Gbarnga, Bong County – Across Liberia’s 15 counties, there is a class of children who neither feel good nor happy. Their outlook paints a vivid picture of their state of helplessness.
Report by Selma Lomax, [email protected]
They appear unkempt and totally hopeless regarding their future. In their tattered clothes, they find homes in the most filthy and awkward places like abandoned buildings, in market buildings and school premises.
Usually, they retire to these “abodes” at dusk and dash out early in the morning before the prying eyes of security agents or the rightful owners of the structures turn out for business.
Holding a bucket of water mixed with little soap, another detergent in one hand and an improvised brush in the other, he walks up to a car in traffic uninvited, and begins to wash the car, hoping the car owner or driver would be compassionate enough to give him some money.
At the other end of the road, a teenage girl of school age hawks peanuts when she should be in the classroom. Yet, there are others whose only source of livelihood is begging for alms.
These ones approach you with words that will soften any heart. In that brief encounter of less than one minute, they will tell you the grief they have been passing through.
Welcome to the lives of Liberia’s street kids! As Anita Rennie, Bong County Gender Coordinator said, these needy children make no pretenses about their poor state nor would they conceal the hardship they had been made to endure.
However, there are some among of them who turn to odd jobs and use the proceeds to train themselves in schools or to start off a trade.
Their reasons for resorting to living off the street are common: abject poverty, battle to survive, being deceived to come to the cities for non-existent jobs and/or house helps pushed to hawk or into the streets by their host families.
For Sarah Padmore, she had lived in the street since she was five.
She is now 16 and says it is her child that now does the job more. “This (begging) is what I have been doing from when I was very young, maybe about five years. I was living with my mother in the Millionaire Quarters community in lower Margibi.
At that time, I was giving my mother whatever I made. We also had an overall head. Even my mother went to deliver daily account to him.”
Jerry Bedell, 14, is a resident of Gbarnga. He was lured by his uncle to join the latter’s retail business. He knew he ought to be at school rather than on the streets. But poverty drove him out of home to an uncertain future.
“It was my uncle who brought me to Gbarnga,” he told FrontPage Africa last week. “We were selling air freshener, dryer, key holders and other things for him. I found out that one had to walk all over Gbarnga to sell these things. Sometimes, we would walk to many places without food and without sales.
Though he prefers what he does today to life in the past, Bedell is far from recommending it to other young people.
“No, I don’t support any child from a good (wealthy) background to do it. I’m doing it because I have no choice. I would have loved to continue with my education and not drop out. But there was nobody to help me,” he said.
Continuing, he added: “Again, there are some car owners and drivers who are very wicked. That they won’t give you money is not the problem.
The way they would shout at you and talk to you would make you cry when you get home. Such people should know that if we had the opportunity, we would want to be like their own children, going to good schools and not lacking anything.”
Asked why he was not in school on this day, he said: “We’ve just completed our tests. You see, I discovered that the car wash business is very good. I started it when I found out that my parents could not provide for what all of us needed. They (parents) do their best but I told myself that we needed to help them.
“Yes, they always pay our school fees but you don’t expect them to take care of everything. So, the money I make helps a lot. During holidays, I come here as early as 8.30 a.m. and do not go home until 6 p.m. or 6.30 depending on how the customers arrive.”
He added: “I would love to study engineering if I ever have the opportunity to go to the university.
I pray to God every day to give me the chance. But let me tell you something: if government makes education free, those of us whose parents are not wealthy, can go to the university.
“From the little I make from this job, I also give something to my other brothers and sisters. My appeal is that those in government should make the suffering less for the poor families. It is so painful to see young girls and boys who should be in the classrooms going around selling oranges, apples and pure (sachet) water.
“I say so because most of the armed robbers we have in the country are those who did not have the chance to go to school or to learn a trade. We appeal to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to do something now to help the youths.”
Some of the children living on the streets in Liberia are escapees from unhappy homes, while others recall travelling to the city in search of adventure. They end up selling water packaged in plastic bags or washing vehicles.
At the age of 10, Dadaboy left his home in Sergeant Kollie Town in Suakoko District. A friend, who turned out to be a child-labor recruiter, invited him to Gbarnga. “We left home without telling any of our parents.
The man took me to a place I do not know; my duty there was to be a housekeeper.” But Daddy decided to run away. He met other street children who showed him how to survive on his own. “I started to sleep in the market,” he said. “
He does not know his parents as he was abandoned when he was three years old. He started attending a Pentecostal Church in Palala where they took a particular interest in him because they thought he was well behaved.
He worshipped with them every time, especially on Fridays for the night vigils and Sundays for worship. They accommodated him and promised to help him settle down.
Eventually, after two years of which he did not run away, a member of the church took him to Gbarnga where he currently resides. Since he is a teenager, he is learning the art of welding.
Princess Mulbah, also 13 years old, said he used to stay with his mother on Ganta, but at the age of seven, she decided that she wanted her to go and live with her father in Sinnequelle which she did not like.
She explained that he ran away from his father’s house after about one year and went back to Ganta where she started sleeping in a local entertainment center.
Kennie Sengbeh is 11 years old and Isaac Golafaley is 13 years old. These boys all have one thing in common: they were all found on the street in Gbarnga.
The phenomenon of street children in Liberia results mainly from family breakdown which could be as a result of marital problems or instability in the home, poverty, hunger, insecurity, abuse and violence from parents, displacement caused by clashes in the community, insufficient parental care, death of one or both parents, inadequate family income, unemployment of one or both parents, lack of (or limited) opportunities in education, abandonment by parents, housing difficulties, amongst others.
In an increasingly individualistic society, such children quickly learn to survive on their own and in the process are exploited through child labor and trafficking.
Many take to the streets for refuge. Indeed, street children are found in large numbers in urban and rural areas.
They work as vendors or hawkers, beggars, shoe shiners, car washers, head-loaders, scavengers and bus conductors. The majority is boys but there are a few girls among them.
The situation of the street children in Liberia is indeed pitiable but several non-governmental organizations in the county have shown interest in rescuing, rehabilitating and giving them a chance for a better life.