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Street Children

Kirundo, Burundi, August 9

Street Child
Street Child

There are a lot of street children here.

They wander around town, dressed in rags the colour of the earth, and beg for money. So, of course, we’re a major attraction for them. They follow us around, begging for handouts, or sometimes just stand and stare. When we’re leading workshops, they spend a lot of time peering in the windows, then scatter when we look their way.

I carry a water bottle with me everywhere: an ordinary 1½ liter plastic water bottle. Whenever the water level is low in the bottle, they start asking me for the bottle. Apparently, it’s not the water they want; it’s the bottle. They can sell it in the market or use it themselves.

It’s not clear to me what the situation with these children is. The teachers say they live on the street, that they’re orphans or else their families can’t afford to feed them. The teachers seem generally annoyed by the children’s presence, and shoo them away from time to time. Today it occurred to me, though, that if they were truly without anyone taking care of them, they wouldn’t have such closely cropped hair. Someone cuts their hair, or shaves their heads. So do they have families? Are they trying to raise money for their families? If so, could it be that they go to school, but beg when school is closed?

I should point out that I was pondering the street children during a diploma ceremony at one of the secondary schools, complete with long, drawn-out speeches in Kirundi, and a reception afterwards involving plentiful beer (Amstel and the local brew, Primus) and soft drinks (Fanta lemon and Coca-Cola), as well as hors-d’oeuvres of cheese (imported from somewhere) and other nibbles. Everyone ate and drank in quantity, ignoring the street children peering in the windows as usual.

A couple of our group visited an orphanage a few days ago. A pastor and his wife house 30 street children (girls) in their house and another 30 (boys) in their church. They feed them and clothe them and send them to school, with intermittent help from charities. There are another 60 orphans housed in foster families, but the pastor provides food for them as well every day. A pure, selfless effort, but, if the sheer number of street children is any indication, the need far overwhelms what the pastor and his wife can provide.

(As I wrote this, I was sitting in the hotel’s dining room, which is really more of a patio with a roof. Only quite wealthy people stay here because in Burundi terms it’s quite expensive, about 20 euros a night per room. As I wrote I witnessed my first terrible two’s tantrum since I got here. I guess only rich Burundian kids have tantrums.)

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