ON a cold and windy Friday night a bunch of boys gather near the KFC fast-food outlet in Windhoek.
This is where they are most likely to get food, leftovers or small change.
Four of them are huddled together, while the others target customers for whatever they can get.
Most of them are bracing the cold with no shoes, or mismatched shoes, and no jerseys.
This is the life they know, and they seem to have accepted this as their fate.
Some say they wake up every day, hoping to have a better day than the day before.
Not every day is a good day, as they often go to sleep hungry when no one offered them money or food.
A boy smelling of petrol approaches from the service station across the road.
He says he sniffs petrol to feel 'high' and to escape from hunger and the cold.
It makes him sleep better, he says. He, however, does not reveal where he sleeps, afraid he may be exposed to the police.
The boy says he buys the petrol he sniffs from the service station for anything between N$5 and N$15.
The police often chase them from the streets, telling them to go back home to Gobabis, they say.
The traffic lights on the B1 road near the Windhoek Central Prison is another popular spot where street children gather - some of them as young as six.
Most of these children here have fled poverty and abuse at home. They find life on the streets better than the lives they have at home, some say.
*James (19) and *Mike (22) have been living on the streets of either Windhoek or Gobabis on and off.
Their beds are flattened boxes at public toilets, behind buildings, or under bridges.
Both have dropped out of school and left home, where they say they are not taken care of.
On the streets they have to fend for themselves, and also turn to sniffing petrol to soften their harsh reality, they say.
"One time, I tried to defend myself from the big boys of Katutura when I was on the streets of Windhoek, but I got beaten up. I owed the guys money for weed and mandrax," James says.
He says he cannot report these gangsters to the police, because they would find him and just beat him up again.
One of the boys says he left home after both his parents died, while the other one says his unemployed mother has many children and cannot look after him. She is drunk most of the time, and there is no food for the children, he says.
James and Mike recently returned home after taking part in several projects to keep them off the streets. They enjoy crafts, and try to sustain themselves by selling their crafts, they say. They were taught how to make dolls, wire cars, and many other items.
They say the streets are awful and they do not want to ever go back to that life.
They don't want to go back to school either, because they are too old to cacth up, they believe.
A SECOND CHANCE
Namibia Partnership Solutions (NPS), a non-governmental organisation striving to keep children off the streets, and the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare are collaborating on programmes to reunite street children with their families.
Other children are rehabilitated at Farm Du Plessis under the care of the ministry.
At the centre on the farm, the children can take a shower, wash their clothes, receive a hot meal three times a day, and sleep on a proper bed.
A social worker has one-on-one sessions with them to help them process their experiences on the streets.
Some boys at Farm Du Plessis told The Namibian they do not want to return to the streets and would rather live at the farm and improve their lives.
Some haven't seen their parents for years.
One even missed his mother's funeral and doesn't know where she is buried.
The Namibian, with the help of NPS, reached out to some of the mothers of the children at Farm Du Plessis.
Some become very emotional when confronted with pictures and videos of their children at the farm. They say it's hard raising children without a father involved. While the boys end up on the streets, the girls often fall prey to older men with money, and often end up pregnant at a young age, they say.
Heather Ross and Engelbertus Dladla Byl, the founders of NPS, say they have been working with street children for more than 10 years.
Ross says the children has a lot of potential, but need more opportunities.
Ministry spokesperson Lukas Haufiku says they have made efforts to keep children off the streets.
He says the ministry conducts regular visits to the streets to monitor the density of destitute children.
Some are taken to an after-school centre at Grysblok in Katutura, which is a government initiative funded by the ministry, he says.
At the centre, the children are profiled to determine their individual circumstances, and care plans are developed for each child, he says.
The centre caters for 500 children, Haufiku says.
He says the centre aims to strengthen the social well-being of children, provide psychosocial support, and to equip them with skills.
Haufiku says rehabilitating children living and working on the streets is a very complex process, with the children often relapsing.
Some 48 children have been reintegrated in their respective regions, he says.
They are mostly between eight and 21 years old and are mostly from Gobabis, he says.
Haufiku says the ministry has recorded 65 street children on its database last year.
Lena Nangombe, a social worker within the ministry, who has worked with street children for two years, says there are various push and pull factors for children to leave home and make a living on the streets.
Push factors include peer pressure, a lack of proper shelter, orphanhood (in many cases due to HIV-AIDS), violence at home, alcohol and substance abuse, unemployment of parents and poverty, and child neglect.
Pull factors include being part of a social group or gang where children experience acceptance or a sense of belonging, earning money and food, and a sense of independence.
Nangombe says: "Experience has taught us that children cannot be forced to attend rehabilitation programmes as it would disrupt activities and disturb those who would like to benefit from such a programme."
Upon enrolling in programmes, the children are informed of their rights and the ground rules, she says.
She says some of the children are beyond rehabilitation, but at the same time the ministry has made great strides with others.
The ministry has managed to reintegrate 147 street children last year, Nangombe says.
The ministry is urging parents, caregivers, individuals, service providers and communities to make efforts in raising children and to keep them from turning to the streets.
Prevention is better than cure, Nangombe says.
* Not their real names.
- This story was produced with funding from the Google Grant