Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Living down and out

Living down and out

Keeping warm by a fire. Pictures by JACK ZIMBA.

Beauty says she wants to own her own shop.

A boy displays a V symbol.

Still can smile.

The kids play soccer.

THE morning rush-hour traffic is heavy and slow on the fly-over on Church Road, Lusaka, as people get to their daily work.
But under this same bridge, it is a different day for homeless children who have made this sordid place, reeking with urine, their home.
I find about 25 kids, some as young as 10-years-old, including girls, huddled together under the bridge.
Almost everyone has a small bottle of bostik held to their mouth or concealed under their clothing. They sniff on the clear liquid for a kick.
The feeling is like sniffing petrol.
When they are high, the kids become zombies. Their speech becomes slurred, their eyes squint and lips become dry and parched.
Others seem completely out of sync with life itself, whether due to substance abuse or the trauma life on the streets offers, who can tell?
When I ask for the leader of the group, one girl introduces me to Brutal, a young man with a missing front tooth and a rough look.
But Brutal is gentle and the big brother who looks out for everyone here.
Brutal’s real name is Joseph Mwamba.
When he was given the nickname, he did not even know what the word meant, but now he knows and it worries him.
Now 23, Brutal has lived on the streets for the past 17 years.
He has already been to prison once, but he says it was for a crime that he never committed.
One day in 2015, his friends stole from a vehicle in Norththmead, but police found Brutal on the scene and arrested him.
He served one year six months in prison.
Brutal is now scared to patronise the streets in Northmead.
“It’s dangerous there,” he says.
But that does not make this place any better. Life is harsh under the bridge.
The kids depend on handouts from organisations and individuals.
And today is their lucky day. Some missionaries have brought them loaves of bread and juice, which they all share and eat.
Later, the boys play football on an impossibly small open space littered with broken glass. Two used tyres serve as goal posts.
With the football World Cup under way in Russia, there seems to be more eagerness to play the Beautiful Game from the players.
There is hard tackling and diving from the goalkeepers and a lot of dust. The game attracts a small number of spectators, among them pedestrians on the bridge.
The boys play for over two hours, until the small ball of waste plastics and strings comes apart from the hard kicking.
There is a deep sense of camaraderie within the group, something which seems quite odd considering everyone’s rough appearance and crude language.
A little boy called John cozies up to Brutal, playfully leaning onto him, placing his head in his lap.
Brutal pets him like his own kid brother.
“We live like brothers and sisters here,” says Samson Chilufya, an older boy who has spent many years on the streets.
Beauty Lubinda is 19-years-old and clearly the godmother of the group. When there is food, she is the one to share, helped by the other girls.
There are seven girls in the group.
Beauty came from Livingstone after the death of her parents, but ended up on the streets after she faced abuse.
She has been on the streets since she was nine.
All the kids I meet mention abuse as the main reason for choosing life on the street.
Beauty only went up to Grade Seven and has no interest in school anymore.
“I can’t go back to school,” I just want money to start a business,” she says.
Beauty is very enterprising. A few weeks ago, she started a business, selling cigarettes, energy drinks and spirits right under the bridge.
“I want to open up my own shop,” she tells me.
In the afternoon, I sit with Brutal on disused rail wheels, for an interview.
We are joined by Dalitso Tembo, a young man who walks with a stagger.
Dalitso was only about four when he started living on the streets. He has been on the streets for 20 years now.
He came from Mufulira in the Copperbelt and now says he wants to go back to his family.
As we chat, Dalitso suddenly passes out, slips from the wheel and slams his head onto the ballast on the side of the railway line. For a moment, he seems unconscious, irresponsive to the calling of his mates.
Brutal walks over to check him out, seemingly worried.
After a few seconds, the young man suddenly sits up as if nothing happened.
He does not grimace or even touch the area of impact in the fall.
Soon, as if someone turned a switch in his brain, he gets engaged in our conversation.
The young men want jobs to take them off the streets.
Brutal dreams of having his own home and family.
In 2005, Brutal and Dalitso were enrolled in a skills training programme by the Zambia National Service where they learnt carpentry.
But when they came back, there were no jobs (besides both were under the employment age) and so they returned to the streets.
But others were more fortunate, they got employed by the military wing.
“We usually see one of the guys we were with in uniform driving a nice car,” says Dalitso.
That government programme was discontinued years ago.
When night falls, so do the temperatures. But not everyone has a blanket here.
“We were given blankets by the church people, but some of them were stolen,” says Beauty.
Those who do not have blankets keep warm at a fire then sleep during the day.
Harsh as the conditions are here, Dalitso says the streets now are safer than they were when he was a young boy.
“Back in the days, life on the street was really hard and dangerous. Older men used to beat us up and grab our things,” says Dalitso.
Brutal reckons there are about 150 children living on the streets in this vicinity, each group keeping to their own turf.
It is past 19:00 hours when I meet Precious outside Levy Park Mall.
She is only 14, spritely and confident, even though she tells me she has not been on the streets for a long time.
Precious is walking back to the bridge to join the group. She is worried because she is not sure she will eat tonight.
“I had gone to buy scones, but the little shop is closed,” she tells me.
Precious only has K2 in her pocket, not enough to get her anything from the big mall.
She is delighted when I offer to buy her fries and chicken from a famous outlet at the mall.
As she stands at the counter in the fast food outlet, she is clearly the odd one out – dirty clothes and unkempt hair.
She also has a bottle of bostik hidden under her dark coat.
Her food pack secured, she disappears back to her dingy dwelling 300m away. At least tonight she will eat something delicious. Who cares about tomorrow, it has its own uncertainties, whether rich or poor.
On a frigid Friday morning, with temperatures falling to 11 degrees Celsius in the city, I find the boys and girls warming up to a fire.
Three small boys engage in a game of cards while they sniff on the bostik.
Beauty is already standing by her merchandise, eager to sell.
Dalitso is still sleeping under the bridge, his whole body covered with a bed sheet.
I hope he is fine.

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