Begging for the blind: Accra’s street children
By Abby Wiseman
It’s early on a Saturday morning and everyone in Accra is either sleeping or praising God in church. The streets are quiet.
I sit on the curb at a main intersection in the Adebraka neighbourhood of Accra, waiting for Betty, the local journalist I work with to join me.
Children hang around, creeping closer and closer, trying to get a good glimpse of the curious Obruni, pale person, who’s sitting in their territory.
A group of older women and one older man sit with the children.
They are blind.
Some eyes go in two different directions, others are coated with the milky haze of blindness, and some have no eyes at all.
They murmur to each other in a Northern dialect, while the children start calling out “obruni” in my direction. As soon as I look in their direction they laugh and run away out of view.
When will Betty get here?
The traffic thickens and the noise pollution of incessant horns and broken mufflers thickens the air.
Slowly, one by one, the blind adults stand up and move into traffic, escorted by one or more children, to beg the jammed drivers for “small-small” change, which they will split 40/60 with the child.
When I first started at CitiFM, Betty came to me with the story of Albert, a young boy who begs for a blind woman named Theresa, his mother.
She had an interview, but wasn’t sure where else to go with the story, so we went back to Theresa and Albert to learn more of their story.
The plot thickened quick.
It turns out that Albert is not Theresa’s son, in fact he was no where to be found. Theresa found a new “daughter” to replace Albert and her name is Faustina.
Faustina is one of the over 61,500 street youth that live in Accra.
According to the director of Catholic Action for Street Youth Ghana (CAS), Jos Van Dinther, who conducted the count of street youth with the Ministry of Social Welfare, the number of street youth in Accra has increased 12 times past 20 years, and the government is not doing enough to help the situation.
The traditional family system saw that most children were cared for, if not by their parents, then their many extended relatives. But that structure has long been dissipating and the government has not stepped in to pick up where families cannot, so the problem continues to escalate.
Van Dinther runs a safe place for street children who want to leave the streets. They come to CAS, try out some classes, and when they are ready to commit to their studies CAS will give them a home, although not many children get to that point, and even less stick with it.
These are some of the hardest children to teach, Van Dinther tells us, because they are not children. These youth are used to having absolute freedom over their movements and, more importantly, their money. Sitting them in a classroom for hours is impossible, adopting them out to families who want a “child” is a mistake, and as the number of street children increase, those that come to CAS are getting younger and younger.
The most vulnerable of the street children are the girls. For protection many of them take on boyfriends beyond their years and some as young as twelve have babies.
That is the story of Theresa’s real daughter.
When Betty and I found Theresa for the second time, we found out she had 18 year-old twins, one boy and one girl.
Theresa’s son was away in school, but Mary, her daughter, wasn’t allowed to attend school. Instead she spent the past eight years begging on behalf of Theresa.
Times got tough as Mary got older and in exchange for food and shelter she had a relationship with a man who got her pregnant.
Mary sits next to her mother on a plastic chair, her 10-month old whose pants are soaked with urine bounces on her lap.
She speaks to Betty about the man who got her pregnant, on how he pays her 100 cedis, $50 CDN, a month for the baby. She also speaks on the pain of not getting an education, which is compulsory in Ghana. She says she still believes she could go to school, if only she knew her baby was cared for.
Van Dinther is quick to be realistic about Mary’s prospects. Even if she were to go to school, he said, she would have a hard time learning anything.
Mary’s case may be too far gone, but is the problem of street children also too far gone I ask him?
He looks weary.
“I don’t know.”