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.

In a village near Bukavu, DRC
In a village near Bukavu, DRC
Dieudonné Malekera

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.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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