Angola's Street Children
By Magdalena Wolnik
What do you want to be when you grow up? Some a pilot, a footballer, a mechanic, a teacher; others would like to heal the sick, or at least want to learn how to read. One of the older ones even wants to be a priest; his friend, a government minister. Each one of them has a dream. For the first time in decades, there is a chance that these dreams may come true.
With its five million inhabitants and high crime rates Angola’s capital, Luanda, is regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous and expensive cities. The twenty seven year civil war that ended in 2002 left over 40% of the population below the poverty line. Estimates put the number of street children in Luanda at around five thousand. The chances of any their dreams coming true often lies in the hands of the Salesian and Verbist priests and the centers they run.
The war orphaned countless children. However not only war and aids-orphans live on the streets: the number also includes children who flee their homes because of alcoholism, domestic violence or extreme poverty leading to a lack of even the most basic means of survival. An additional problem children face is being charged with witchcraft. Seemingly absurd, these cases are both common and on the rise. When a tragedy – such as death, an illness or unemployment – befalls a family, the search for a guilty party with “evil forces” begins. Often the weakest in the family – old or young – is found guilty. At best they end up on the street; at worst, they are either maimed or murdered.
(A street child gazes on, unnoticed by the wealthier families passing by. © ACN)
“A child on the street is defenceless. He becomes a victim of all sorts of violent assaults: sexual exploitation, drugs, robbery and physical violence”. Alberta André looks after street children in the Salesian Father’s house “Casa Mama Margarida”. “Some adults treat them as cheap labor or send them out to steal. Some are beaten, beaten up all over.”
AIDS too is spreading, especially amongst children exploited for prostitution. Drugs are a universal problem, ranging from glue and petrol sniffing to alcohol abuse. During the day, young children and teenagers work as baggage porters, cleaners, and market square trade helpers; they wash cars, clean shoes, commit acts of larceny, or beg on the streets. According to UNICEF about 30% of Angola’s children between the age of 5 and 14 are forced to work.
“I worked, loaded cars; when I finished loading, the evening came, I sat on the streets and begged”, recounts one of the older boys. Now he wants to save those who have to live on the street, as he once did. The younger Domingos adds: “I suggest to those on the streets not to stay there. There are fights and aggression against children. There are adults who injure themselves until death. There are deaths on the street.”
News about “Casa Magone”, a center run by the Salesian Fathers in the Mota district, has spread spontaneously amongst the young living on the street. Older children who now care for the younger ones, go out at night to the center of Luanda in search of children in need. We ride with them in the van and find a boy about ten years old, called Mimi. He has a limp. The boys discover that he fled home from a persistently drunk father who beat him. He carries all he owns on his body: torn trousers and a shirt. They ask him if he would like a warm meal and to sleep in a bed. Mimi accepts. Once inside the car, he shows them the scars left by the beatings he suffered on the street as well as dog bites. Jacinto, one of the older ones, slowly explains “Casa Magone” to him: “It is a center for street children. In the morning you study, then you eat breakfast, play football, and then you study a little more. You will have friends, you will have teachers, who will look after you. There will be a priest who will help you. If you ever have a problem you can talk with Father.”
(When they are not simply trying to survive, street children play with what they can find. © ACN)
In night shelters such as “Casa Magone”, the children learn to live with others in relatively normal conditions, to rid themselves of bad habits, to learn to read and write and, like all other children, to play. The sports hall, a school, a surgery unit, the small parish church of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and the “Casa Mama Margarida” all stand next to the two story “Casa Magone”. Mama Margarida, together with her husband Muamar, raises their own five children as well as 15 boys from the street. Over 80 children so far have passed through their foster care.
Work with street children is not the Church’s only initiative in helping the poor. Several hundred children have this year begun to attend catechism classes in Mota. The missionaries working with these children on a daily basis could not do this without outside help.
“A Salesian cannot rest so long as there are young people who lead lives guided by values other than those of the Gospel.” Father Julio Barriento, SDB, a parish priest from Ndalatando who works with street children in Mota explains what drives him. “My dream is exactly that: to redeem these young people, to give them a profession, create a place for them to spend their free time, where they can meet. I go out to them, on the streets, into blind alleys, and give them a helping hand, so that they do not go off track. I say to them: Which one of you will take up the challenge to live with Christ? As our unforgettable John Paul II used to say: Christ takes nothing away; He gives you everything.”
(Father Julio Barriento teaching a class of street children. © ACN)
It is thanks to his presence and tireless hard work, and those of others like him, that Luanda’s street children are rebuilding their lives and getting a chance to make their dreams come true. And with them, Angola.
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