They can be seen loitering at the traffic lights during the morning rush hour and during the early evening begging for loose change from motorists.
Also, this growing army of beggars could be spotted in the city centre selling stuff, mostly clothes hangers that have been discarded by retailers.
They are similar in appearance as they are normally dressed in rags, with weary faces and red eyes, unkempt hair and grubby feet and always famished. And they are all teens.
These are the invisible children of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
Despite having a relatively small population of just over two million people, Namibia is grappling with the street children problem, with over 1,000 roaming the streets of the capital.
With poor families struggling to make ends meet, coupled with family breakdowns and neglect, many children were forced to abandon their homes and fend for themselves on Windhoek’s often unforgiving streets.
One such victim is Romeo, 15, and his younger brother Jerome, 11. These two, and other kids, are living in a rundown building in Robert Mugabe Avenue, just outside the city centre.
When New Era visited their abode on Wednesday evening, Romeo was preparing for bed – wrapped in a hoary blanket in a corner with his brother.
The blankets have been collected from dustbins at a residential area close to the city centre and the kids rely on them to keep warm as temperatures can drop at night.
“We survive by begging for money and food at traffic lights,” says Romeo, who has been living on the street since 2007. After their mother died, an aunt brought them to Windhoek from their home in Gobabis.
But they were not happy with the treatment they received as well as the constant shortages of food at home and they decided to start begging for money in town to get by.
“When we started we used to be in front of a shop in Klein Windhoek. But since the police and big boys always harassed us, we opted to move closer to town. Since motorists don’t like giving us money, in most cases we survive by eating leftovers from the dustbins,” Romeo narrated the harsh reality that confronts street children. He attended school up to Grade 7, while little brother Jerome dropped out of school at Grade 4.
The siblings described their street living as terrible. Jerome’s challenge is more atrocious. He claims that even though he spends most of the time begging for money at the traffic lights, in most cases the big boys will come take it from him and spend it on alcohol and drugs, instead of food.
“I don’t sleep very well – it’s not very comfortable. I live badly,” he says, before huddling together with about 30 other children at the back of the dirt house that they call ‘Warmbad’.
To gain access inside Warmbad one has to climb through windows as the main door is still locked.
“Am I allowed to enter the house?” this reporter asked Romeo. “Of course my sister, I can help you to get inside if you like,” he replied, while assisting this reporter to climb the window into the house.
Inside the house it is very dark, as there are no lights, while the floor is strewn with scrap metal that they collected with the intention to resell at scrapyards.
There was an elderly man seated on a plastic container smoking tobacco, too.
“Don’t be scared my sister he won’t do anything to you,” says John, one of Romeo’s housemates.
They regard the old man as the father of the house and all children respect him and obey his commands, they say.
Rosa was the only girl among boys at Warmbad. The 17-year-old started living on the street at the age of eight. Though born and bred in Windhoek, Rosa fled the house to search for food, after the parents moved to Keetmanshoop, leaving her with her two sisters.
“I left home because there was nothing to eat – my sisters will go for the whole day and never bring anything home,” she says.
Although she encounters challenges that include sexual abuse and begging for food, she prefers life on the street as there are monetary benefits that she would not receive if she chose to stay home.
Romeo on the other hand said the police and older street kids add to their hardship by harassing and beating them up on a daily basis. “They beat us – the police. The big boys are also punching us every day especially when they are high (under the influence of alcohol or drugs),” says John, who is about 15.
All these children said they are not on the street by choice and are asking the government to give them a chance to dream and escape from their situation.
“I just need a job, so that I can be able to look after myself and my brothers. I am a good dancer and if I can get money I can enrol with a dancing school as a dream of being a musician one day,” said Romeo.
Rosa’s dream is to be a businesswoman one day. “I don’t want to go back to any school, I just want money so that I can start my own business,” she said.
Street children have become a global concern. According to UNICEF there are up to 150 million street children in the world today.
Chased from home by violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of a parent, family breakdown, war, natural disaster or simply socio-economic collapse, many destitute children are forced to eke out a living on the streets, scavenging, begging, hawking in the slums.
In Namibia, they find shelter in abandoned buildings and sleep under bridges and in riverbeds.
Government has made notable efforts to get children from the street, but it is seemingly fighting a losing battle. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare is mandated to look after these children.
The ministry has established after-school centres to accommodate this group, however most of them refuse to live there due to easy money on the street. The after-school shelter provides daily education and play activities, food, beds, baths and other basic necessities.
“The after-school centre is like a house setting. There are three meals a day and still the children run away. That indicates that the issues of street kids are not about the food. Those children just want money to buy alcohol and drugs,” says Walters Kamaya, the ministry’s chief public relations officer.
The ministry has made an effort together with law enforcement agencies to round up street kinds and place them in shelters.
But Kamaya blames the public, especially motorists, that are sympathetic to street kids by giving them money, saying it is major obstacle to the government efforts to get rid of children from the street.
“We have a programme where we remove children from the street, rehabilitate them and reunite them with their families. Some families are far from Windhoek but there are those good Samaritans that continue to assist the children with transport and money to get to Windhoek,” he said.
“They are not helping the situation, they make our work very challenging and difficult because whatever we try, they just run away and go back to the streets.”