The boy sat rocking and his tiredness spoke volumes of his hardships, he lamented, “the street is not the life.” The street boys, the directors who work for them and those who found the opportunity to leave the street tell of a story that only leaves Rwandan’s hoping for better in the lives of their children, in their society and on the side of Kigali’s streets.
Its night in Kigali and the children’s sleep is punctuated by the cold and the rumble of cars above their heads. Their beds are in the commercial centres, in the shop doors, bushes and the open drains that hug the roads.
When the day breaks, they rise early, the consequence of delay one child recounts is, “a man with a baton to chase you away.”
This particular boy arrived on the street five years ago when he was seven years old; as he talks he is distracted by a phone he has found, until the conversation about family surfaced.
Suddenly, childlike and introvert he recounts his father’s death in prison and his mother’s poverty in Butare. Poverty has forced him leave behind his school, his mother and younger sister; he has not seen them since.
The children will often sleep together, “when the police come, we all run, that way they only take one of us” -- security needs combined with the formation of close friendships.
The children who leave their families too young seek for comfort with one other. A boy described a close friend in Kisimenti, when asked why they were friends he replied, “he is the only one that understands.”
Indeed the street children’s lives are difficult to understand and would be defined too narrowly if one was just to consider their hardships.
“They are a group who have no value in society and no rights,” says Nicolette Nsabimana, Director of Centre Marembo, an organisation working for street children in Kigali. The children are too often unaccepted and ignored and the result is their disengagement in Kigali’s bustling life.
Simultaneously the children both reject and rely upon the public-- if friends are family, the public are business.
One child spoke approvingly, “they are kind, they give what they can.”
It is through begging and carrying bags at markets as well as theft of food and belongings that the children survive.
However, the need mixes with resentment, as shown by one child, “they have a life and we don’t.”
The children who live on the street do not have a life. To live for your present needs – sustenance - is to live without a future. A former street child lamented, “it is food and drugs only, this is all you think about, not school or girls.”
Children’s aspirations are shaped by family and education, without either of these influences or opportunities, their lives are stagnant. This stagnancy isn’t shown more clearly than in the endemic issue of drug abuse, whose reasons are manifold.
“The drugs allow children to cope with their lives and do things that we couldn’t, like eating from the rubbish or sleeping outside,” Nsabimana reflected sombrely. When asked what they do when they are sick, the children’s response is, “to take drugs.”
The drugs hide their fears, and what the street children fear most is the police.
The police man told the boy, “we don’t need street boys in our town,” this was the first of three times that he was taken to ‘Gikondo’, a term referring to the adult’s prison in the region.
The prison is a large warehouse building with small vent-like windows high above crumbling boundary walls whilst a policeman stands sentry. I could not enter but I could easily recognise the children’s accounts from the mournful of voices, adult and child, coming into the street.
The children are frequently put into the adult’s prison, sometimes for as long as 4 months; a policy that cements the children’s isolation from society.
They complain of dirty mattresses shared by as many as 5 people, inadequate food and water, and being denied use of the toilet. After alarming lengths of time – up to 4 months - the children eventually return to the street unchanged, except for a greater fear of the police.
The children seem to be perceived by authorities as criminals, but law cannot account for the children’s past, one brief glance to their circumstances and they are surely Rwanda’s greatest victims.
There are opportunities, and the results from Nsabimana’s organisation, Centre Marembo, are indicative of changes that can be made when children are given these opportunities.
The centre provides a home and school fees for 35 former street boys. Nsabimana described the transition of the street boys, “when they arrive you feel you cannot greet or eat with them … the change is a process which requires love and time, discipline and direction.”
The street child can only be changed by acceptance, and without their families, the children need attention, trust and the promise of a new life.
After talking to one child about the work of Centre Marembo, he has since come on a number of occasions, attracted to its familial environment.
For Nsabimana success is fulfilled by seeing the boys “happy, clean and achieving” and school reports certainly show these successes, with one boy receiving a scholarship to study at the prestigious ‘Groupe Scolaire de Butare.’
There are many centres working with street boys, whilst many more children will gather with friends tonight to sleep on the shop floors and in the drains. The street boy’s society is unforgiving and unmoving.
The children are victims of their past and their behaviour, often bad, cannot be considered their responsibility, indeed justice cannot be measured by this sentiment.
It is instead, pleads Nsabimana “the responsibility of every Rwandan.”
Street boys must be seen through both their past and their current hardships, but for the hundreds living in Kigali’s shadows, they must also be viewed with both eyes looking towards their future and the policies to match.