The New Times (Kigali)
October 29, 2006
Posted to the web October 29, 2006
A long time ago I started writing for The New Times and my first article was about street children. Nothing much has changed in all those years. Street boys – and as I have said before, the problem is mainly boys – are found in every city in the world and no-one seems to have come up with a solution.
The street boy profile is the same everywhere. He is about ten years old. He may or may not have a family. In fact, in many cases he goes home to a family after a day playing and begging. In Nairobi, for example, the street boy syndrome has become the street family. Brothers, sisters and mothers all catch a taxi at the end of the day and go home to where dad has been boozing on their street earnings.
The main thing in common with the boys, however, is that they almost all sniff glue or petrol. We just do not take this seriously, and yet it is a very serious problem.
Sniffing is not regarded as a habit like using marijuana, cocaine or heroine. Yet it is substance abuse and can affect the physical and mental state of the user just as fatally. Most sniffers use shoemender’s glue. It gives a temporary intoxication with hallucinations. During the hallucination the user has very little control physically. He may experience a good ‘high’ feeling, but not always. Sometimes the high may be a nightmare and he becomes violent. To increase the effect most sniffers put the glue into a discarded plastic milk bag. He then blows into the bag and quickly sniffs his breath and the glue vapour back. For about five minutes he is totally out of control.
On my first visit to Kigali in 1995, I was sitting in a pavement bar, which no longer exists. It was on a busy street and across from the bar several street boys had made their pitch. There were not so many motorbikes around then, thank goodness, but a few carried passengers from place to place.
From the bar I watched one boy take his ‘hit’. He blew into his ‘booty bag’ and took a sniff. He was off! He started singing and shouting, dancing into the road, oblivious of the traffic. One motorcyclist, with passenger, swerved to avoid him. The passenger was thrown off and broke his leg. The traffic stopped and a Good Samaritan driver helped the injured man into his car and took him off to hospital.
This was just outside a police post in town. The police just stood and watched and then took the registration number of the motorbike and the car. The sniffer continued to dance around until the ‘high’ was over and then he returned to the pitch to take another sniff. Nobody took any notice of him.
Kigali has changed a great deal in the ensuing years, but some things never change. There are fewer street boys in the centre of town, but they have dispersed to the various shopping centres outside. Kisimenti is a favourite pitch for many of them and you cannot go to Ndoli’s, the bank or the pharmacies there without hearing ‘cent francs pour manger’. There, by your side is the street boy, ‘booty bag’ or bottle of glue in hand, asking for money which he certainly will not spend on food.
Last week I noticed one young sniffer sitting in the central reservation between the streams of traffic. He was sniffing shoemenders’ glue, totally oblivious of everything around him. His eyes were red and glazed. His skin was pockmarked and scabrous – a feature of prolonged glue use. Two policemen were on duty at that very busy crossroads. They ignored him.
There was a small incident with a rather happy customer who had just left Chez Lando. He had obviously made some proposal to a young lady, which she did not approve of. Immediately the Local Defence were upon the man and the police were drawn into the altercation, which was all entirely verbal and over within seconds. But still everyone ignored the glue sniffer in the middle of the road.
We do not know how to handle the street boy problem. I have worked in education for nearly forty years. I did youth work in England for seventeen years, often in collaboration with the police. I am no nearer finding a solution to the young sniffers’ problem than when I first encountered it. In Kenya I befriended a young street boy; he showed a high degree of intelligence. I told him that if he gave up the glue I would assist him with school books. For a while he seemed to improve and my wife and I gave him school equipment and bought him a school uniform. He disappeared for several months.
Then one day I saw him at the shopping centre again. He was back in his street rags. His skin was leprous and he held something in his jacket which he kept sniffing on. This time he had moved up into the big stuff. He was sniffing pain relief spray. He was incoherent, though he still recognized me. There was nothing I could do, beyond having him arrested. But for what crime? The police would just say they had better things to do. The ‘do-gooders’ who gave the boy the money to buy the spray would simply say, "Leave him alone. He’s only a boy. He’ll grow out of the habit." But they don’t grow out of the habit.
It seems an odd connection, but you only have to look at the current problems Sir Paul McCartney is having with his estranged wife. This man, one of the greatest rock song writers in history, experimented with drugs in his younger days. He admits that. Now, nearly an old age pensioner, his wife cites his drug use as a reason for their separation. He has money. He can slake his addiction safely. An African street boy must either go for cheap, bad stuff, or turn to crime to satisfy his needs.
One group of church workers in Nairobi tried to persuade shoppers to buy small items of food which they then distributed to the boys. It was a good idea and it worked for a while. In Kigali the owner of the bar where I sat watching the boys promised each boy a half litre of milk each day if they did not sniff. That also only lasted for a while. Whatever we do, it only seems to last for a while.
What can we do?
Firstly, we must recognize that it is a serious problem. Sniffing can lead to more serious behaviour disorders. More often it leads to an early death. The boys spend what little they have on glue, which the shoemenders’ irresponsibly sell them. They don’t eat and they die of starvation in the streets or maybe under the wheels of a car as they dance through the streets.
The adhesives which are openly sold and used here by the shoemenders are banned in many countries. Unfortunately the alternative, though safer, is much more expensive and a simple repair to your only pair of shoes, which might cost you one hundred francs, with the safer non-addictive adhesives would be well over a thousand. So we rely on the addictive glue. I use it in many small jobs around the house, but it is kept well out of the reach of anyone who might misuse it. In England I couldn’t even buy it without a licence, after declaring its usage.
It is not the glue which is the criminal here. It is society’s attitude to the distribution and usage. In a recent encounter with some Bureau of Standards officers who were clearing the Kisimenti shop shelves of ‘out-of-date’ cosmetics, which are of no consequence whatsoever, I suggested that their training in hounding might well be better used. The control of substance abuse is a very good place to start. Any shoemender – or other user of the adhesives which the street boys seek – who sells such adhesive to an unregulated user should be instantly prosecuted and put out of business.
The street boys are very streetwise and they will very quickly find an alternative source, but we must practice deterrent measures and cut down their options. I do not believe that cutting down availability increases the ‘ro
mance’ of the criminality; not in the case of simple drugs. If a substance is difficult to get hold of, the street boys will just abandon it. After all, they want to live on ‘Easy Street’ and when we stop freely handing out money and the police enforce regulations against the use and availability of such substances, they might be persuaded that life is not quite so easy on the street and look for an alternative.
That alternative could be supplied by the huge population of clergy we have in this country. It is not enough to just sing the praises of Jesus, who said, "Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." We must also put in place the means for such little children to come to a better life. There are a multitude of brothers and sisters of God in Rwanda who spend too much time on their knees and not enough time on their feet. I plead with you, get out on the streets and see what the Kingdom of Heaven is in reality. Turn a cheek, but don’t turn a blind eye.