Uganda: Forced Onto the Streets to Please the Men

Uganda: Forced Onto the Streets to Please the Men
New Vision (Kampala)

OPINION
9 September 2007
Posted to the web 10 September 2007

Katarzyna Heath
Kampala

UGANDA is being refreshed as it prepares for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. There is a lot of cleaning and refurbishment of infrastructure countrywide.

However, one problem remains, the children who scattered on the streets of the pearl of Africa. The children are an everyday annoyance, whining insistently for the sh100 coin, so much so that their rehearsed whimpers now blur into the background as you stroll the pavements.

As a Western visitor to the country, I have not been exposed to this problem in the same way as Ugandans. So I decided, rather than walk around with naïve, preconceived ideas, I would take it upon myself to find out more about the street children during my stay in Uganda.

What I discovered was worse than I imagined; a world of long days, abuse and a complete lack of stability.

The majority of street children in Kampala and Jinja are Karimojong, a nomadic tribe from Karamoja region in the north-east of the country. The region is arid yet the Karimojong rely on cattle for survival.

Due to continued drought and cross-border cattle rustling, thousands of the Karimojong have been displaced, moving to the south in hope of finding another source of income. Many have moved to Jinja district, settling in the Masare Three village on the outskirts of the city.

The Karimojong have very strong cultural beliefs and habits, which they have retained despite their move to a new region. Within the society, it is the women and children who are the breadwinners.

It would not be uncommon to find a woman strenuously building a shelter for the family, while her young child cooks over a hot fire. The men, on the other, hand control the tribe, delegating jobs, collecting the money that the children earn and continuously drink homemade brew, which sometimes leads to abuse and violence in families.

The day of the street children starts early, as early as 4:00am. They wake and walk the three to four 4km from the village to Jinja town. The children are divided into groups, each entrusted with a task for the day.

This can be anything from rooting through the garbage skips, visiting the abattoir for meat left overs, collecting firewood and charcoal or scrap metal to sell. They are also expected to return with money, leading to their daily street begging that we are all witness to.

However, we are not witness to the beating they receive when return home empty-handed because no kind uncle has flicked them a grubby coin or two.

At around 8:00pm the children return home and hand in their day’s earnings and gatherings. They will get a small meal if they are lucky and then go to bed, ready to start the whole onslaught the next day.

Some children do not even have a family to return to; classed as ‘fulltime’ they are runaways and occupy the streets twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Most of them flee their homes due to abuse and neglect, their heads filled with warped views of urban existence. In reality, these dreams are not fulfilled and the end result is there are children working and sleeping on the streets, fending for themselves in unsafe conditions.

The children are exposed to many dangers. Many become part of child trafficking. They are persuaded under false pretences by elders or family ‘acquaintances’ that they are moving to new places with better opportunities.

Instead, they are trapped in a world of exploitation, which exposes them to anything from child prostitution to human sacrifices.

The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) 2006 report notes an increase in child trafficking from Kenya "for prostitution, domestic and farm labour, to the United Arab Emirates to serve as camel jockeys and to the UK for purposes of fraudulent acquisition of council housing and later prostitution."

The children are also dragged into smuggling over the borders, with people taking advantage of the fact that the law does not applying to people under 18.

These children of both internal and external trafficking are held in extremely volatile and exploitative conditions, suffering physical and sexual abuse, non-payment and dire living conditions.

Some of the street children are lucky enough to be entered into programmes set up to help get them off the street and give them an education.

They undergo rehabilitation programmes and have their school fees paid for, subsidised by both national and international funding and sponsorship.

This is a great opportunity to have a fresh start, be able to talk to a professional councillor about their experiences and have a chance for an education.

They are also surrounded by others from similar situations, allowing them to form friendships with children that understand them.

However, it is not that simple, especially for the Karimojong, with their ingrained culture, which does not give due importance to education. The children are expected to continue with their daily duties despite being at school all day.

This leads to many of them losing concentration at school, worried about the physical abuse they will be subjected to if they return home coinless.

Most of the children do not even study the whole day.

They prefer visiting skips in search of food rather remain hungry at school. Since the classes are big, with a teacher-to-child ratio of between 1:50 to 1:100, it is easy for the children to be left behind academically, hence dropping out.

Michael Arepere is one of these children, who is torn between his education and his family. At 14, Arepere is the head of his family because his parents died. He, his brother and two sisters live with an aunt, but she is unemployed, leaving the family’s welfare in his hands.

Arepere juggles between school and steel scrap hunting. On average, he makes between sh500 and sh1,000 a day, which is used to pay the monthly rent of sh7,000 and to buy food for the family.

He is fearful of the day he or his siblings fall ill, as he cannot pay for their medication. He is uncomfortable at school because he worries about his family’s wellbeing.

Despite the problems faced by children under the rehabilitation programmes, they (the programmes) are doing great to help give children an education and stability. They provide accommodation for them if they feel unsafe with their immediate family.

Today many of the children have been able to access vocational training and university studies.

If, after reading this, you have an urge to give coins to the children, hold on.

A spokesman for Outreach, a large non-governmental organisation aiding street children, says: "Although emotionally you have the urge to give the children money, logically it is just not constructive as it is only temporary." They will remain the same.

Helping the children goes beyond giving them money. All that money does is reinforce the Karimojong culture and mindset.

The rehabilitation programmes attempt to change this mindset, giving lessons to families about the importance of their children’s education and the need for behavioural changes in the modern world today.

The NGOs also issue out loans to help the families start small businesses like selling bananas and maize rather than relying on their children for scraps and coins. This will take time, to change a deep rooted culture and belief pattern can take generations, but you have to start somewhere.

This is not to say that you should never give money to a street child again, but perhap
s you can take your help a step further. Spare a few minutes to direct the children to a rehabilitation centre.

Many are not aware of these opportunities. By showing the children where the rehabilitation centre is, you are perhaps not helping them that day, but you are getting them off the streets for good in the long run and giving them a chance at an undreamt future.

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