Tuesday, August 10, 2010

D.R. Congo: "Shegues" - tough, independent - and children

This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net

The Street Children of Lubumbashi

Since the end of 1992, Lubumbashi – the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo – has seen its streets flooded by children, as war and economic hardship have torn families apart.

People started calling these street children “shegues”, apparently a corruption of the name of Cuban guerrilla fighter Che Guevara, a reference to their independence and toughness.

They live a very different life from other children, forced to fend for themselves and seek out money wherever they can.

I became interested in street children almost as soon as I started working for IWPR - and, in fact, my second piece for the website, published in April last year, was about this topic.

Ever since writing that piece, I have followed the issue very closely.

In August 2009, the regional authorities launched a new initiative in order to remove the shegues from the streets of Lubumbashi and place them in a rehabilitation centre, a few metres away from Kasapa prison, where they could be properly looked after.

This measure was welcomed by many, including myself, since it allowed people to walk freely in the centre of the town without being bothered by these street children.

Residents of Lubumbashi spent some three months without seeing any shegues on the streets.

Then, one day, I fell into conversation with a friend of mine, Patient Abedi, who told me that the previous Sunday, after the morning church service, some shegues surrounded him and demanded that he give them money.

The tone in Patient’s voice was one of bitter disappointment that these children were now back on the streets.

Some days later, I had my own encounter with Lubumbashi’s street children, whom I had presumed had been taken safely away to the rehabilitation centre.

As I was walking to an evening appointment, three shegues stopped me and asked for money.

I gave them something in order to protect my handheld recorder and my phone; I saw that they were holding razor blades in their hands.

My first thought was that they were shegues who had left the rehabilitation centre and had returned to the city – and the following morning my fears were confirmed.

I was in the city centre when I noticed a crowd forming a circle around something. I moved closer, to see what was happening, and I saw that a policeman had already arrested several shegues.

He told me that they had left the rehabilitation centre and that he was under instructions from the provincial government to arrest and return them.

Then a question came to my mind: why are shegues leaving the rehabilitation centre?

Of course, the best people to answer this question were the shegues themselves, but I had to proceed carefully in my research. After all, many of the children had turned to crime since beginning their life on the streets, and so who knew what they were capable of?

The first shegue that I met was older, more than 18 years old, and thankfully he was easy to talk to. He told me that they could not live forever in the centre. He said that he wanted to build a family one day, but needed money to do so; that was why he was back on the streets.

I continued my walk until I found another shegue, a shoe-shine boy. I pretended to be a client in order to be able to discuss with him what life was like on the street. I paid him for shining my shoes before asking whether he was living in the rehabilitation centre at the moment.

He replied that he spent every evening at the centre, but, during the day, he would slip out and return to the streets of Lubumbashi in order to look for work and money.

I started to connect the dots and began to see that these children must have found a way to leave and re-enter the centre, which I knew was patrolled by security guards. I suspected that there must be some kind of complicity with the guards, but the problem was how to prove this.

The answer came one Friday night, when I was invited to a screening of documentaries made by some journalists from Lubumbashi, in collaboration with others from Canal France Internationale, CFI. One documentary in particular held my attention. It was made by Carine Kabongo, about the return of shegues to the streets of Lubumbashi.

In this documentary, one of the shegues explained how he was able to leave the centre every night. He said that there was a hole dug under the fence, which the security guards are aware of but do nothing about.

The next Monday, I went to the Kasapa neighbourhood, to see for myself whether or not this hole exists. The local residents took me to the place and told me about the trouble that the shegues cause in the neighbourhood.

Since I had already written two articles about the street children – the first about their living conditions and the second about the government’s attempts to deal with them – I was already familiar with the subject, and interested to write more. So I began work on the third.

Over the months that I have followed the story, it has become more and more important to me.

As a journalist living and working in a country that has endured so much tragedy and suffering over the years, I believe in writing for change.

Children have rights that must be respected by the state.

When the provincial government of Katanga announced that it was going to take the children off the streets, and house them in a secure location, where they could receive proper care, this was a positive step forwards.

But, when I saw that the street children were starting to return to their former way of life, I was concerned that the progress that had been made over the past 12 months was starting to unravel.

I felt that, by raising these concerns in an article, I might help to bring about a solution to this new problem.

For me, what is missing in this operation are the psychologists; the problem is more psychological than material. These children have long been mistreated, marginalised, and even rejected as sorcerers by their families.

We must try to repair this, otherwise they will always want to live on the streets, where they are alone and can do as they please.

The provincial government must work towards finding the identity of these children. Help should be given so that they can eventually leave the rehabilitation centre and start their own independent lives, but not ones that are played out on the streets.

For those children whose parents are still alive, they should be found and, where possible, and the children reunited with them.

Parents who refuse to accept their children should be brought to justice and punished, because they have a duty towards their children which should not be ignored.

When one has children, one must know how to take care of them: the street is not their family.

Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.