Street children are boys and girls for whom streets have become home.
While some are orphans, many have families but grew up in slum-like settlements in extreme poverty. According to the Institute for Security Studies, Zambia is one of the least developed countries in Africa and more than half of its population have less than $1.90 a day to spend. Struggling to pay for necessary expenses, parents sometimes send their children to the streets to beg to contribute to the family income.
UNODC explains that there are also street children who were born in the streets to homeless parents, those who have been kicked out of the house due to their families not wanting to take care of them, as well as those who took to the streets to escape psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.
According to UNICEF, ‘the number of children living/working on the streets of Zambia’s cities is high but quantitative data remains scarce.’ Brooks World Poverty Institute observes that ‘official statistics on street children are rare because of the difficulties of surveying an extremely mobile population.’
I went to Zambia to explore the world of street children and investigate how much of their participation in this life is voluntary and what the chances of them ever leaving this lifestyle behind are.
During my time in Zambia, I got to witness the harsh reality of living in the streets where the actions of many are motivated by drug addiction and financial desperation, but I was surprised by the glimpses of brotherhood and happiness derived from the ultimate freedom and life with no responsibilities.
I got a better understanding of why, despite being offered a chance to live a different, seemingly more comfortable life, some make a conscious decision to remain in the streets.
And, I got to, at least temporarily, become a part of a family made up of those who managed to get off the streets.
This was possible thanks to Carol McBrady who dedicated her life to taking care of Zambia’s street children who had been living in limbo, waiting for someone to notice them.
Carol first came to Zambia twenty years ago to offer training at the International Student Conference on HIV and AIDS and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
When she noticed large numbers of children living in the streets of Lusaka, she could not remain indifferent and she founded an NGO called Action for Children Zambia. Over the last two decades, she opened three homes where former street children live and she has helped more than three hundred children leave and stay off the streets.
She provides them with shelter, food, and makes sure they get an education. But most importantly she teaches them the importance of family life and offers them unconditional parental love. This is why she is known Lusaka-wide as ‘Mama Carol.’
To get an overview of the situation in the streets, I joined some of the boys who live with Carol for an outreach operation at night. They picked me up around 9 PM once the streets of Lusaka emptied out, and we drove to the city center.
Right after we got off the truck around the corner from the City Market, we got surrounded by a large group of street children, some as young as eight years old.
At first glance, it seemed like there was a lot of chaos amongst the large group of street children but talking to one of the older boys nicknamed Commander made me realise that there was actually a certain degree of structure there.
‘There are fifty-six of us here. The older ones take care of the younger ones. We are like a family,’ he said.
He gave me a tour around the informal settlement they set up at the corner, showed me a bonfire they use to keep warm at night, and a designated place where wooden pallets and cardboard sheets serve as beds.
‘How long have you been living in the streets?’ I asked him.
‘I have been in the streets for more than twenty years. My family lived in the streets too so I grew up this way. I know the life here well so I am in charge,’ he said and added ‘I make sure that people do not fight and when someone new arrives they need to come talk to me before they can start living with us. But anyone is welcome.’
What struck me the most when interacting with the children was that practically all of them were high on so-called ‘stika.’
This local drug can be petrol, by-product from paint manufacturing, or other kinds of toxic waste that street children put in plastic bottles and inhale.
‘You can get a lid filled with stika for 1 kwacha,’ one of them told me. This is around 6 cents.
When I asked them about how stika makes them feel, some of them said ‘We feel happy and we don’t feel hungry anymore.’
The effect of suppressing their appetite makes it easier for them to function in the streets with limited financial resources but can be dangerous. According to, World Health Organization, inhalants such as gas or petrol cause loss of appetite and can be toxic to the liver, kidney, heart and brain.
And, Daniel who used to be a street kid himself but now stays with Carol told me that ‘you lose appetite so some children do not eat for several days or longer. Some people have died of hunger because of that.’
Outreach operations like the one I participated in are important because they help to identify new street children and those who might be especially vulnerable. They also help to get the trust of street children who, as War Child observes, are mistrustful of those who belong to the mainstream society and are often reluctant to ask for help.
It is thanks to going out to the streets to integrate with the children that Lusaka’s underworld knows about Carol’s work.
‘When a new child arrives and they are very young, those who have been in the streets longer often tell them to come to me. A lot of those who are part of this world care a lot. Even drug dealers sometimes call us to tell us about a new street child. And, they give them money for a taxi and send them to me,’ Carol told me.
With many programmes organised by the Zambian government, following skills training or completing an education, children return to their old lives as they are not taught how to use the skills or how to function as a regular society member.
But Carol’s way of interacting with street children is different; rather than make them feel like they are part of a rehabilitation programme intended to correct their behaviour, she welcomes them into a family.
‘We function as a family. The job of the ‘uncles’ [older boys] is to make sure that when the little ones wake up they make their beds, clean the house, and put their clothes in order. We are many different people from different backgrounds. We get to know each other, we share ideas, and we implement them in the community. To me this means a family,’ Chris, who has been living with Carol for 9 years, told me.
Even if someone is struggling to find a job after finishing school, they can stay with Carol and work at the farm, cook, or drive younger children to school. Some become ‘uncles’ who are responsible for supervising other children. And Carol makes sure that whenever someone faces an emergency, they have someone to come to for help.
When I asked Timothy who has been living with Carol for ten years about what he is most grateful for he said, ‘I came hungry, I had no support, I was acting in a very bad way. But thanks to Mama Carol I have changed a lot, for the better. For now I am working at the farm but I have learned so much over the years that when I go back to society, I will be ready.’
Despite being offered a safe place to stay, regular meals, and the chance to go to school, many children run away from Carol’s homes.
For some, the decision to run away is motivated by having their freedom restricted and having numerous obligations they must fulfil each day.
‘I run away a few times, at least three because in the streets you can do whatever you want and no one can stop you. Here, there are ups and downs and it can be difficult to get used to that,’ said Mundia who lives with Carol.
Even more often, however, street children find it challenging to stop using drugs.
‘Addiction is the main reason for children to run away. If they want to live here, they need to stay away from stika and many are too addicted to do it,’ Timothy told me.
A study analysing how drug use affects the behaviour of street children revealed that ‘street children abusing drugs can have a much harder time re-entering society. Once a child is addicted, it makes it very difficult for them to go to school – have a normal family life.’
Timothy also added that ‘except for drugs some go back to the streets because of money.’
When living in Carol’s homes, they need to go to school so they do not get any money. And, once they are old enough and have skills necessary to find employment, they need to work in a legitimate way. But for some, begging is an easier option.
‘In the streets, parents or grandparents use some of the children to make an income. They send them to town to ask for money. They [street children] can sometimes keep some of it so when they come here they still have the mindset of wanting to earn money,’ Timothy explained.
Besides, research shows that adapting to a different, more structured way of living can be challenging because street children become so used to life on the streets that, to them, accepting alternative lifestyles seems difficult.
‘Street children do not think of themselves as regular people,’ Carol told me. From a very young age they are exposed to suffering, abuse, and drug addiction. Having been left to their own devices, they had to learn how to take care of themselves and function in a hostile environment.
‘I have been living here for 10 years but still the thought of coming back to the streets sometimes comes to my mind,’ Timothy told me.
‘But we have examples of people who left the streets, lived with Carol, are now lawyers or doctors. We want to be like them, it motivates us to stay and work hard.’
Through her work, Carol not only aims to equip former street children with education and skills allowing them to get out of poverty, but she also creates a permanent support network for them. She says she loves not only the children who live with her but also the ones who decide to stay in the streets.
‘Many of them just want to be loved. This is what I do, I just take them in and I give them love. I forgive them and give them another chance if they run away and come back. I don’t judge and I don’t try to change them.’
Appreciating the culture of street children, recognising their potential, and seeing the good in them the way Carol does might be key to being able to make a positive impact in their lives, even if some never make it out of the streets.
About the author:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service. She covers humanitarian issues in Africa and the Middle East.