Left be­hind by progress

Beaten and dis­carded, Congo street chil­dren are strangers to the coun­try’s min­ing boom.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By AARON ROSS

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.

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