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Young and homeless fill Africa's city streets

Africa once prided itself on its traditional systems of extended family, which sheltered children even in dire circumstances. But over the past 25 years, a variety of problems -- including drought, wars, AIDS and economic collapse -- have broken families apart and left hundreds of thousands of children to survive on their own.
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The morning call to prayer echoed through the city as Ahmed Abdulraham, 14, a small boy with cloudy, yellowing eyes, rose from his version of a mattress: a pile of trash spread across a gutter.

He rubbed some murky brown water over his face. He prostrated himself and prayed, he said, for a day when he would be safe and earn a lot of money. Then he took turns with his five friends sniffing glue.

After they got high, the boys took off across a rocky escarpment on the recent morning, over some aging train tracks and into the choking traffic of downtown Khartoum. They were ready to work.

Ahmed, known in local slang as a "mouse," is one of an estimated 35,000 minors who live and work on the streets of this dusty capital city. Some, like him, have been here less than a year, since fleeing the Darfur conflict in the west. But most are runaways from rural poverty, forced to support their families or orphaned by AIDS.

They are part of an unprecedented and growing phenomenon of homeless youths in Africa's exploding urban centers, according to studies by UNICEF and Save the Children. There is no reliable estimate of their total number, but studies indicate it could be as high as 1 million.

SLUG: FO/Sudan-Khartoum DATE: Downloaded email 12/04/2005 (EEL) CREDIT: Emily Wax/TWP LOCATION: Khartoum, Sudan CAPTION: Ahmed Abdulraham, 14, who is wearing blue with his older friend Fecil Khmis, 16. They are both street boys who beg on the streets, are addicted to glue and try to get small jobs to make money.Emily Wax / The Washington Post

Africa once prided itself on its traditional systems of extended family, which sheltered children even in dire circumstances. But over the past 25 years, a variety of problems -- including drought, wars, AIDS and economic collapse -- have broken families apart and left hundreds of thousands of children to survive on their own.

The problem first became noticeable in the 1980s, when coffee prices crashed and Western subsidies undercut other export crops such as corn and cotton, according to studies by Street Child Africa, a British organization. Many children in large rural families were asked to go out and earn money or simply left home.

Over the past decade, as the AIDS pandemic combined with other regional problems, more and more young Africans had to forgo childhood and school, which is not free in many African countries. More than half the youths interviewed by Save the Children said the inability to pay school fees forced them into the streets.

There, they encountered a tough, adult environment where they were vulnerable to drug addiction, bullying, sexual abuse and devastating health conditions, according to child rights advocates.

Now, nearly every major African city has its own name for them. In Khartoum, they are called "the children of the market." In Nairobi, they are known as "glue boys," because they sniff glue out of old bottles, holding the rims to their lips as if they were whispering into the neck. In Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, they are called "the desperate children" -- barefoot boys who shine shoes, banging a stick with a bottle cap to attract customers.

"Never before have we seen this many children living on the streets. Part of the problem is that urbanization across Africa is pushing these children into very chaotic settings," said Nassirin Dafallea El Hag Yousf, program officer for Save the Children-Sweden in Khartoum, which studied 500 street children in 2001.

When many of them leave home, Yousf said, "they intend on making an honest living by working, but they end up in trouble, addicted to glue, sometimes sexually abused or exploited by adults. Not all of these kids are bad. But it's a huge problem for Africa. And it can't be ignored. These sweet young boys will one day be men."

'It's a dangerous life'
Out on the street, Ahmed started to panhandle. He tugged on women's skirts. He pulled on men's sleeves. Block after block, people ignored him or gave him amused but irritated looks.

He ran up to a heavy-set, well-dressed woman and grasped her hand, using a technique his friends had taught him: "Get them to look into your eyes and look very sad." When that didn't work, he sang her a song about the beauty of Sudanese flowers. He stretched out his hand and pleaded: "Please, mama, hungry. I love you too much. I am hungry too much. Please, money."

After a while he gave up, reached into a trash can and picked up a half-eaten apple. He shared it with his friend, Fecil Khmis, 16.

Later on, the boys approached a friendly merchant, who handed them a tray of old rice, half-eaten bread, and some fat and bone from a grilled lamb. They sat down in a shady spot and ate the scraps.

Ahmed has been in Khartoum for months, living by his wits and keeping company with other homeless boys. His skin is infected because he has little chance to wash. He often appears sleepy or disoriented from the effects of glue. He has few defenses against the elements, or against older boys and adults who pressure him for money.

A homeless man wandered over. Drunk and aggressive, he demanded some coins Ahmed had begged and began slapping him on the head. A crowd gathered. Ahmed started crying and handed over his earnings.

"There is freedom on the street," he said as he hobbled away, looking disturbed. "It's not a good life, though. Your stomach is always biting. You have few places to sleep at nightfall. You lack the love of parents. It's a dangerous life."

Ahmed said his childhood back in Darfur was "normal." His parents were farmers. He had five brothers and sisters and he went to school, where his favorite subjects were Arabic and math.

When war broke out about two years ago, their village was attacked and bombarded, he said. In the chaos, Ahmed said, he became separated from his family and ran after some neighbors to safety. He lived for a few days in a camp but didn't want to stay there alone.

"I heard some other boys were coming to Khartoum by sneaking on trucks. I joined them," he said. "At first I liked it because eating from the rubbish is better than living in the camps, where the food has no taste -- just wheat and oils."

Ahmed has not seen or heard of his family since the day he fled his village. He said he missed his father but tried to "forget his memories of back then. I have a new life now." Ahmed's new family consists of a few boys he met on the streets. One is Fecil, who has been here much longer than Ahmed. He left southern Sudan about six years ago, when a north-south civil war was raging. At first, he lived with his family in a camp near Khartoum for people displaced by the war. But his father was unable to find steady work and there was no money. So Fecil came to the city.

"I kept asking my family for money, but my family had none," he said. "I might as well do something for myself." Sometimes he visits his family in the camp, but he said he never stays long because he doesn't like his father's rules.

Ahmed and his friends survive through a combination of odd jobs, petty theft and charity. They carry heavy objects for merchants, sweep their shops or wash their cars for a few coins. They hang around food stalls, hoping for handouts. They steal scrap metal to sell and poke through trash bins for leftover food.

To distract themselves from the tedium and hardship of street life, they sniff glue, soaking it into pieces of cloth that they hide up their sleeves. They also gamble on a game of skill called om assach, tossing and catching small stones with one hand. But the glue is both addictive and toxic, and om assach can get rough because older boys often force younger winners to pay a tax.

They also love to see Bollywood movies from India, and they spend hours in 10-cent movie houses, evading the afternoon heat and watching four-hour epics filled with music, romance and human triumph over desperate odds.

"I like those films so much," said Ahmed, who wears torn and taped plastic sandals. "The stories make me feel happy."

'Reform Yourself'
A line of dirty, barefoot boys waited outside a shelter called Sabah. More than 200 have appeared at the door this year, according to the director, Khalaf Allahismail. He tries to work with the government to get the boys off the street, off glue and into classes and part-time jobs.

"The first time I saw children eating from the garbage, it was shocking. It was this new phenomenon in Africa to have so many children surviving like this," said Allahismail, 57, who quit his job as a government social worker and started Sabah in 1986. "Suddenly, farming wasn't profitable enough, and then wars were raging and AIDS came all at once. Now, the issue is complicated by Darfur, and we are seeing more children arrive here traumatized and orphaned."

The street boys are seen as shameful in Sudanese society. When they begin to fight with each other, it gives the police an excuse to arrest them. One recent day, a police officer chased after Ahmed and his friends, calling out, "Don't tarnish the name of Sudan. You have to reform yourself."

The government has also instituted what it calls "public order campaigns," rounding up street children and putting them in shelters. The boys say they dislike the shelters because often they are beaten or abused for resisting strict discipline.

But at Sabah, street children seem to find a warmer welcome. They are allowed to use a clean toilet and shower in privacy, a rare luxury, and the counselors patiently listen to their problems.

On a recent day, Amad Adel, 13, an emaciated boy with huge brown eyes and no shoes, told a counselor how much he wanted a life away from the streets.

Amad's mother was killed during a robbery three years ago. Soon after, his father remarried. His stepmother decided she would pay to send her four children to school, but not Amad. Frustrated, he ran away to Khartoum, stealing car mirrors to pay for his bus ticket.

On the streets, he linked up with some other boys and started sniffing glue. To support his habit, he said, he stole car parts, trading them with mechanics for glue or cash. The first time he inhaled glue, he felt a sharp pain around his eyebrows. Then he thought he might pass out.

"I got scared that I would die and be punished for all my thieving," he told the counselor, Nwadar Eltaab, 30, a soft-spoken woman. He said he came to Sabah in part because of guilt, and in part because he had heard he could wash in private.

"There is something so good in him," Eltaab said, looking at Amad as he smiled back and fidgeted in his chair. When he spoke, he addressed her as "madam" and used formal Arabic. "These children look scary and society has written them off," she said. "But many are at the age where they need us to step in."

Eltaab invited Amad to live at the shelter but warned him he would not be allowed to use glue. With a sweet smile, Amad admitted that would be difficult.

"When I do glue, it makes my imagination so good. I have no anxiety or pain. I imagine myself in a big comfortable house," he said. "I have money and all the kids around me have plates of food, warm tea and new clothes."