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ZIMBABWE: Learning to Survive the Mean Streets

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO , Jun 9 2010 (IPS) - Twelve-year-old Tapuwa Bakare* darts through the traffic as irate motorists hoot at him and the tyres of speeding vehicles screech to a halt to avoid hitting him. Miraculously, the box filled with sweets and chewing gum that he carries does not fall from his grasp.

An AIDS orphan sits on an old bus seat. Zimbabwe has over one million AIDS orphans. Credit: IRIN

An AIDS orphan sits on an old bus seat. Zimbabwe has over one million AIDS orphans. Credit: IRIN

Bakare has things on his mind other than the traffic: he has a business to run or else he will starve. He has to fend for himself and this means chasing customers along the teeming sidewalks of Bulawayo to sell his sweets and other wares.

Bakare is one of the country’s many children who have taken up a life far removed from what would be expected of a child of his age.

The United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) recently announced that 1,400 people die weekly of AIDS-related illnesses in Zimbabwe. With an HIV prevalence rate of 13.7 percent, only 215,000 of an estimated 450,000 people in Zimbabwe are on antiretroviral treatment, UNAIDS said.

The number of AIDS-related deaths has highlighted the plight many children here face. There is a growing subculture of orphaned children who have taken to the streets to fend for themselves.

According to the Zimbabwe Orphanage Project, a non-governmental organisation that assists orphans with anything ranging from school fees and uniforms to food, there are over one million children between 0 and 17 years in Zimbabwe who have lost both parents to HIV/AIDS.

“I left school last year after my mother died (of an AIDS-related illness),” Bakare says, telling what has become a familiar story among children roaming the streets of this city. Since then living on the streets has become the only life he knows.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in this sprawling CBD thirteen-year-old James Dube* can be found earning a living cleaning cars and polishing tyres. “The people here are generous but I am afraid of demanding more than they are giving me as they would look for other children to do this for them,” Dube told IPS.

Dube says he lost both parents to AIDS-related illnesses. He was introduced to this kind of “job” by an older neighbour, and Dube has realised he “can never go broke” doing this kind of work. But it is tiring work. He would rather be at school, Dube says.

Dube’s story of working hard for little money is not an exception. As with the case of many of children growing up on the streets, there exists a situation of adults exploiting child labour in the absence of any government intervention, says children’s rights activist Getrude Makawa.

“They (AIDS orphans) are literally growing up before their time and it is their desperation that has seen adults exploiting them. How do you expect a child to negotiate a fair deal?” Makawa told IPS.

Because the children living off the streets have become competitors among themselves, Makawa says this has only worsened their plight. They tend to accept whatever price is offered for their work, fearing that the other children will accept the same low rate if they refuse.

However, officials at the department of social welfare tell IPS that is has become impossible over the years to assist orphans because “the fiscus purse is empty.”

“This is a problem we have been aware of as long back as the 1990s, yet we are failing to look after these children. Our role has largely been taken over by NGOs,” said Hubert Molife, an officer at Bulawayo’s department of social welfare.

“In the past poor families, orphans and other vulnerable groups would get government grants, but things became worse after the economic problems set in and families now do not even bother approaching us for help,” he told IPS.

NGOs working with children like Newstart Children’s Home in Harare say the department of social welfare forwards children to them for assistance. “We merely take care of abandoned babies and children who the department of social welfare directs to us,” says Saleem A. Farag, Director of Newstart Children’s Home.

As a result many children have fallen through the gaps and found themselves living dangerously on the streets as traders and sex workers.

And they still have to deal with the psychological effects of their circumstances, experts warn.

The Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative Horizons Program in a report titled “Orphans and Vulnerable Youth in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: An Exploratory Study of Psychosocial Well-being and Psychosocial Support Programs” said orphaned children lament that they are not getting enough “emotional and psychological support” from adults.

It is a situation that has forced thirteen year old Dube*, to become “his own man.”

But as he navigates the streets, the eldest of three siblings, he awaits a good Samaritan who will take them in. And in the meantime, cleaning cars to earn a living is what he has to do “until a miracle happens.”

*Names have been changed.

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