Its 10 p.m. in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and the nighttime vultures that characterize the city at night are out in full force.
Prostitutes prey on drunk men stumbling out of dimly lit bars, while stray dogs are on the hunt for scraps leftover from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours. These desolate streets are no place for a child to grow up, yet many often do.
A 10-year-old boy who didn't want to give his name says he has been sleeping in a gutter outside a popular grocery store for the past three years. He says poverty pushed him into the streets after he lost both his parents to AIDS.
“Most of the time, I beg for money to buy food because I have no one to look after me," he says. “The problem is some men at night will beat us up and take all that we have sourced throughout the day, leaving us with nothing at all”
Chimwemwe, 12, also left home with dreams of finding a better life in the big city, but his experience has been more comparable to a recurring nightmare.
“Some men rape us night," he says “Others beat us and tell us to go away saying that we are thieves in town”
According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8,000 children living on the streets in Malawi’s major urban centers. Most of them are boys, and 80 per cent are AIDS orphans. These youngsters are often labelled by locals as purse-snatching, thugs, but the reality is that many of them have suffered unimaginable physical and sexual abuses.
Dr. Joseph Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, says that homelessness disrupts the sense of safety and security that children need, and as a result, they wander through life lacking self-confidence and being wary of adults.
“The trust and confidence that good things will happen to them is not there," Bandawe says.
“This affects their social interactions – defining the way they’re able to relate to other people, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.”
Bandawe’s explanation might explain why many of Malawi’s street kids are tempted by a life of crime, but he also suggests that building trust and restoring family ties is imperative when returning troubled kids to school.
Chisomo Childrens Club is a local non-profit working on child poverty issues, and their main mission is to integrate youth back into an ordinary way of life. According to Irene Ngumano, a senior social worker for Chisomo, the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitation is working with families who were willing to let their children go in the first place.
“Many families that we are working with are poverty stricken families who typically don’t have three meals a day," says Ngumano.
With Malawi’s escalating economic problems, inflation now stands at a staggering 10.9 per cent, causing the prices of essential commodities like bread and sugar to skyrocket. This implies one thing: the number of street children is set to increase unless there is radical policy change.
But Ngumano adds that if families are facing financial difficulties, Chisomo provides monetary assistance which enables them, at the very least, to feed their dependents.
Such was the case with 17-year-old Tikhala Chilembwe who ran away from home in Grade 3. He slept under a bridge for years, until he was discovered by Chisomo social workers who reunited him with his legal guardians and resumed his education.
“My life is okay right now,” says Tikhala, with a smile. “When I’m finished school, I want to become a doctor and I am going to work hard to achieve my goals."
There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.