Meet the Makers: The Street Children of Harare

Posted by Sandy Glanfield on


[This post is a difficult one to read. It contains references to violence, drug use and abuse. It is also the harsh reality for the young people living on the streets in Harare.  Annie Makoni, of One Hope Church, whose words form the foundation of this article, did not sugar coat the situation in which these children are living. It is uncomfortable; it is incredibly challenging. After much discussion, we felt it was too important not to tell the full story behind some of the products we sell. Please do read. Thank you so much to Annie for sharing this powerful, difficult narrative. ] 

Today we are taking you to the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, to meet the young people who live there, and who make the beautiful beaded keyrings that we sell.

The story is not an easy one – you will hear of hardship and loss, and vulnerability and loneliness. But throughout it, there is determination and hope, and the children’s sheer will to survive.

Annie Makoni, together with her team from One Hope Church, has worked with the street children for several years. She paints a candid picture of how the kids live, and how hard it is to rescue and rehabilitate them.

"There are no quick fixes. It’s loads of fun, hard work, needs heaps of energy and patience. We meet some absolutely unforgettable, brilliant, funny, vibrant characters, who make us laugh and laugh. We also often feel the huge burden of pain and hopelessness of those who feel rejected and beaten down whose stories make you wake up in the night and cry. It’s a long and painful story for anyone to reform. But we keep going as this is not yet the end of the story.

This story begins with the need to survive.

"Nine out of ten times [children end up on the streets due to] abuse from a step-parent.”

Annie goes on to explain,

"Shona people traditionally believe that if they take someone into their home who is not of the same ancestors as them, it will cause them bad luck. Many stepmothers refuse to nurture the children of their husband’s former marriage, depriving them, not only of love but of basic necessities such as food, clothing, education, etc.” 

Zimbabwe also has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, and despite ARV treatment being widely available, many people with HIV do not want tests (there is still a stigma attached to the disease). As a consequence, people succumb to common diseases such as TB and malaria because their immune systems are compromised. This results in a large number of orphaned children, who leave home either because they are unwanted or abused by relatives, or they have to find work to support their younger siblings. 

Poverty is another big driving force. Even if young people do have caring parents or other relatives at home, they often lack the opportunities to attend school or find work, and they believe that the city will give them a better life.

"Sadly for many, they find, on arriving in the city, that the streets are not paved with gold and that there are thousands of others like themselves, trying to find work.

On the street, life continues to be a struggle to survive.

“To survive a child needs to join some kind of gang. The gangs have ‘bases’ where they sleep and hang out, and children base themselves as near as they can to some source of food or money-making opportunity. Many gangs hide out behind supermarkets in the alleyways where the rubbish bins are, and where food is thrown out. They wait for the moment each day when rotten food or food which is no longer sellable, is thrown out and then they pick through it, putting anything edible into dirty cardboard boxes for them to share afterwards.” 

Within their gangs, the children have various ways of making money: begging at traffic lights; forming mini businesses (like washing cars); and committing petty crimes, like stealing handbags and breaking into cars.

Money is likely to be stolen by someone else as soon as it is gained – younger and weaker children are, of course, the most vulnerable.

So it is important to spend it as quickly as possible.  

"Food is a priority, but drugs are often even higher up the list. Generally, our street kids are not on hard sophisticated drugs like cocaine, but they can get wasted pretty quickly and effectively just by visiting the shoe man. Almost every shoe mender in downtown Harare has a little queue of kids lining up to buy shoe glue. 

Once the glue is bought, the children “slump down anywhere”, put their small plastic containers over their mouths and inhale, “breathing in deeply as if it were life-saving oxygen.” The whites of their eyes turn yellow, and they fall unconscious. 

They are oblivious to the cars narrowly missing their heads as they loll over the pavement onto the road, or to the people stepping over them as if they are no more than an inconvenient piece of rubbish.

Kids also get high on “broncho” – a cough mixture with high levels of codeine, sold on the street, and “sombodia” – a drink which is a mixture of fertilizers and paint thinners.

Nights are generally not for sleeping, especially during the winter due to the cold. Many kids stay awake so they can escape other gangs who want to beat them up, and to avoid any other trouble. They make small fires from plastic bottles and old tyres and huddle together in the alleyways and back streets. Sometimes the whole night is spent on the move. By day, the children sleep in parks and on pavements.

"Soon, caught up in a gang and addicted to harmful substances, [the kids] begin to forget why they originally came to the streets and just focus on getting through the next day.

Every day is a series of challenges to survive

Violence, fire and the seasons

"With so many street people “high” on something, fights can erupt at any time. I have seen a young boy almost strangled by a bully in his gang just for a packet of glue, and a few years back we lost a teenager named Innocent. He was stoned to death in a fight, also over the glue. One boy was set on fire by another lad who had a grudge against him. He was in hospital for over two months and will always bear the scars.” 

Annie tells us...

Winter is especially tough. Recently, a mentally disturbed boy who was high on drugs rolled into a fire whilst asleep. He woke up almost too late, and suffered terrible burns.

Annie continues, “Amazingly, thanks to the constant care of him by Victor and Tendai, whilst he was in the hospital, he made a good recovery. Again, he will always bear the scars.

During the hot rainy season (October to March) drains and alleyways become flooded, and raw sewage often runs through where the children sleep, which makes them vulnerable to diseases like cholera and typhoid. Skin complaints are also a problem.

It is also “not uncommon for children to be swept away and drowned in the storm drains where they crawl in to sleep.

Sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies

“Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant amongst those in the street. Usually, there are a handful of girls in each gang and they are passed around between the boys. Many become pregnant whilst they are still children themselves. There is also a lot of abuse where older boys are forcing younger boys into sex. The shame and embarrassment means that it is often only when diseases are far gone that they have the courage to ask for help.”

For babies born on the street, there is little chance of escape, and they are often seen as assets, and not only by their mothers. Babies are passed around the street kids – they know that if they go begging with a baby on their backs, people will give more generously. Toddlers are similarly used. They are left in the middle of busy roads to beg and money is collected from the child by an older street person, who is watching and waiting nearby.

Helping through trust and friendship – and patience.

Living on the streets causes complex problems. One Hope is able to offer two kinds of help. 

"One is immediate relief: food, clothes, and medical help … which often builds the initial bridge into a child’s life. The other is a much longer route which takes a great deal of tenacity and perseverance, involving getting to the root causes of what has brought a person into the street and trying to help them to find a way off the streets … This might be through reunification with family, education, or through learning income-generating skills. All of this requires the giving of time and patience to really get to know and gain the trust of an individual young person.

There is a lot of groundwork that needs to be done so that an individual’s needs can be met. Members of One Hope visit the kids in their bases, organise regular outings and football matches, and let them know that the church is a safe place for them. The street kids like to hang out there, freshen up with a shower, and they can also have a meal every lunchtime – they are involved in the cooking as much as possible.

The route off the streets. 

"Being reunited with family is always first prize and sometimes it just needs one of our team to accompany them back to their rural homes and sit down with the relatives. Sometimes the reason for running away from home is that they have stolen something in their neighborhood. Having an adult to help them approach those they have wronged and ask forgiveness, often opens the way for a new start. However, where there has been abuse at home, reunification can be a lot more complicated and dangerous for the child. Sadly some families are too disintegrated or abusive to be a safe option. Where poverty has been the cause of a child coming to the street, we have to look at how we can support the family so that the same poverty trap doesn’t just repeat itself. Many rural families have a small plot of land and often providing seeds and tools can be a good way of ensuring that they will be able to survive.

The gift of the beaded keyrings. 

"Providing opportunities for learning income-generating skills is a really important part of our work.

Young boys are invited to “have a go” at bead and wire work, and if they enjoy it and show a flair, they are invited to join the production team.

Annie says that the making of them is extremely therapeutic. The young boys/men “relax and chat and laugh as well as grow in self-esteem as they realise that they can make something beautiful which others appreciate. Once they are able to make something of good enough quality to sell, we are able to pay them for what they have made. This gives them an opportunity, to find a cheap room to rent which is a first step away from the streets.

Ongoing Challenges

Some of the kids have been on the streets for so long, they are adept at surviving on nothing, and they don’t want to leave the familiarity or freedom of ‘home’. Their gangs and bases give them a sense of belonging and identity in the absence of family.

 Plus they are always on the move. Annie explains,

"They change bases, even cities, on a regular basis, especially if they have committed a crime in a certain area, they will suddenly move to another area. [They are often arrested and put on trial for crimes, especially theft.] For these reasons, it’s really hard sometimes to maintain continuity when you are trying to help an individual see through a certain course of action. They can come faithfully to a project or course we are running for a few weeks and then vanish in a cloud of smoke, just when you were beginning to feel that they were making progress.

When COVID-19 hit the streets in March, many of the young were sent to various institutions. They were treated well but had nothing to do. Before long, they were selling their blankets in exchange for drugs, and spent the winter months suffering from the cold. Many escaped back to the streets, and increasing numbers returned to One Hope, where meals were being cooked every day. Since October, work has been resumed on the ground.

"We have temporarily lost many of our regular faces as they have been scattered to different places. It is a time of trying to regroup and re-build the bridges of friendship and trust.

Hope:  Matthew and Time

Annie says,

Both Mathew and Time (of One Hope) used to be full-time street people. I first met Mathew as a teenager. He was climbing out of a drain onto the street and I invited him to a camp we were having. He and his gang were on their way to get wasted in the Park with a bottle of sombodia. He lived by breaking into cars and stealing radios and mugging people on the streets. Fifteen years on, he is one of the gentlest, most compassionate people I have had the chance to work with. He and Time really understand what it is like to have to kick addictions, turn your life over to Jesus and be brave enough to go back and try to restore relationships at home.” 

It is a long journey, and a young person may return to the streets many times before permanently staying away. And the longer a child has been on the streets, the longer it can take to adjust to life off them.

But One Hope remains a constant:

"We hope to be a loving presence in [the children’s] lives so that when they are ready to be helped off the street, they know where to return.

The hope – and belief – is that there will always be new successes, like Mathew. He is now in charge of the recruitment of the kids who make the beaded keyrings, and who take such great pride in their work.

As Annie says:

"It’s a long and painful story for anyone to reform. But we keep going as this is not yet the end of the story.

[Thank you for reading this article. We know it’s a difficult one. But, together, we can help ensure that this is not the end of the story for the street children. 

Click here to send one of the boys’ beautiful hand made products to someone special; someone who has shown you friendship and love this year. In doing so, you will also help to keep the street children and their stories alive.]

 Written by Becky Matthewson