Street children terrorise cities

Beware of street children in Malawi’s cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe! They walk in small groups with tools ranging from razor blades to knives to wreak havoc on people.

They can rape women, snatch handbags, steal money and phones. They can disfigure their victims with knives or teeth.

They attack ATM users at night and steal money from air time vendors.

Police in Blantyre and Lilongwe confirmed receiving complaints from members of the public about such attacks.

A psychology expert has since hinted that the children’s behaviour could be a result of substance abuse.

A Weekend Nation investigation learned that such kids’ hot spots include flea markets, supermarket premises, car parks, bus depots, drinking joints and filling stations.

Specific places in Blantyre include Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Ryalls Hotel bus stop, Chez Ntemba, the bridge near Blantyre Market and at Bwalo lanjovu and Malangalanga Road in Lilongwe, among others.

The kids are under the charge of thugs or older street children who have graduated from begging.

They sometimes knife commercial sex workers and anybody who refuses to cooperate or surrender money and other items.

Be ‘rude’ to them and face the wrath.

While they are often in a cat and mouse chase with commercial sex workers, they sometimes unite to trap and steal from the commercial sex customers.

During the week, in the presence of Step Kids Awareness (Steka) executive director Godknows Maseko, some street children made chilling revelations to a Weekend Nation investigation on how they terrorise Blantyre City.

“We begin our operation in the morning when people arrive in the city for work. After they park, we check the vehicles, looking for those whose windows are not properly shut so we can open the doors,” said a 16-year-old boy on Tuesday. His identity has been hidden because he is a minor.

When the day progresses and hunger begins to bite, the boys may become wild and target women selling food stuffs and air time.

“We snatch handbags, for example, at Mibawa Minibus Depot where there are many people moving about. Then, we either board a minibus and drop after a short distance or flee down the river nearby.

“We also snatch baskets containing bananas, cucumbers, groundnuts, cassava from mobile women and help ourselves to the food,” said the boy, adding that some people who also speak on the phone while walking have regretted doing so.

‘We work for our masters’

The boy, who found himself on the street after losing both parents, also disclosed that the boys can target shops, stealing clothes or money from cash registers. They surrender the loot to their masters.

“Our masters then wear the new clothes and pose as clients for commercial sex workers. They then send us to call the night queens and when one walks into the trap, she is forced to surrender money.

“If she does not cooperate, we snatch whatever she has. We can also knife her.

The masters at times rape sex workers

“At times, our bosses rape the commercial sexual workers, especially when they do not surrender money. I knifed one woman, who perches herself at Mount Soche Hotel, because she was rude.

“I witnessed four occasions of knifing—in the stomach,” said the boy, adding that those raped exceed 20 during the two years he has been on the street.

Rape victims are not only women as some older street children and thugs sexually force themselves on younger boys.

The boy says he was once a victim and spent nine days in pain.

The terrorism extends to smearing of chitedze (buffalo beans) on uncooperative victims.

“When we ask for alms and one responds rudely, we can do anything to such a person because he adds salt to our injury.

“We drag such people into the Mudi River, close to Blantyre Market, tie them to a tree and smear chitedze on their body and snatch whatever they have, especially when it’s dark,” said the boy.

The river is also used as a point for sharing the loot.

Another street boy, aged 15, corroborated the dangerous operations.

He recalls meeting two men in the streets who offered him help.

They took him to their house in Mbayani as Samaritans but to his surprise, the men involved him in stealing of underground cables at night.

“We used to steal underground cables. We also stole from people’s houses and gardens. They forced me to carry the stolen goods too.

“Their landlord discovered their crooked ways and evicted them. I then went back to the street and joined my friends,” said the boy.

A Blantyre resident Fatsani [surname withheld] gives testimony that he was attacked by the street children at an ATM in Blantyre at 2 am three months ago.

“I was at Chez Ntemba [night club] where a band was performing. I ran short of cash and I decided to replenish at a National Bank ATM. As I put the money [K8 000] in my pocket, three boys confronted me and tried forcing their hands into my pocket.

“A struggle ensued and one bit me on the arm. The money and phone fell to the ground and I was saved by another man who came on the scene.

“But some boys had made away with the cash and the phone. Some guards came and we managed to catch one of the boys and handed him to police officers who were at Chez Ntemba.

“He tipped police on his friends’ whereabouts and my money and phone were recovered.”

A commercial sex worker in Blantyre, who identified herself as Stella, said she was twice attacked by the boys.

On one occasion, she said she was forced to give the boys K1 000 ($6) which she got from a round of sex.

On another occasion, she said she was saved by police officers who were on patrol. Both she and the boys escaped when they saw the officers.

“The boys usually target us from midnight. They are very dangerous because they move in groups and use knives.

“I also keep a knife, but I cannot defend myself from such a group,” said Stella who was also attacked at Chez Ntemba.

She said most commercial sex workers spend all their night at Chez Ntemba till morning to avoid running into the boys.

Central Region Police spokesperson, John Namalenga confirmed rounding up 1 082 street children [under 18] in 2010.

“Of the number, 1 060 were boys and 22 girls. This year we arrested 612 out of which 12 were girls,” he said.

He cited the streets of Bwalo lanjovu, Area 4, Malangalanga, the bus depot as hotspots of such crime.

Namalenga said the offences the children committed ranged from robbery with violence, theft to breaking [into property].

Blantyre Police spokesperson Beatrice Bwanali said she needed more time to provide statistics on cases involving street kids, but hinted that the cases the station receives concerning the children are generally about threat to general safety.

She said police carry out sweeping exercises that target the street children and anybody loitering in the city.

“We liaise with the social welfare office and screen the children. We send home those with parents or guardians and those without are sent to orphanages or other care organisations,” said Bwanali.

Northern Region Police spokesperson, Norah Chimwala, said there are no cases emanating from street children in Mzuzu City.

“May be people just ignore and never report,” she said.

Maseko, whose organisation  looks after 36 street kids, said sending such children to their respective homes is not a solution as they need reformation and observation. He said some street children refuse to be kept at centres because they are used to street life and do not find life at orphanages conducive.

Asked to explain the behaviour of the violent street children, Chancellor College sociologist Dr. Pierson Ntata said:

“Street kids are usually victims and not perpetrators of violence. Many homeless children are enticed by adults and older youth into selling drugs, stealing, and prostitution.

“Drug use by children on the streets is common as they look for means to numb the pain and deal with the hardships associated with street life.

“Studies have found that up to 90 percent of street children use psychoactive substances, including medicines, alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cannabis, and readily available industrial products such as shoe glue.”

“Therefore, part of this behaviour might be the result of substance abuse but also part is the result of being forced to do this by adults who benefit from the vulnerable situation of the kids,” says Ntata.

In January 2010, Weekend Nation also discovered that the street children are exposed to sodomy by fellow children, prominent people and  foreigners.

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