Starring role for street children

Starring role for street children

By Sandra Jones
BBC News, Kenya


I am sure all correspondents working abroad have thought the story they are covering would make a great film. Well, a film has now been made covering a fictitious African war and should be on our screens in May.

Boys play the role of soldiers for the camera

Former street children play the role of boy soldiers in a war comedy

In front of me, a skinny 10-year-old boy, swathed in gun belts, is balancing an AK-47 between his small bony knees.

He is sitting in the shade of a fig tree. Behind him, slightly older boys are hollering and waving their guns.

One cocks his, and lifts it to his shoulder.

Having chased news stories throughout Africa over 10 years, this is not the first time child soldiers have pointed guns at me. Usually they are out of their heads on drink and drugs.

These children have a terrible life – often kidnapped from their homes and forced to fight by adults.

Their guns and youth make them dangerously unpredictable. My survival strategy is simple – treat them with respect and try to keep my head below the height of theirs.

Never make them feel like children.

But on this film shoot, nothing is as it seems. The boy soldier is actually reading a book, called My Clever Fairy.

Street survival

Some of the other children have laid their guns down and are playing Jenga with the British actress Doon Mackichan. The actor, Martin Jarvis is studying his script close by.

In the next scene, his character, a big beast of the BBC’s Foreign Affairs department, comes face to face with these boy soldiers.

On my other visits to Africa, as a journalist, my team has never consisted of more than four people.

But this time there are more than 40 of us!

They steal and fight each other for whatever scraps of food they find

Actors, cameramen, directors, security, makeup, dressers, even one large soppy dog. He plays the vital role of the vicious dog in the middle of a minefield.

The boys playing the part of child soldiers, are not hot-housed drama school brats.

They are street children – one of the biggest problems throughout this continent.

Acrobatic team

Survival is hard on the streets.

For safety’s sake, many of these children sleep together in doorways, sewers and shop verandas.

But they steal and fight each other for whatever scraps of food they find. Years ago in a market, I saw a crowd beat a small street boy to death for stealing food from a stall. In countries where survival is difficult – street children are treated as vermin.

Former street children

Many of the former street children are now accomplished acrobats

But our boy soldiers got lucky – they have all been rescued by the Gilani family, who run a number of successful businesses.

In gratitude for their good luck, they decided to set up a street children refuge.

Yasmin Gilani, one of the trustees of the home, has a simple philosophy: "You come into this world with nothing, you leave with nothing – so you might as well try to spread some happiness."

Six years ago, Yasmin and her family, went out in the middle of the night and found 140 boys sleeping on the streets.

If you come with us, they told them, we will feed you, send you to school, and at the end of your education we will find you a job.

At first there were all sorts of problems. The children were badly nourished, addicted to glue, not used to sleeping inside.

They fought each other and stole. None of the local schools wanted to enrol the boys as street children have such a bad reputation.

But the family persisted. They had a flash of inspiration, a teacher was employed to teach the boys acrobatics.

We had come to Africa to shoot a comedy. But on our last night we were all surreptitiously wiping the tears from our eyes

This needed fitness – balancing on each others’ shoulders in a pyramid four boys high. It also meant having to learn to trust each other, something they never did on the streets.

The acrobatic team flourished, the boys became healthier. They began to take pride in themselves and that spilt
over into other parts of their lives.

"But," says Yasmin, "there are still problems. People are suspicious of street children. They move away from them.

"That’s why it’s so good you being here. You’re treating them like ordinary boys. Look, your actors are playing football with them. It’s good for them to learn people will like them for themselves."

New life

As we are talking one of the boys brings round a big bag of sweets. He offers it to everyone in the crew, and only then do the boys themselves tuck in.

David is the name of the small boy reading My Clever Fairy. He was thrown onto the streets by his mother who had too many mouths to feed.

On our last night, we were invited to watch the boys put on a fast moving acrobatic display. David was grinning through it all. It was breathtaking and just a little scary.

But instead of letting us clap them, they clapped us! We felt humbled.

Life has been harsh for them but as they threw each other up around the rafters, it was clear they were seizing the chance of a new life firmly in both hands.

We had come to Africa to shoot a comedy. But on our last night we were all surreptitiously wiping the tears from our eyes.

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