A second chance for Kinshasa's Street Children
No streetlights illuminate Ndjili market in Tshangu, a huge slum in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, possibly the most wretched country on earth.
There are just flickering oil lamps on the rickety stalls that offer cigarettes, peanuts and bananas to the crowds picking their way home across an expanse of mud. All around is the thick, muggy darkness of an African night — a darkness that hides a horror worthy of Conrad or Dickens.
In the shadows behind the stalls prostitutes lurk. Most are teenagers forced to sell their barely pubescent bodies for a dollar or two, a little more if the men do not use condoms. They and their customers rut on the ground, or in a nearby toilet.
Child prostitutes on the streets of Kinshasa
It is on these bleak and dangerous streets that a “night ambulance” run by the British charity War Child parks and opens its doors to the girls who, through no fault of their own, live and sometimes die on the street in this teeming, filthy city.
Some approach the vehicle, which is manned by a nurse and a social worker and is the only source of help that these girls have. One, aged 15, has a sexually-transmitted disease. A pregnant 16-year-old feels sick. Another, aged 17, has malaria.
Mardie comes for free condoms which she tucks into her bra. She is just 15, little more than a child, but she has strands of false orange hair braided into her own, wears the rings of female condoms as bracelets, and has a scar on her neck where another girl slashed her with a razor blade. She is HIV-positive.
With tired eyes Mardie tells how she has lived on the streets since relatives accused her of witchcraft when her grandmother died three years ago.
She has been raped, robbed, and had an abortion. She has several clients a night, and drinks illicit spirits to dull her senses. Afterwards she sleeps beneath a market table, or with her yaya – an older woman for whom she works.
15 year old Mardie inside our Night Ambulance
“What’s frightening is that she talks about her life as if it’s normal,” says Alessia Polidoro, War Child’s programme manager in Kinshasa. “She knows nothing else.”
DR Congo is bottom bar none of the 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. In Kinshasa alone perhaps 20,000 children now live on the streets – some of them orphans, some driven out by impoverished or abusive parents, others desperately seeking a way to feed themselves. For girls that invariably means prostitution.
War Child’s night ambulance searches for them six nights a week, offering first aid, condoms and advice. It also encourages them to visit the remarkable drop-in centre that War Child opened in the Tshangu slum last November for street girls under 18.
The two-storey building is hidden behind high walls topped by razor wire in an alley where foetid water stands in muddy pools. Behind its black steel gates is another world — a sanctuary where two or three dozen girls seek refuge each day and can abandon the tough poses they must strike at night.
A gaggle of them greet us with diffident smiles. Most are barefoot, dishevelled, wearing little more than rags. Many are emaciated, physically scarred, patently exhausted or traumatised. The youngest are just 6 or 7, and all have harrowing tales to tell.
Nadesh is 14 and barely 5ft tall. She has never been to school. She has worked as a prostitute since her mother abandoned her two years ago. Her left arm is heavily bandaged where a street gang slashed her with razor blades for refusing to hand over her money.
Madho, 16 and pregnant, was forced on to the streets after her parents split up and their new partners rejected her. Five times she has had to move to new sites. In each she has been beaten and gang-raped by local street boys in a sort of initiation ceremony.
Natalie, 16, was cast out after her uncle’s barren wife accused her of sorcery. Two weeks ago she gave birth after being repeatedly raped by a man in his sixties.
A War Child survey of 315 Tshangu street girls found that 79 per cent were under 18 and 6 per cent under 12; 70 per cent had only primary education or none; 57 per cent had been raped, many by soldiers or policemen; and 42 per cent had become pregnant, of whom two thirds had had illegal abortions.
16 year old Madho
“The street is a jungle,” says Patricia Ngay, who runs the centre. “It’s really dangerous. There’s a lot of violence.”
Initially the girls are wary of the centre, with its rules and restrictions, but “by the time they come here they’re desperate. They’ve suffered so much. It’s their last hope,” Ms Ngay says.
“Some are very aggressive. They’re angry with the world and what’s happened to them,” Ms Polidoro adds. But gradually they soften.
The centre gives them hot food, somewhere to wash themselves and their clothes, mattresses to sleep on. It employs three nurses, six social workers, teachers of reading, writing and other basic skills, and lessons are mandatory.
Nightfall inside our Drop-in Centre for vulnerable girls in Kinshasa.
But it does more. It seeks to reunite the street girls with parents or relatives – a process that can take months of detective work and mediation. It pays for them to go to school or receive vocational training, or to hospitals when necessary. It encourages and helps them to seek justice in a society where men rape with impunity.
More broadly, War Child works with other NGOs in Kinshasa to tell them of the street girls’ plight through radio, television, community activities and meetings with ministers.
In its first nine months 163 girls came to the centre, which costs £90,000 a year. So far 25 have been reunited with families. Fifteen have been sent to hospitals to give birth, or for treatment. Six are receiving vocational training, or preparing for school. Three died, two from tetanus and one from Aids, because they came too late.
The centre aims to take 100 girls permanently off the streets within three years. That is not many given the scale of the problem, but far better than grand schemes that seek to benefit all but end up helping none.
“Before going to sleep each night I pray for War Child. It’s given me a second chance,” said Landu, 32, a single woman whose ten-year-old daughter ran away when poverty forced them to sleep in a church.
After a month on the streets the girl was hit by a car and arrived at the centre with a broken thigh. While she recovered in hospital the social workers tracked down her mother, and War Child gave Landu $200 to set herself up as a vendor of fufu — maize flour. She now earns enough to rent a one-room corrugated hut for the two of them.
It takes time for the centre to wean the girls away from the only way of life they know. As darkness falls they sit in the courtyard, laughing, singing, braiding each others’ hair, playing clapping games.
Mardie is there, and even she joins in.
Briefly, they are children and happy again. Then, one by one, most slip out of the steel gates and into the night, down the squalid allies, past men drinking in roadside bars, along streets plastered with the election posters of politicians who care nothing at all about young girls forced to sell themselves for the cost of a Christmas cracker.