Zimbabwe: Homeless Children Lament Lockdown Hunger

Draped in a dirty, torn T-shirt and improvised pair of shorts, a fatigued Ricky Musuka* (14) reclines on a traffic light, at the junction of Argyle and West roads in Harare, desperately pondering whether he will scrounge enough to fill his stomach tonight.

The plush structures surrounding this part of the leafy Avondale suburb make the vicinity seem attractive for any beggar whose next meal depends on handouts.

Adding to the affluent ambience is a collection of posh cars that pass through frequently from all corners and yet, by 2pm the teenager only has $10 worth of coins in his pockets -- enough for a few sweets only.

"We sometimes go to sleep hungry," he opened up to Standard Style. "We come here to beg, but even rich people here are not so generous nowadays."

Since the beginning of a government lockdown on March 31 to curb the spread of Covid-19, the normally populous city center, where the destitute get reasonable offerings, has been out of bounds.

Heavily armed members of the military and police force at roadblocks only allow purported essential workers with official passes through.

This has seen a significant number of homeless children abscond the heart of the city, trekking for hours from Mbare to the low-density suburbs where there is donor potential.

Ricky, along with a handful of other same-aged boys, spends his nights on a veranda at the derelict Matapi flats since running away from a stepparent's abuse in Epworth over a year ago

"We sleep on the veranda of the shops opposite the police station and before lockdown we would spend the day in town where we would get much more money, but now we cannot," he said, adding that the cat-and-mouse activity has extended to their base as well.

In April, government moved over 100 homeless people to three isolation centres in the capital, with Ruwa Rehabilitation Centre housing "dozens of boys living and working on the streets" then.

"We are taking the homeless from the streets in the fight against Covid-19. We are doing something. We are using funds from our current budget and I know we will get something from treasury soon since this is a national disaster," Social Welfare minister Paul Mavima was quoted saying.

However, among those taken in, some escaped citing lack of food and stringent confinement rules robbing their freedom as reasons.

"I was not there when others were taken, but I know something like that happened. If they come to take us, I would love to go, I was left behind with others because the vehicle only came once and never returned," said Ricky.

More children like him are languishing in the cold streets this winter as a result and with the number of Covid-19 patients as well as returnees mandated to go through national quarantine increasing, it is yet to be seen if government will accommodate more homeless minors.

Local social worker consultant Robert Mapurisa believes more should be done to remove children from the streets before they become loners not able to conform to social norms.

"Every human being transacts with the society and there is also what we call socialisation where a person is unconsciously or consciously trained to be a productive asset in a society later in life when they grow up," said Mapurisa, a consultant with Amalgamated Social Work Practitioners.

"When a child gets into the streets they are completely detached from social systems and it will definitely affect them because they do not know how best to interact with others which affects them negatively."

According to him, it is not only government's responsibility to remove children from the streets as different institutions of society should also be at pains to make sure that no child finds street life an option.

Munashe Saidi is certain that it has never felt like the right time to return home as it does now after three years in the streets.

Unlike many others who seek refuge in the streets following a myriad of problems, chief among them abuse in various forms, the 17-year-old attributes bad influence for leaving his family home on the outskirts of the city.

"I just followed my peers when I saw them coming to hustle and taking care of themselves through begging in the streets," he said.

"With rampant price increases nowadays life is hard, those who leave food are our saviours. We used to get job offers to cut lawns for US$5, but now no one comes because of this virus."

Saidi lives with friends at the sheds behind Belvedere shopping centre, a few metres from the intersection of Bishop Gaul Avenue and Princess Road where he spends the day begging or controlling traffic when there is congestion.

He now realises that "everything at home was way better than this" and is ready to go and apologise after lockdown.

"If it [lockdown] ends I would be happy and go back home because up to now I do not have an ID card so I need to go and collect it as well as go back to school," he said.

"I would have walked back home but now going back as I am, holding nothing in my hands is not right. I have to be holding something because going back with nothing would be disappointing."

Just like many others, Munashe attests that without enough to buy illicit drugs like glue and cannabis to supplement the rags they use as blankets, this will be a freezing winter of misery.

While the constitution underlines the rights to food, dignity and shelter among others, the Children's Act also emphasises the state's mandate to ensure the safety of all children in section 14 (1) which reads:

"Any police officer, health officer, education officer or probation officer may remove a child or young person from any place to a place of safety."

This is not happening and while there are no local statistics pointing to how many children dwell on the streets, numbers are risings as a result of the country's long-standing economic meltdown.

In addition, the World Food Programme has estimated that more 7,7 million people will starve this year with a third of them being urbanites, mostly vulnerable groups including children, in what will be worsened by the pandemic.

For Ricky, the streets are proving unbearable with each passing day, he is keen to go to his rural home in Masvingo although uncertain how.

"My father and his new wife have never come looking for me since I left them in Epworth. They are looking after my siblings," he said.

"I just want to go back where I come from when things get back to normalcy. I want to go to my grandparents in Masvingo, they do not know up to now that I stay in the streets."

l Name changed to protect the identity of the child.

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