"Street children are a new phenomenon in Africa," said Bishop Emilio J. M. de Carvalho, confirming an October report in The New York Times that addressed this issue. Episcopal leader for the Western Angola Conference, Bishop de Carvalho said that his conference found it necessary to consult with experts from other regions of the world where the tragedy of homelessness among large numbers of young people has occurred.
The Times article reported that the tradition in Africa of extended family taking in orphans no longer prevails. The devastation of war compounded by the AIDS pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented number of orphans. Subsequently, economically strapped relatives are finding it impossible to care for large numbers of children and are thus turning them away. To survive, these children sell goods, beg, and steal. Street children of Angola willingly accept a piece of bread or any remains from a meal that a passerby is willing to share. Sometimes the children do not ask, but in desperation simply snatch food being consumed by someone on the street. At night these children sleep in war-torn buildings and gutted vehicles that litter the countryside.
Mrs. Marilina de Carvalho, director for children's work in Angola, told how one group of homeless street children came to the church and requested permission to use garage space to care for a friend who was being released from the hospital without a place to stay. The young boy had been injured darting through traffic to sell goods for one of the many unscrupulous merchants who exploit street children. Giving the children a pittance of the profits, merchants have the youths hawking everything from cigarettes to alcohol.
Mrs. de Carvalho says that The United Methodist Church has rescued many of the young people through the child centers sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries. With a feeding component, the various child centers have helped children as young as age ten. Unfortunately, the centers are located far from the city, making transportation a necessity. " For a while, we were able to pick up the children and take them to the locations, but we are presently without a vehicle to continue this part of our program," Mrs. de Carvalho expressed with regret. "What we do now is simply serve neighborhood children in the vicinity. We provide them with food, clothing, and school fees when possible. Some of the street children still attempt to reach the centers but are finding the distances too far for them to attend with frequency. This is unfortunate because our programs can provide a level of stability for them. These children look to us for structure in their lives. They tell us they want to learn skills to read, write, type. Many ask about the new technology, but we lack computers and teachers for such training."
Mrs. de Carvalho noted that the cut-off age for working with young adults in the centers is 18. "We have, of course, had to make exceptions," she added, recalling a desperate young woman who showed up at age 20 begging to participate. "She was an orphan without immediate family members and had never even been taught how to spell or write her name. After we teach older students basic academic skills, we try to introduce them to an employable trade. It is sad to see 14-, 15-, and yes, even 20-year-olds who start school for the first time," Mrs. de Carvalho reported. "But this is where the many years of turmoil in our country has left us." She expressed gratitude for funds which had come from the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries to help undergird work related to street children.
An assessment of the plight of street children throughout the continent indicates that the need for financial support continues to grow. Release of UNICEF's 1999 annual report on "The State of the World's Children" predicts that illiteracy rates will escalate in the next century because one out of four children in the poorest nations are not in school. Angola alone has more than 50% of children under age 12 who do not attend school.
Mrs. Angela Branganca, Director of the National Institute for Children in Angola, acknowledges that the government should be doing more, but adds that the department she heads [like other government agencies] is facing extreme economic difficulty after 30 years of war. "Children's lives have been devastated not only physically but psychologically from living in the midst of war," declares Mrs. Branganca. "In addition to losing family members, millions of children have had their education interrupted," she stresses. "Our department attempts to address the mounting needs of these children but cannot meet them all. So we are working with churches and NGO's (nongovernmental organizations). . . . A major problem is that our health system and municipal institutions were all destroyed by the war, and the towns were not ready to receive the numbers of people that flocked to them. We are hoping that lasting peace will come because the country cannot afford this continuous political struggle. . . ."
Bishop and Mrs. de Carvalho expressed a strong desire for a day when not only Angola but all of Africa would know peace. In the meantime, United Methodist churches in Africa along with U.S. partner churches continue to pray and do all they can to address this urgent need.
Support for children in crisis throughout the continent of Africa can be channeled through The Bishops' Appeal: Hope for The Children of Africa or Children's Ministries, Africa (UMCOR) #101225-3.
Specific support for street children in Angola may be directed to Angola Ministry to Street Children #101225-3.
December 22, 1998
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