Candy started touting drugs - which promise to improve sexual performance with evocative names such as 'Kill the Mommy' or 'Rabbit' - after dropping out of school due to poverty
Kinshasa - Congolese teen Candy has learned the rules of the streets since he started selling aphrodisiacs and illegal opiate-based cigarettes to drinkers in the gang-plagued capital Kinshasa.
To stay safe, the 17-year-old avoids working late and has a bribe on hand in case he is threatened by the police, street children or Kuluna gangs who roam the city at night armed with machetes, iron bars and stones.
"Sometimes there are Kuluna who threaten us but you just have to know how to negotiate with them," said the teenager, balancing on his head a box of sex-enhancing cigarettes, plants, dried leaves and roots that can be chewed or made into juice.
"I prefer to stop working at 8pm and go home to avoid getting mugged. They often attack us from around 10pm to midnight. We face huge risks at night," said Candy, whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity.
Candy is among thousands of Congolese children estimated by Florence Boloko, a senior official at the Ministry of Gender, Family and Children, to have entered the workforce since the new coronavirus closed schools, markets and businesses last year.
"Walk through the streets of Kinshasa - you will see that there are children selling in almost every corner," she said.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is grappling with its third wave of COVID-19, with public gatherings limited to 20 people amid low vaccination rates, some 45,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.
Three-quarters of workers in Kinshasa are in the informal sector, said the government's National Office for Employment, which connects jobseekers with employers, and the closure of markets, makeshift restaurants and bars has hit people hard.
Falling incomes have been mirrored by a surge in urban gang activity in Kinshasa, with a rise in armed robberies and violent assaults, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based think-tank.
Save The Children ranks Congo as one of the worst countries to be a child, with COVID-19 likely to intensify poverty and hunger in a nation which has been torn apart by war, military coups and corruption since Belgian colonialists left in 1960.
"This job is very exhausting," said Candy who started touting drugs - which promise to improve sexual performance with evocative names such as 'Kill the Mommy' or 'Rabbit' - in December, a year after dropping out of school due to poverty.
"Sometimes I stop along the way to sleep a little because I'm tired. Life is hard."
Congo's schools reopened in February, after being closed for nine months, but many children remain on the streets, selling everything from crisps to face masks.
"Children who started working when schools were closed will find it difficult to go back," said Jean Loko, coordinator of Children First, a local charity that feeds street children.
"The contact with money is seductive."
The underage traders say aphrodisiacs and Indian shikata cigarettes - made with pain-relieving opiates derived from poppies - are the most lucrative products, earning between 10,000 and 16,000 Congolese francs ($5.05 and $8.08) a day.
"Shikata doesn't stay on the market long. People prefer that," said Gedeon, 16, who was given money by his father to start selling cigarettes in December, when a second wave of coronavirus shut schools for a second time.
"At the end of the day, I go home and I give something to my parents. That's my life. I don't worry too much about school. I'm looking for money," said the boy, whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity.
The hand-rolled shikata were banned last year because they are extremely toxic and harmful to health but they are still being smuggled into the country, said Louis Andre Komba Djeko, inspector general of health, who oversees health services.
"We know it is made in India, but we don't know how it gets into Congo. It enters through fraudulent means," he said.
Jean-Pierre Kwata, coordinator of the local charity No To Child Labour, which teaches young people about the dangers of shikata, would like the police to crack down on the trade.
"Children who sell this cigarette and aphrodisiac products must be arrested and the merchandise must be taken away from them to discourage them," he said.
But Dany Banzai, a customer sipping a beer into which he had put an aphrodisiac root, said he liked buying from children.
"There is less shame in dealing with them," he said.
"They are cooperative and have the best products."
And for 14-year-old Espoir, who begs and steals to survive, the drugs offer temporary respite from the brutal reality of his life on the streets, after his family accused him of witchcraft and chased him away from home.
"Me and my friends love it. Shikata allows us to forget everything. It's beautiful," he said, glassy-eyed as he pulled two cigarettes from his pocket.
"Apart from that, there is another powder we buy called Bombe. If I mix the powder and shikata, I can sleep peacefully for two days without any worries."