Street children have been synonymous with local cities but now there is a sudden surge in the number of people that are loosely called amasikini, raising fears that they might graduate into hardcore criminals. Some have parents and guardians but others are genuine homeless orphans. Gang leaders deploy such orphans to the streets to attack people, steal money and valuables in exchange for accommodation and protection which such leaders, who are called gamba wankulu, provide. PETER KANJERE & WATIPASO MZUNGU unearth the syndicate.
If you are taking a stroll in the streets of Mzuzu, Limbe, Blantyre, Zomba or Lilongwe, chances are that you are under surveillance by street children. They monitor the money you withdraw from the ATM, the route you take, where and how you park your car, its number plate, colour and shopping routine.
When you are isolated and least expecting it, especially in the evening, the street children, armed with razor blades and knives, attack—ruthlessly and mercilessly in numbers like armyworms that have descended on maize plants. They have tools to disable your car alarm, break in and steal valuables.
When the prey is a woman, then the children—red-eyed, swearing and visibly under the influence of drugs and alcohol—resort to rape. They contract diseases but also maim their victims.
The street children operate from places such as Chichiri Shopping Mall Roundabout, Limbe, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba. Going to an ATM booth in the evening is at own risk, and so is walking to either hotels or lodges.
Visitors are victims. Sex workers are the biggest victims of the attackers.
Blantyre resident Deguzman Kaminjolo was attacked twice in 2015 and 2018 by street children at the same upmarket eatery. He is still haunted by that experience.
“I went to buy food and, on return, realised that the lights of my car were on. It had been broken into. Upon entering the car, I realised that all papers were scattered then I discovered that they had stolen my two mobile phone handsets and K50,000,” he said last week on Wednesday.
And outside the same eatery last year, the street children broke into his car again. When he tried to chase them with the help of a security guard, one of the kids produced a knife. The chasers retreated. The street children escaped and vanished into the darkness.
“It would appear that these children operate from Blantyre Bus Stands near the flea market. They are very dangerous. They target people who are going into lodges and to ATMs. In another incident, I was coming from the direction of Chez Ntemba at around 3am. As approached a certain lodge, I saw street kids descending on a man and a woman who were about to jump into their car. I helped them chase the children,” Kaminjolo said.
In another incident, the street children attacked and dumped, right on the middle of Victoria Avenue, a young man as he was walking from a hotel. The incident happened two years ago.
Last year, Blantyre police arrested eight street kids for wounding two 16-year-old who were standard eight learners at Namiwawa Primary School at 6:00am on November 28.
Malawi News Agency quoted Blantyre police publicist, Augustus Nkhwazi, as saying the street children descended on the learners, demanding money.
“The suspects turned violent after the girls refused to give them the money and one was stabbed three times in the head. The other girl sustained a scratch on the head. Both were taken to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital for treatment,” Nkhwazi is quoted as saying.
He said the police arrested two of the suspects, aged 16, and six. More were arrested in Mbayani Township.
Nkhwazi told The Daily Times on Wednesday that most harassment perpetrated by street children go unreported.
“A few of those that are reported to police do not indicate that the street children are the ones behind [this]. Our records only indicate young perpetrators as children (juveniles) not as amasikini.
“However, on average three to four isolated cases where street kids are perpetrators are recorded per month. Victims of harassment perpetuated by street children should be reminded of the need to report such cases to police for assistance,” Nkhwazi said.
So, how do the street children operate?
A 14-year-old beggar at City Mall in Lilongwe (whose identity we conceal on ethical grounds) disclosed that each beggar is required to submit his or her day’s collection to his head/ring-leader also known as gamba wamkulu.
The gamba wamkulu then gives a fifth or 10th of the collections to the beggar as his or her wage for that day.
“If you don’t surrender your collections to the gamba, you are beaten badly. And that is why most of us have scars,” he said.
He said these young beggars are under strict instructions not to report or reveal the abuses and spanking suffered at the hands of the gambas.
“Here at City Mall, we have male and female ring leaders. Our male ring leader is Patel Ussi,” he said.
Ussi, in an exclusive chat with The Daily Times, said he also works under someone bigger at Devil Street.
“I am just their representative here. But I rarely surrender my collections to them because I am now grown- up,” he said as he yelled at one of the young boys who did not surrender his collection the previous day.
“On a good day, I collect more than K10,000 plus stealing valuable items such as phones. Last week, I stole a cellular phone, which I sold to one of the gambas in town. And the gambas sell those items at an expensive price,” he said.
A ring leader at the Devil Street, who only identified himself as Joe, said the cartel involves high-profile people in town.
Joe said most beggars and street children work for businesspeople who buy and resell stolen items in their shops.
The most targeted are sex workers.
Malawi Sex Workers Alliance leader Lucy Zinenani confirmed the development last week on Wednesday.
“Sex workers get attacked when they are on the street and when walking to hotels. Last year, five of our members reported that they were attacked by street children. They are children but they move in numbers and what they do is beyond their age. They insult, strip naked, rape and even stab sex workers,” she said.
So, who is to blame for the increase of street children on Malawi streets?
Child rights activist and former child justice court magistrate, Esmie Tembenu, said most street children have parents and guardians who actually send them to the streets to beg.
In some cases, she said, people get children from remote areas and take them to towns on the pretext of taking care of them but end up using them so that they should bring money.
“The problem is that, once these kids are sent back to their parents, they find their way back to the street. Some of these children are victims of child-trafficking. They deceive them that they are taking them to cities to assist them.
“In some cases, these kids are deployed to the streets by gang leaders. They are asked to bring money at all cost in return for accommodation and food. These kids are completely homeless. They are orphans so they do all they can to get money, including through stealing, so that they should bring something to their bosses,” Tembenu said.
Police can arrest such street children but the problem is that, once convicted of an offence in a court of law, they cannot be sent to prison because they are minors.
She said the biggest challenge is lack of child protection centres where the courts could have been mandated to send kids who are retrieved from the streets.
“The childcare and Justice Act provides for the establishment of care centres for delinquent children. In the absence of that, we should expect, in the near future, disaster in towns. These children target visitors when begging and we should be concerned as to what impression these visitors take back to their homes,” Tembenu said.
The solution, Tembenu suggests, is the establishment of child centres and the arrest of guardians and parents who dispatch their children to the streets.
Meanwhile, the number of the street children is on the rise due to growing population and poverty.
Unicef estimates that six percent of the country’s children do not attend primary school. School-age of nine to 15 constitutes 39.5 percent of Malawi population.
Blantyre and Lilongwe have a combined population of 4, 000 children who roam the streets daily to beg while 454 are completely homeless, a recent government study found out.
Director of Child Development Affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, McKnight Kalanda, last week said their recent study established that Blantyre has over 2,000 street children and close to 2,000 for Lilongwe.
Kalanda said 237 street children in Lilongwe are homeless and turn the streets into their home while the number of the homeless in Blantyre is 271.
He said the ministry is aware that these children commit a lot of crimes, including confiscating money and valuables from shoppers.
“Criminal activities are some of the nasty things these children on the streets are exposed to and are committing as they grow up. That is why there is need for interventions to remove them before they are radicalised into criminal life,” he said.
He said the government is working with partners such as Chisomo Children’s Club and Tikondane Children’s Care in Lilongwe to provide the children with shelter, psychosocial support and education before they are repatriated to their respective homes.
Kalanda said the government has constructed rehabilitation centres where children that are withdrawn from the streets are accommodated and cared for while looking for the best options for them.
“One of them is opposite Lilongwe Community Ground. We also work with faith-based institutions such as Tikondane Children’s Home, run by Catholic nuns, in providing rehabilitation and psychosocial services to these children,” he said.
Kalanda said the government also runs Lilongwe Social Rehabilitation Centre where children in need of help can access temporary shelter, rehabilitation services and get enrolled to nearest schools as authorities work to reunite them with their families.
“We know that, although they are homeless living in the city, they have their parents or guardians. So, while providing them with temporary shelter, the system also tries to trace their roots. And after having done some thorough assessment, the children are reunited with their families,” he said.
But Kalanda did not provide statistics of the children that live on the streets of other cities and major towns such as Mzuzu, Zomba, Mangochi and Kasungu, saying the ministry is yet to do enumeration in these districts.
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) Malawi estimates that 49 percent of school-going age bracket of three to five are under the care of community-based organisations.
The international organisation further indicates that 65 percent of girl children experience abuse and 35 for boys in their lifetime.
Malawi Police Service national publicist, James Kadadzera, said the law enforcers have registered a number of criminal cases which street children commit.
However, Kadadzera said the police do not distinguish such cases from others.
“We know that, when they are fully grown up, they establish criminal gangs and use minors to steal and attack innocent people on the streets. This is not surprising because they develop into hardcore criminals, right from their childhood. They are indeed a menace to the society and the nation,” he said.
The issue of street kids is also a concern to city councils. Blantyre City Council Public Relations Manager, Anthony Kasunda, said the matter requires collective responsibility as the children also have rights which need to be respected.
“The parents have a responsibility over these children and it is wrong for some parents to be sending children to the street to beg instead of sending them to school. The council has engaged stakeholders, both State and non-State actors, to collectively find ways of engaging parents of these children and, in cases where the children have no parents, find ways of integrating them into society,” he said.
Much as such street children endanger lives of many in cities, their future is also doomed. They grow up like heartless beasts and contract diseases.
The problem of street children is multifaceted and unless drastic action is taken to get them off the streets, they might develop into dangerous criminals. The country will pay the bigger cost. It is not too late to act on the looming disaster that is street children.