Matthew Kwenda (26) should have been a doctor or engineer, but he finds himself trapped in a cage of penury.
He has led a life punctuated with hardship and trouble.
He now ekes out a sordid life as a street urchin in Harare. But if his eloquent English, sharp witticism and intelligence, with which he dazzled those who attended last week’s Harare mayor’s belated Christmas party for the underprivileged are anything to go by, he deserves better.
He was so articulate that most people present sought to have a tête à tête with him to find out what he was doing in the streets when he was supposed to be in an office or laboratory adding value to the country’s development.
“I was expelled from Lord Malvern High School in 2001 because of drugs,” he said. “After that, my guardian threw me out of her house in Waterfalls, fearing that I would influence her children. I was naughty, really, and since then the streets have been my home.”
Kwenda’s father died in 1995, and he also lost his mother in 2002.
Through his own initiative, he has worked out a way to survive in the often cruel streets, where he now washes cars for a few dollars while putting up for the night at his base close to the entrance to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe along Julius Nyerere Way.
Given a chance, Kwenda said he would want to pursue his Advanced Level studies and fulfil his dream of either being a medical doctor or an engineer.
“I am still hopeful that I will make it in life. I have sinned and now I think I have learnt a lesson,” he said in fluent English.
Another young woman who lives in the street, now a mother at the tender age of 16, still holds on tightly to her dream of being a physiotherapist. Her grim determination was unmistakable.
Although Yvette has a little child, she said this year she would go back to school after getting her life back on track.
“This year I am going back to school. Maybe I’m suffering for now but it will not endure forever,” she said. “Not all hope is lost. I will continue to pray for warm-hearted people to support us like our father and mother (mayor Muchadeyi Masunda and mayoress Masunda) have done for us.”
The city has expressed commitment towards alleviating the plight of children living and working in the streets and a desire to assist local organisations like Streets Ahead in empowering the children with life skills.
“Our children are very important as they are an integral part of our city. Harare is an inclusive city which caters for all interest groups,” Masunda said. “The Harare City Council will continue to assist Streets Ahead through the Mayor’s Cheer Fund.” Streets Ahead is a registered charity which provides psycho-social support to street children and empowers them with life skills which they will use later in life.
The mayor also urged the organisation to maintain a register of street children so that all efforts aimed at assisting them will be meaningfully directed.
Government has in the past taken a tough stance on the social problem but has now adopted a partnership approach with street child-oriented organisations to help the children to reintegrate into society.
Streets Ahead provides a youth-centred empowerment method called participatory socialisation which is aimed at equipping youths with skills for survival and enabling them to become socially responsible.
Musician Mike Madamombe, also known as Mic Inity, made a special appeal to various sectors of society to help remove children from the streets before dishing out a thrilling performance for the gathering.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to take care of these children. We intend to help the children for a good cause,” he said.
The young men and women are often unsafe in the streets. Sometime last year, a young man living at a disused council flat in the Kopje area was shot dead by a senior police officer and another was knifed to death in a brutal attack by an unknown assailant under unclear circumstances.
Some of them, now past the age where they could simply beg for alms, have devised an alternative survival strategy – crime – which however puts them on a collision course with law enforcement agents.
Some of the children that attended the mayor’s party indicated that they had a tough time last year as they fought running battles with the police.
According to Tembinkosi Gumbo, a social worker in Harare, among these young men’s survival strategies are “illegal activities like pick-pocketing, theft and shoplifting”.
The fact that the government does not have clear-cut intervention mechanisms to assist these adult street dwellers, he adds, means they are in a catch-22 situation. What is needed, Gumbo suggests, is to “assist these young adults through skills training (and) income-generating projects”.
An administrator with Just Children Foundation, Christine Sabawu, says more needs to be done.
She suggested it might be helpful if council employed the young men as rank marshals and channelled their energy towards productive work.