Suffer Little Children

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Drains and riverbeds are home to many children in the City. New Era went to speak to some of them to find out how they are coping on icy winter nights.

By Catherine Sasman

WINDHOEK

The bowels of the concrete-walled water drainage pipes running beneath the busy Mandume Ndemufayo Road in the southern industrial area of Windhoek light up every night from a low fire fuelled by plastic bags and shards of wooden planks.

A motley group of boys huddle around the flames for warmth against the bitingly cold night temperatures.

These pipes provide shelter to about 14 or 16 boys between the ages of 11 and 19. They call it the Invisible Pipes.

Winter temperatures have fallen to between minus one degree Celsius to three degrees Celsius over the last week in the central city area, confirmed Rian van Zyl from the weather office. And another cold spell is likely to hit again next week.

The icy conditions are taking their toll on the homeless and destitute. Wintertime to these boys is synonymous with sore and stiff bodies, constant flu and wheezing chests.

“We do not have any blankets,” says Ricardo Jones, a 14-year-old runaway from Mariental.

One or two of the boys claim to have blankets that they have either stolen or were given by sympathetic members of the public.

But the others wrap themselves in plastic bags, cardboard boxes, or pieces of cloth gathered from the Game shopping mall during the day. Their mattresses are more plastic bags and cardboard boxes.

“Wintertime is a very unpleasant time of the year for us,” says Robert Benson (16). “It keeps away the sleep at night.”

“I think I will freeze to death this winter,” says Willem Frederik (19). His face is puffed up from drink and slowly-healing knife cuts criss-cross his face, and he has an open and bleeding wound on one arm “from a fight with gangsters”.

As night falls, he puts on a thin, frayed shirt over his red sweater.

And, say the boys, the City Police make their lives more difficult in winter.

“They go after us especially now. In summer they do not bother us,” said Carlos Benson.

City Police Assistant Superintendent, Marx Hipandwa, responded by saying that the children should not view this as victimization, but that they are being picked up “for their own good – irrespective of the season”.

After traversing the streets at night, the boys return to the pipes around midnight.

They then light the fire, and cook whatever food they could gather during the day from small jam cans.

“We always sit together around the fire to chat and play cards,” says Daniel Swartbooi (23). He is the assigned cook of the group.

They eat once a day – if at all.

Their staple diet consists mostly of porridge and dry bread that they get from their “sponsors”.

Or they add their pennies together that they have collected from begging or stealing, and buy special treats like sugar to add to their nightly teas.
But if they cannot find food in the day, they rummage through garbage bins for whatever scraps of food they can find.

“We scratch through the bins the whole day,” says Rudolph Afrikaner (16).
Volunteers from a local church bring them soup every Friday.

Other times they go to Klein Windhoek where they hunt birds.

“It is like eating chicken,” laughs Benson.

When they are ready to sleep, they kill the fire because of the smoke.

Another group of four boys live behind the Game shopping mall, opposite a railway line that cuts through the thinly-spread bushes.

“This is Paradise,” says Carlos Benson (23), the oldest of the group.

They call this place Paradise because it is close to a river from which they get sufficient water in the rainy season.

In winter, the cold creeps up to their hilltop cardboard shelter set up under a tree.

“We also do not have blankets. We only have plastic bags and boxes,” says the older Benson.

They wake up at eight or ten in the morning to sit in the morning sun and thaw their freezing bodies.

If it was a particularly cold night, they sleep until noon to catch up on sleep.
The youngest of these boys is Ivan Jarsen (13), who hitch-hiked from Okahandja a year ago because his grandmother who raised him could not provide him with food or school fees. He does not know what has happened to his mother, and is afraid of his father.

“He drinks too much; he will kill me,” he says.

But the two groups of boys seem to have developed a strong bond, and fend for each other – when not fighting each other.

“When I first came to Windhoek, I was afraid that people would hurt me or steal from me,” says a serious-looking Ricardo Jonas.

“But I met up with my friends who knew the place.”

Jonas, like so many of the street children, has left his home and family to escape poverty or severe abuse. When he was 10 years old, he took a train on his own to come to Windhoek to “zula” (to beg or find other means to survive).

“My father died and I stayed with my mother and four siblings. But we were always hungry and struggled for everything,” he says.

According to a study done by the Ministry of Gender and Child Welfare in 2002 – the last study done on street children – a sample of 243 children was reached.

Forty of these, says the ministry, were found in the Khomas region. Children as small as two to six-year-olds were found in temporary tent shelters in Gobabis during the study.

The study, however, did not distinguish between boys and girls, but what is known is that 78.8% of these children are boys, with the majority of them under the age of 15.

It is also known that these children live nomadic lifestyles, making it difficult to monitor them. But, noted the ministry, the phenomenon is growing, particularly in the urban areas.

According to Ausiku, the ministry is currently in the process of expanding its programmes that deal with street children in the affected regions.

“The initiative is not permanent, but temporary in nature, because the ministry tries to avoid encouraging a dependency syndrome that takes away the primary responsibility from the parents and the community, but rather tries to encourage parents and the community to take care of their children by changing and improving their living conditions in the best interest of the children,” said Ausiku.

What lands these children on the streets, says the ministry, is the “triple threat” of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity at their homes.

“We find that most street children in Namibia are those from poor households who lack access to sufficient food, proper care and education,” said Permanent Secretary with the ministry, Sirkka Ausiku.

Street children, according to UNESCO, are boys and girls whose homes become the streets or a source of livelihood, and are inadequately protected.

There are three categories that define these children: the “street child” is totally estranged from his/her family.

“Children on the street” describe those who spend the majority of the day on the streets before returning to their homes at night. “Children living on the street” with their families constitute an emergency.

Most of these children, added Ausiku, are more at risk of being exposed to violence and abuse, both inside and outside their homes.

“So, being a street child means going hungry, sleeping in insalubrious places, facing violence and sometimes death.”

The 2006 State of the World’s Children report found that a third of Namibia’s children are “invisible” because their births have not been registered.

“Without a birth certificate, these children experience difficulties getting into schools and accessing other support services and government grants,” noted Ausiku.

Another threat to these vulnerable children is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as a weakening capacity of social and economic services.

“These factors are cross-cutting affects and rob our children of their well-being and security.”

The government has set up the After School Centre as a mediating measure to deal with these vulnerable children.

According to the ministry, the centre conducts weekly street visits to monitor the number of children on the streets.

When children are found, they are taken to the centre for a “talk”, and get fed and cleaned up.

The centre provides for children between the ages of five and 18 years.
The centre reportedly assists social workers to reunite and reintegrate children with their families.

But, despite these attempts and the hardship, on the streets, many children do not want to go to the centre, and do not want to be found.

They do not like the rules of institutions. They want to be free.

“We would go and live in a house only if we can stay there on our own,” said Afrikaner.

“If not, we will stay in our pipes.”

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