Wee and Unwanted In Congo, Where Newborns Of Street Children Face A Tough Start
Street children often abandon their own infants, who are sometimes raised by grandmothers or dropped at convents. But these young parents all wish them a better life than they had.
BUKAVU — A crowd is watching a group of teen boys and girls swimming together in Lake Kivu, near Bukavu, the capital of DR Congo's South Kivu province. “We are friends, married people like you,” shouts a young girl in a thin and wet evening gown, letting her small breasts show as if to taunt passersby.
To Jean Jean Saizonga, who is responsible for the diocesan program that helps street children, this scene is not surprising. He explains that homeless girls are concentrated primarily near the Beach Muhanzi market in Kadutu. “They were 100 in 2008 and 1,000 now. Boys and girls working in the streets have sex together, then girls get pregnant and give birth,” he says.
Another advocate, director of the social services group Vision Sociale, says that his group has counted about 20 babies born from street children since January. “Most of the young girls go back to their parent's house to give birth,” he says. “When their children reach eight or nine months, they leave them and go back to the streets.” Sometimes, mothers abandon their newborns in front of convents. Nuns then take them to special centers because the city doesn't have orphanages. Some infants are also abandoned in public spaces.
Grandmothers raising babies
An infant covered in old loincloth crawls under the pork stalls of the big city market. The seller, Wabiwa, runs to catch her and feeds her with a gruel-filled baby bottle. “You are my child, not this bitch’s who gave birth to you in February on my workplace,” she sings while pampering the baby of her own 15-year-old daughter.
The daughter, Guilaine, is already stoned on cannabis and drunk with banana beer at 11 in the morning. She looks at the scene and mumbles, “My mother will make a lady of this baby.” Some 10 kilometers from here, in Kasha's banana plantations, a 3-year-old named Johny fights with his friends over a dust-cloth ball. He feels lonely and cries. According to the neighbors, his paternal grandmother Marie is taking care of him while selling sweet potatoes not far from where his 17-year-old father works as a car cleaner.
“I'll take care of Johny the day I manage to gather $8 or $9,” the young father says. “I’ll put him in school, and he will have a better life than I have. His mother Tabu calls me good-for-nothing and prostitutes herself.” Marie says the-14 year-old mother dropped the baby in front of her door. “I'm keeping him to preserve my husband's line of descent,” she says. “He lives 50 kilometers away from Bukavu and rejected me after having taken a second wife,” she says in between singing a religious chant.
Providing a future
Justin Byamungu, deputy major of the child protection police in the South Kivu province, explains that caring for babies from the streets is complicated because parents are often separated and very poor. “The women who take care of them often complain that parents don't help provide for food and don't bother registering them at the Civil State office. The law should decide on who their father is, as it is the case for children born from rapes,” he says.
According to Dismas Kitambala of the Human Solidarity Foundation, very few legal actions concern child paternity or adoption. “Grandparents who give their names to their son or daughter's children and take care of them are considered their legal guardians,” says the child legal advocate.
But some young people from the streets do their best to raise their children properly. Consider, for example, the case of Alphonsine M., whose daughter carries her paternal grandfather's name. “Thanks to the Human Solidarity Foundation, I studied mechanics for nine months and was able to keep my baby,” says Alphonsine, who used to live on the street. “She's like the apple of my eye. I have forgotten about her father, and I don't want to live with men anymore.”
She is now employed in a garage and lives in a clay hut in Kadutu. And hers is not the only story of redemption. Another former teenager from the streets has become a taxi driver. “I promised my son a great future,” he says smiling. “Having been a child from the streets is not like a flaw. I managed to get rid of this image.”