"Aug. 20, 2006, 3:16PM
By ANJAN SUNDARAM Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press
KINSHASA, Congo — Colonial rule, rapacious dictatorship and civil war have so ravaged Congo’s economy and society that the streets of its cities swarm with homeless young people who numb their misery with drugs and alcohol.
Sixteen-year-old Baruti Ilanga ran away from home four years ago and now lives in the rusty brown shell of a Toyota, discarded in a cemetery-turned-garbage dump in Kinshasa. Even though there’s too many mosquitoes at night and he often goes hungry, he believes he’s better off than most of his countryman.
‘Everyone in Kinshasa is poor and hungry. At least we are happy,’ the boy shrugged, a half-empty bottle of pale yellow French Pastis beside him. ‘It is good in the street. I am free. I do what I want, when I want.’
No one knows how many children and teenagers call the streets their home in Congo. Aid workers estimate between 25,000 and 40,000 children are homeless in Kinshasa alone, and tens of thousands more are said to live in the vast Central African country’s other cities.
Next month, the U.N. Children’s Fund is holding the first census of Kinshasa’s street children since the end of Congo’s 1998-2002 war, which killed nearly 4 million people and destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
Many Kinshasa households are too poor to feed their children. Aid workers say many times only one child is fed on a given day _ a desperate solution to the problem of distributing precious food. Other households chose instead to abandon their children, some under pretexts like witchcraft or sorcery.
‘My aunt treated me very badly, she would scold me and not feed me. That’s why I came here. I feel safe here, with other children like me,’ said Esther Okudi, 14, an orphan who has lived on the street for seven years. Her current home is a wreck of a car near Baruti’s.
As evening falls on the Congolese capital, Ilanga and his friends are busy rolling marijuana between their palms. They take swigs of pastis. A group of young street girls appears.
Boys chase the girls playfully, dashing between upright car frames silhouetted against the twilight sky. But their games are hardly innocent. Aid workers say most of the girls, also abandoned children living on the street, are prostitutes.
"They earn a living through prostitution. Some are only 10 years old," said Guy Milongo, who works with a local organization to help street children. "But these children will tell you they are having a good time. There is no one to control them."
A new generation of children is being born and abandoned by destitute street parents. Without help, these newborns will probably never know the comfort of a home or family, and will spend their childhood shunned by society, sleeping on sidewalks and in garbage dumps.
Hospitals see the malnourished babies of street children every day.
"We receive lots of them. They are usually dirty and malnourished," said Annie Ndombasi, 31, a nurse at Clinic Afia in Kinshasa. "It makes me sad to see children and parents so ill."
L’Oreal Oganga, 15, gave birth to a baby in her home, a broken down car. By the time she was brought to Clinic Afia five days later, she needed antibiotics to treat an infection.
She was on a drip, barely able to speak and lying on her hospital bed. Her daughter, Brunette, squealed behind her, in the arms of the father, 19-year-old Biko Lombe, who also lives on the streets.
"I’m proud of my baby," Lombe said.
But Ndombasi said teenage fathers like Lombe often disappear.
"It is rare that the fathers help. They usually abandon the babies," said the nurse. "We don’t know if the babies survive. The mothers are too poor to afford hospital care."
Those working to help Congo’s street children say it can take years to return a child to his or her home. Parents who washed their hands of their children are rarely happy to see them at their doorstep again. And the children are hardly eager to return to families that abused or rejected them.
"It is painstaking work. Every child is different, every child must be treated with care," said Jean-Pierre Godding, who helps reintegrate street children with their families.
Godding operates a center in Kinshasa that feeds street children and sends them to school, while hunting down the family of each child and negotiating conditions for them to go home.
Dr. Almouner Talibo with Doctors of the World, an organization that provides health care to street kids, said there is only enough money "to touch the surface of the problem."
"Every day, there are more children on the street. It will take a much bigger effort, and more funding, to help them all," Talibo said.
On the Net:
Street Children’s Development Association, a private Kinshasa group: http://www.ajrd.populus.ch"