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CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: Success Stories Amongst Growing Numbers of Street Kids

Arsène Sévérin

BRAZZAVILLE, Mar 2 2007 (IPS) - Sixteen-year-old Bamanandoki Pitchou hasn’t finished his apprenticeship in hairdressing yet, but he already has a small business. A former street child who lives in Kinsoundi – a suburb in the south of the Congolese capital, Brazzaville – Pitchou trains in the morning, and attends to clients in the afternoon.

“He has changed completely in a short space of time; he’s no longer the street child that we took in a few months ago, with clothes in tatters. He is taking responsibility for himself and his family,” said Jean Didier Kibinda, head of the Family Reintegration Project for Street Children, one of several groups that assist children living rough in the Republic of Congo.

According to the director-general of aid group Social Action, Florent Niama, the only study on street children was undertaken three years ago, putting their number at 1,900: “Today…we put it at 3,000 if not more, since the trend is growing in towns.”

While the history of each child is generally as different as the factors that push them onto the streets, many come from divorced parents, noted Kibinda. Several were orphaned by the 1997-1999 civil war or by AIDS, he added. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, adult HIV prevalence in Congo-Brazzaville is 5.3 percent.

The Family Reintegration Project for Street Children was launched by government in August 2005, with funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Our goal is to go and find the children in their ‘ngunda’ (refuges), (and) to return them to their parents, even distant relatives, providing that they will accept the child,” Kibinda told IPS.

“In the pilot phase we reintegrated 60 children of whom 40 were in Brazzaville, and 20 in Pointe Noire where we have a Caritas centre which takes over their care,” he added. (Caritas is a humanitarian organisation; Pointe-Noire is a port city in southern Congo-Brazzaville.)

Some 40 other children rejoined their families last year. Some of the returnees go to school and others learn a trade in workshops contracted to the project.

“For the families that receive reintegrated street children, we provide financial assistance to create an income-generating activity so that they are capable of supporting the new arrivals. We know that street children are a sign of poverty,” said Kibinda.

“Last year, we worked with a budget of 40,000 dollars. In 2007, we expect to increase our activities by reintegrating perhaps 400 children.”

The Centre of Integration and Reintegration of Vulnerable Children (Centre d’insertion et de réinsertion des enfants vulnérables, CIREV) is another government initiative.

“At present, we have 84 children that we have taken from the streets. Amongst them, 32 live with their parents, but we continue to take charge of their schooling and future employment. If they do not pass by the centre at midday, food will be taken to their homes in the evening,” Martin Malanda, assistant head of CIREV, told IPS.

“In addition to children that we place in or return to school, we have about 20 at workshops apprenticing for trades. There are, for example, six in leatherwork, four in dressmaking (and) four in baking,” said Malanda.

“These children, being younger than 18, cannot yet go to work – the law forbids it. We thus extend the duration of their training to three years.”

CIREV only deals with boys, whose ages vary between eight and 17.

The Jarot Centre of Brazzaville also takes in street children; while the group is private, it does receive some government assistance, notably through support to 60 families who have taken in children.

Gildas Okoungou, 19, is one of those who has benefited from the organisation.

With funding from UNICEF and Don Bosco, a Catholic humanitarian organisation, he started a shoe manufacturing concern that makes use of denim and old bags, in the Total market – one of the largest in Brazzaville.

“Before the Catholic sisters rescued me, I slept under the Centenary Bridge of Brazzaville. I made a living from begging, a few jobs and sometimes theft. Now, I earn about 10 dollars a day and am not only able to help my grandmother – but also certain street children who come to beg from me,” Okoungou told IPS. (The Centenary Bridge was inaugurated in 1980 by French President Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, to mark the 100th anniversary of Brazzaville.)

Both of his parents were killed during the war, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother who could not afford to educate him, Okoungou explained.

Finding sufficient funds to back the programmes for street children remains a challenge, however.

Of the children helped by the Family Reintegration Project for Street Children, 11 went back to the streets because of the lack of resources to follow up with their cases.

Notes Social Action’s Niama, “If the number of children for reintegration this year is to be doubled, we must also double funding. It’s unhappily a big problem that we have. Beside the 135,000 dollars that we received (in 2006) from our funder (UNICEF), the state gave only 40,000 dollars.”

“This is far below what we expected. We are busy knocking on other doors to see how we can correctly manage this project,” adds Niama, who is also co-ordinator of all the programmes of reintegration.

“With the support of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) we have, for example, supported 12 children who have today all mastered a skill,” he says, noting that about 20 children are expected to complete training next year.

A good number of street children who have passed through aid initiatives have made a success of their lives, he observes further: “There are several and we have many testimonies. Some have become taxi drivers, bakers, dress makers.”

Complaints about finances are also voiced by Malanda. “Today (2006) we have a budget of 84,000 dollars. But, it must be said that the mechanisms for disbursing this money are so complex that we do not access all the funds. There is an apparent lack of interest on the part of authorities.”

CIREV was started with financing from UNESCO of about 6,000 dollars in 2004.

Said Kibinda. “The phenomenon of street children is extensive and shames our country, considered very wealthy abroad because of its oil. We will perhaps not eradicate this phenomenon, but we are trying to reduce it.”

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