Getting street kids to stay on the straight and narrow

ZAMBIA: Getting street kids to stay on the straight and narrow
01 Nov 2006 15:17:36 GMT
Source: IRIN

LUSAKA, 1 November (IRIN) – Dressed in baggy trousers, caps and colourful T-shirts, the toughened teens of the "Back to School Project" were scared.

The boys, all between the ages of 14 and 18, live on the streets of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, where they play, fight, gamble and do what they can to earn a little money for food and drink, sometimes raking in enough to help support their families. Each of the boys was to be tested for HIV that day.

"I am not going!" yelled one of the younger boys. "I am going to hide and then I won’t have to go", he said, pouting and folding his arms over his thin chest. But with a little cajoling and backslapping from some of the braver boys, they all eventually piled into a sweltering van for a 20-minute, cross-town ride to the clinic.

The boys have a right to be scared. Despite a growing economy, political stability and the best efforts of foreign donors and non-governmental organisations, Zambia’s rates of HIV have remained stubbornly high. About one in five sexually active Zambian adults are infected.

About two-thirds of the country’s 11.7 million population lives on less than US$1 a day, while about half the population is undernourished, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report published in 2005. Odds are that about five of the 27 boys who attend the Back to School Project, a privately-funded initiative aimed at getting kids off the street and into a classroom, will test positive for HIV.

Catherine Sozi, the head of UNAIDS in Zambia, describes the task of fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS in this land-locked, southern African country as close to overwhelming: "The rollout of ARVs began in July, 2004 and they were made free last year, but only about 75,000 people in the country are currently receiving the drugs", she said. "The waiting lists are incredibly long and there is a lack of warm bodies to administer the drugs and to care for the sick…It is a growing but still weak economy dependent on foreign aid with a real shortage of human resources".

But help is arriving from disparate quarters, both from big business and grassroots activists. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and western donors recently axed about US$6.5 billion from Zambia’s foreign debt, leaving the country with a relatively trifling US$500 million to pay back to lenders.

The massive debt forgiveness should – in theory – free up newly re-elected president Levy Mwanawasa to boost spending on health and education across the country, especially in Zambia’s out-lying, poorer regions.

Zambians themselves are also deciding enough is enough. Zambian Monica Eisenberg studied business at a prestigious school in London, but eschewed a high-flying career in Britain to found the Back to School Project in Lusaka last year.

"When I returned home from my time in the UK, I was absolutely shocked and sickened to see how many more children were living on the streets from even a few years ago", she said. "The increase, was, of course, due in large part to the toll of HIV/AIDS, with parents dying wholesale and leaving behind orphans…Often a new spouse of a widowed parent doesn’t want to look after someone else’s children, so they stay on the streets".

Eisenberg estimated that perhaps 20,000 children live on Lusaka’s streets – skipping school, spending their days on the dusty boulevards, begging or eking out a living by washing cars or carrying groceries. Unicef, the UN Children’s agency, estimates there are 75,000 street children in the country.

But with the help of volunteers, a teacher and a nurse, Eisenberg founded the Back to School Project, which currently cares for 27 teenagers, offering them education, food, counselling and alternatives to their aimless and sometimes violent lives on the streets.

"Right now we gather outside for study, but we’re building a classroom and in a couple of years we hope to have a full education centre built on 300 acres of land, where the students will live, study and even work on a farm", Eisenberg said. "Nobody forces the boys to come, most come voluntarily almost every day for three hours of schooling, so it shows they want to change their lives and all they need is a way to do it", she added.

Hammering home the dangers of HIV/AIDS and delivering the gospel of safe sex to the boys – all who claim to be sexually active, some even boasting of several partners – are fundamental to the project.

One way of diverting them from begging or fighting is to engage their creative side. The boys were recently given disposable cameras and asked to fan out across Lusaka and take pictures of what HIV/AIDS means to them.

One boy snapped photographs of two men shaking hands. He also took pictures of a toilet seat from several angles. "You can’t get HIV by shaking or by sitting on the toilet", he explained.

When asked what inspired his collection of pictures, 17-year-old Charles Mwansa bows his head and turns reflective: "I took pictures of a very ill woman I know and now she’s been having medicine and it makes me happy to look at the picture and think she’s healthy again. It might make other people happy too and show you can get better", he said.

The boys are especially proud of their work, knowing their best photographs will feature at an exhibition in Lusaka beginning in mid-November. Some pictures will also be used by the UNDP in an upcoming publication.

"With this project, we have tried to hook them into spending their time differently and they’ve really taken to it", Eisenberg said. "A lot of them want to be rappers and I tell them they have to broaden their vocabulary and not bore us to death with the same 10 words over and over, so you have to appeal to their dreams to keep them coming back to the school".

Back at the clinic, a minor miracle. A couple of tense hours after the boys had been tested for HIV, the results are back – all are negative. One boy joked that he is going to sleep with someone tonight to celebrate, but the message of safe sex seems to be getting through.

"Winning the fight against HIV/AIDS will ultimately come down to what individuals can do, what religious leaders can do to help remove the stigma, and about what the private sector can do to help its workers", said Sozi. "Most important is the task of changing people’s behaviour and that is not a job any one group or the government can do alone, it’s up to everybody to help, the whole society".

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