Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is as busy a place as any in the world. There are swarms of people, crowded streets and traffic jams. The streets of Kinshasa are always bustling—but for a child growing up on the streets, it is one of the toughest places I have seen for anything resembling a happy childhood. So Save the Children is working in Kinshasa to strengthen family and community networks to prevent family separation caused when families are too poor to support their kids and provide assistance to children in need.
When I traveled to DRC earlier this month I met Exancé, a 13 year-old boy who calls the Kinshasa streets home. Exancé had been expelled from his family when his parent’s marriage failed—not an uncommon occurrence. The break-up of his family led him to a secluded courtyard by a city marketplace, where he begged for food from traders or money from passing motorists. He was hungry, withdrawn and so far removed from the life that a 13 year-old should have. But thanks to a local merchant who volunteers for Save the Children to identify at-risk street children, was placed in a safe place to live—a transitional center run by a local partner—and have a chance to reclaim some of the sense of childhood that he lost. Best of all, the world to try to reconnect him to his parents would begin.
Exancé is one of the lucky ones, and safe accommodation may make all the difference. At one such residential center for young boys, Centre BanayaPoverda, I met Gabriel—a 15 year-old whose story is very much a parallel to Exancé’s. When his father remarried after the death of his mother, he was beaten and kicked out of the house with no other option than to join the thousands of other street children. But when he found a place at BanayaPoverda, he got the opportunity to attend school and work with a social worker who is now trying to find him a foster family. Chatting with Gabriel, I was struck by how animated and engaged he was—and how different from Exancé, that quiet, tiny boy I met in the market. Gabriel has made friends at the center and is making plans to become a tailor after he finishes school.
These centers provide so much more than shelter. Children are fed, enrolled in school and supervised, but they’re also taught responsibility—they take care of the center and of each other. The objective in every case is to reunite the children with their own families or find them foster families, to provide them with the family unit that it so crucial in children’s lives.
Exancé and Gabriel’s stories started in the same way, but their experiences as street children were so different that it could have affected their lives in
starkly different ways. Now that Exancé is in a similar situation, I hope that they can both look forward to what’s next and make plans for their own futures.
For now, though, it’s enough that they have a safe place to sleep and people looking out for them so they can enjoy being children again. In hectic Kinshasa, it can be incredibly difficult to find the path back to childhood when it has been interrupted—but Save the Children is doing all we can to help point the way.