Not long ago, on a visit to Gantsi, one of the most shocking sites for me was the number of street children who roamed about in the parking lot of local shopping complexes.
Some asked for money from the shoppers. Others offered to push trolleys in exchange for money, and others still were just hanging out, bidding their time, it seemed. I know that any area is as safe as the safety of it’s most vulnerable.
If the most vulnerable population in any community are exposed to circumstances under which there is great risk of their rights violations, then nobody can be said to be safe in that area.
So seeing that many street children, as an outsider, told me that Gantsi is socio-economically struggling. This is the beef centre of the country. Where it’s situated in the middle of the Kalahari Desert positions it as a great part of our country’s history and the ancestral history of the first people in the country.
It should be a tourist destination of note with the number of huge farms in the district. But stories are told about the continuing slavery that subsists in the farms; the endangerment of the farm workers’ health compounded by limited access to healthcare; and the layered discriminations and inequalities that go unrecorded, and unreported in the area.
The people to whom the area belongs are some of the poorest in the country. These socio-economic vulnerabilities as well as the changing family structure in which women and children are heading households, create an environment for the large numbers of children who take to the streets, to fend for themselves.
Most of the children on the street are boys. This may be because boys are involved in more visible economic activities which take place on the streets, whereas the economic activities girls find themselves involved in are in homes.
Growing up, I remember seeing a lot of these “runaway” children, minors who lived and survived on the streets, in Gaborone.
These children struggled to find good food sources, with clean drinking water, bath and other ablution facilities, or even adequate shelter.
My experience with them was mostly harmless. I know a lot of people perceived them as delinquents and treated them as such. Other people were terrified of them, and it would be seen in the ways they’d hold on to their bags when passing a street child.
It all seemed normal: that some children have no home or no ‘safe’ home to go back to at night. On some days, I envied what I perceived as thier freedom. That would be when I had too much maths homework of when science just didn’t make sense. I would wish I had a similar independence, without having to worry about school the next day.
Of course, in retrospect, I realise that a whole country and its systems were failing to protect the children’s rights to education and safety. But that didn’t really matter in that moment. Their usual place of domain is the streets. So the name they were known by was “street kids” or “street children”. There was a considerable population of them, mainly in and around the Main Mall and African Mall.
As time went by, I would see fewer street children. Vending on the streets became much more organised. Directing people to park their cars well became an industry, as did washing parked cars.
There were fewer people asking for money without offering a service. It felt like the streets somehow found pockets to place its children. It didn’t happen over night, the change.
It was gradual. I wouldn’t know what it was about Gaborone, that changed enough for there to be no more street children. Of course, before this change, some local civil society organisations recognised the needs of the children and took steps to act on it. It took time. But in a lot of ways there are very visible changes.
There are still a number of street people. Most of the ones who don’t have homes to go back to, sleep at the station or bus rank. Well, perhaps I should say they did before COVID-19 restrictions, when many things changed. The point is that things changed a lot. For Gantsi though, it remains the same. The children, often aged between nine and 12 years continue to roam the streets until they are old enough to look for and secure more secure jobs, off the streets. These children encounter complex challenges because of the factors that combine to render the children to the streets. As earlier stated, the children on the street have very limited access to food.
They often don’t have any money to produce to buy food, and are not in a position to produce any. They therefore don’t benefit from a balanced diet or even a choice of what to eat.
Their right to health is also very strongly compromised. With no access to sanitary facilities, good hygiene is a great challenge. Additionally, staying on the streets is often a situation children want to escape from. For this and other reasons, there is a lot of drug use and abuse.
These present hard living conditions which adversely impact the children’s health. Street children are a marginal community which needs great consideration, especially in this season, when COVID-19 is claiming so many of us.
There is no homogenous solution for the mere reason that each child has their own very peculiar history with the streets. All solutions must be effective, and hinge on different solutions.