, the now 18-year-old Sithole almost resigned to fate and thought he would be there— under the bridge— for the rest of his life.
SITHOLE: I kept on pestering the employer to employ me as a guard despite being only 15 years

But his fear did not hold or, if it did, it did not hold for a long time. Soon, Sithole and the other kids graduated from sleeping under the bridge to sleeping under benches at Blantyre Flea Market.

“I spent eight years as a street child,” says Sithole.

This means the beardless Sithole has lost eight out of his 18 years in life. In eight years, as Sithole was jumping from one street to another in Blantyre and, as he puts it, “from one damaged carton to another at Blantyre Flea Market”, other ‘lucky’ children were able to progress from Standard 1 to Standard 8.

If he had his way, “I would be home attending to school, chatting with friends and family, exchanging gifts on birthdays, Christmas, New Year days. But life treated me harshly and I just heard from the grapevine that any such opportunities existed”.

Of course, Sithole had problems when his parents were alive. But his parents were there to take care of them [problems] and the children— who basically included Peter and his sister [name withheld].

However, the problems escalated beyond hope when his father died.

“My father died in 2002 and I had no close relation to take care of me. I don’t even know my home village. I understand that my home district is Ntcheu, but I do not even know under which Traditional Authority I fall. So, I was a child lost in my own country. To make matters worse, nobody seems to care,” says Sithole, who grew up in Blantyre’s Bangwe Township.

Lost family

According to Sithole, life on the street is a delicate balance between life and death.

“You have to be steadfast in order to survive, to bring food to your mouth. With street life, there is nothing storing food, or bringing food to one’s table. To begin with, there is no food because, every morning, one rises up— I am not saying ‘waking’ up because, sometimes, one spends sleepless nights thinking about why they should be the only ones singled out for harsh treatment by life when others are enjoying it— without knowing where the next meal will come from. Secondly, there is nothing like bringing food to one’s table because a street child has no property.

“A street child walks with all his belongings on him; in the pockets, in other parts of a short or pair of trousers that are specifically ‘designed’ by the street child for the safe keeping of things. But, as you can guess, the property one has are little things— not something like a table,” says Sithole.

He adds that, among street kids themselves, there are others who have been on the streets for a long time that they boss others around. They grab food and money from other street kids. They beat stubborn ones up; and passers-by, no matter how mature or childish they are, just pass by— unperturbed by the injustices being administered by one unjustly-treated human being to another; victims turning against other victims in a vicious circle of revenge.

“When the victimised grow up a bit, they administer the same treatment, if not harsh, on others. Life is brutal on the streets and the task everyday is to survive, find food, be a team player, and live to the next day,” says Sithole, adding:

“But I am not crying over spilt milk. All I am worried about is my sister. For your information, I am the second-born in our family. My sister, maybe after giving up on prospects of a good life, is into commercial sex work. It’s sad that I can’t help her out for now,” says a visibly-touched Sithole.

Despite what he has gone through on the streets, he still has a caring heart and wants the best— nothing but the best— for her sister.

“Two people from one family should not be lost together. That is a disaster. I am sad for what has happened to my sister,” says Sithole.

Lawless Samaritan?
In a country that seems to attach little value on social programmes, vulnerable groups such as street sometimes use common sense— at the expense of international conventions against, for instance, child labour— to survive and bail themselves out of abandonment and desperation.

For Sithole, the unconventional means took the form of child labour and, ironically, Sithole is all praises to the man and company that gave him a ray of hope by heeding his plea to disregard international instruments against child labour and offer him a job.

“Life on the streets did not break my spirits. Actually, on those cool or hot nights, I could think about school. I, therefore, made up my mind to go to school. I had done some primary schooling when my parents were alive and, so, I started drawing plans on how I could sit examinations and go to secondary school,” says Sithole, adding:

“At 15 years, I went to a security company in Blantyre and pleaded with the directors to employ me as guard. They refused, saying they could not employ a 15-year-old boy as that would be promoting child labour. They said employing me would also be violating Malawi’s labour laws. I pleaded and pleaded, telling them I wanted to generate funds from my fees but they put their feet down.

“I did not give up and kept on pestering them until they gave me what I consider a life-line. I was working as a guard at the age of 15 years and I used the funds to pay fees and buy necessities at Njamba Secondary School [in Blantyre].”

Sithole also found another ‘Good Samaritan’ in chips sellers, who would give him and other kids piece work to peel Irish potatoes. While this could be described as another form of child labour, it saved Sithole’s life.

“All one needed to do was work up early, rush to the chips seller’s bench and, if you were the proverbial early bird, you would be given the task to peel the potatoes. We did not receive payment in the form of cash. No. They could give us food— chips— and we could start the day with something in our stomach,” says Sithole.

His resilience paid off.

“I have just sat for Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations in 2015 and I am hopeful that the future is bright. I was not born to fail and I want to be an agent of positive change in my mother country. I will do it. I don’t want to be on the streets again and I want good life for my sister, too,” says Sithole.

Rough road

Step Kids Awareness executive director, Godknows Maseko, once was a street child and knows how it feels to be exposed to such an environment.

“It is not easy to be on the streets as all sorts of nasty things happen to children on the streets. Some are trafficked. In my case, I was once trafficked to a foreign country and only survived by the grace of God after being rescued by the son of the man who had found a market for my body parts. We really need to bail these children out by providing the basic necessities,” says Maseko.

African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect – Malawi Chapter executive director, Kenwilliams Mhango, suggests that the country needs to put in place “robust” social programmes for vulnerable children.

Mhango says the social programmes will help children who have been abandoned by society to find a new lease of life through government interventions.

“Otherwise, removing children from the streets merely serves as a mechanism of treating the symptoms of a disease but not the actual disease. Before long, the children go back to the streets. These children need to be taken care of through, say, child placement homes or utilising extended family systems by sending the children back to their communities and providing social support through those channels,” says Mhango.

Government act

But Minister of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, says the government is working on creating lasting solutions.

“For your information, Sithole is one of those earmarked to benefit from the Community Colleges’ initiative. It is our hope that, through this intervention, we will be able to help Sithole become the responsible citizen he has always wanted to become.

“You may also wish to know that we have social cash transfer programmes that have assisted in making lives of, say, the elderly bearable. We have these problems and will work hard to ensure that a lot of people benefit so that we may be, together with the citizens of this country, turn sadness into happiness for many who think that society has forgotten them,” says Kaliati.

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