Left behind by progress
Beaten and discarded, Congo street children are strangers to the country’s mining boom.
KEVIN Lu son go has been on the streets, sin ce he was 11. He sleep s on a piece of cardboard in an unlit parking lot ina poor neighbourhood of Kinshasa, behind trucks he hope scan shield him from view.
Some night she’ s unlucky. Recently police came looking for a stolen handbag and beat him up when they didn’ t find it, says the boy, who’ s now 14.
Then there are the older children.
“Often when you sleep, the others come and burn your feet with (flaming) plastic bags ,” he says. “The oldest will see you and take your money. If you complain, they beat you severely .”
Kevin has the gaunt frame of a boy unused to nutritious meals sin ce he was turn ed out by his family. He works odd jobs, be gs and picks through trash to survive.
He is one of 25,000 street children in the Democratic Republic of Congo’ s capital, a number that has nearly doubled in a decade, according to 2014 figures from the UN children’s agency, Unicef, with thousands more in the country’ s other cities.
Congo is Africa’ s top producer of copper and a mining boom has fuel led annual economic growth of 8% for five years, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund( IMF ).
But like many commodity- dependent African countries such as Angola and Nigeria, it has st rugg led to translate export-driven g ro wthin to bro ad er social gains. Itis still suffering the after- effects of a civil war in the east that ended in 2003 but left disease, displacement and inter-community violence in its wake.
Kinshasa to the west is groaning under one of the world’ s fastest-growing urban populations. Outside the well-heeled city cen - tre, there is little sign of prosperity, with most of its 11 million people crammed into rundown neighb our hoods where rubbish is pi led in alleyways.
None are more vulnerable than the streetchild ren , who are known ass hegu es.
Denis Mabwa, who works for REEJER, a coalition of groups assisting street children, says charities like his find homes for about 3,000 children each year, while around 6,000 new children move in the opposite direction.
“There has been are construction of large infrastructure. There is a sta bili sat ion of the currency ,” says Jean-Pierre God ding, director of the Ndako Ya Bi so centre that work store unite street children with their families.
“But in the big working-class neighbour hoods,no investment has yet been made to improve the infrastructure” God ding says, citing routine flooding and frequent power black outs .“The popular neighbour hoods have really been neglected .”
The statistics on poverty in Congo paint a confusing picture.
The government says economic growth has helped the whole of society but that it wants more rapid progress. At a news conference in January, Prime Minister Augustin Mat at a Pony os aid 50,000 jobs were created in 2015 and poverty is declining.
The percentage of the population living below the national poverty line has dropped to 63% from over 70% since the civil war ended in 2003 and more children are completing primary school, the government says.
But the IMF says the annual rate of poverty reduction has hardly bud g ed sin ce the 19 9 0s, when Congo–then called Zaire–was registering negative economic growth.
Among so-called world mega cities of 10 million or more people, Kinshasa is expected to record the second-highest annual growth rate between 2014 and 2030 at 3.67%, according to a UN report, and residents say lack of government social provision is pushing many families towards financial ruin.
Ruth Tumba- Maseu, 15 , says she fled her uncle’ s house in 2014 after he beat her. She slep to n the streets before being directed by a friend to a centre for girls affiliated with Ndako Ya Biso where she is now able to live full-time.
She says girls sleeping rough were often beaten and sexually abused .“Life in the street isn’t good for girls. The boys think that you are there for the taking .”
According to Unicef, girls comprised 26% of the population of street children in 2006 but now account for about 44%.
“The conditions are deteriorating ,” says Reejer’s Mabwa.
“You see terrible overcrowding. The children really can’t stay ( at home ).”
Child rights advocates fear street children could be used as pawns in street protest sand get caught up in violence ahead of a presidential election due in November to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila.
Groups that help street children say they get no consistent government support.
The minister of gender, family and children, Lucie Ki pele, says the government is very concerned by the issue of street children and is creating a committee to study it.
However, she says she is not familiar with numbers showing the problem worsening and that funding of children’ s groups is handled by multiple ministries.
The war in eastern Congo that ended in 2003 killed millions of people, and since then armed groups have fought over mineral supplies. There was almost no fighting in Kinshasa, but many people fled west to the capital.
Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country for decades until 1997 and provided only minimal social services to the population.
Many citizens now view the government with suspicion and doubt its ability to improve their lives.
Nor bert Toe, head of an IMF mission to Congo, says the mining boom has contributed little to overall welfare.
“Capital comes in ,( the companies) exploit the natural resource, take it out as exports, and the profits get repatriated ,” he says on the IMF website.
Relatively low taxes on them ining sector compared with countries such as Zambia con strain Congo’ s annual spending to less than US $5 bil( RM 20.5 bil ), limiting the government' s ability to spend on social sectors, he says.
Some international donors, including Britain and the United States, have also questioned the government’ s spending priorities.
In unusually pointed remarks in December 2015, British ambassador Graham Zebedee critic is ed the government for spending as much on the presidency, parliament and the prime minister’ s office budgets as on primary, secondary and technical education.
The government allocated just 3.4% of its 2015 budget to the health sector, roughly the same amount it spent on parliament, according to the donors.
In response to written questions, Congo’ s Budget Minister Michel Bongon go said that close to 30% of the government’ s spending in 2014 went toward “improving the living conditionsof the population ”, including on health, education, electricity, drinking water and communal transport.
He said that government action, including urban infrastructure development, has benefited workin g-class neighbour hoods outside city centres .“Whether its infrastructure for schools or hospitals that are rehabilitated or constructed, or even roads, many are located in outlying areas ,” he said.
Back on the streets, Kevin tells how he started living rough more than three years ag o when he was kicked out of his uncle’ s house, where his mother was living, for lack of space.
For the past year he has spent his days at Nd ako Ya Biso, which is funded by donors–where he receives schooling, food and medical care–before returning to the street at night.
He still dreams of being re united with his mother.
“They’ll be talking to my mother ,” he says, describing the imaginary scene at the centre .“I won' t know that they are speaking about it but then they’ ll take me to the ho use.”
Running wild: A boy smokes cannabis as his friends play in the streets of Kinshasa in this 2006 file photo. The situation with homeless children has only become worse since then.
Lunch – and breakfast and dinner – is usually a hit or miss affair, with the street kids finding food where they can.
remembering childhood with a soccer game – even in the rain! – at the ndako ya Biso ( Our house) refugee centre for street children.