Uganda: Karamoja Street Kids

Many children from Karamoja are begging in the capital, Kampala. Comboni Missionary Fr. John Bosco runs a programme to help the street kids and other families displaced in Kampala.

Nakiru Asha Kadera was born in 1995 and grew up in Napak, Karamoja—a poor, rural region in northern Uganda. The first nine years of Asha’s life were happy — playing with siblings, eating mangoes from the trees. But that all changed in 2004 when Asha was separated from her family. Tribal war reached her village and people were fighting over land and resources. As Asha and her sister were coming home from school, gunfire broke out in the town. Asha became disoriented, unable to reach home.

After days of hiding and searching for her family, Asha was hungry and afraid. With nowhere else to go she hopped on a bus bound for Kampala, the capital of Uganda.  Asha knew that the only way to survive was to make her way to the capital city, as many other children from Karamoja had done before her. She travelled more than three hundred miles before arriving in Kampala, where she thought she could find food and shelter.

Once in the capital, Asha found the area she calls the Karamojong family slums. Asha lived in the slums for five years before an aunt found her and took her home to Napak. After reuniting with her family, Asha was sponsored by a non-profit organisation so she could attend school. That bit of luck was not to last, though. Before Asha could complete her education, her family was informed that she had lost her sponsor.

Asha’s mother took on a job to try to pay for school, but it wasn’t enough. Asha was ultimately forced to drop out. She moved back to Kampala, this time living with her aunt, who had promised to pay for school. But three years went by, and Ashas’s aunt refused to pay for her education. Her aunt was abusive and withheld food and other basic necessities during those three years. The abuse became so severe that Asha ended up living on the streets once again at the age of seventeen.

“The slums are dirty and smelly. Most people sleep outside on the ground, even in coldness and rain, and are forced to eat rotten foods from dirty trash cans to survive,” Asha said of her time living on the streets. She witnessed girls being raped in the slum area as well as on the streets where they begged for money or food. “Many [girls and children] were lured or conned by people offering food, clothing, or to put them in school,” she explained. It is unclear what abuses she herself endured while living in the slums.

Eventually, Asha met a Comboni lay missionary who supported her. She lived with the family for a year, translating the Bible into the Karamojong language. Now, at the age of 23, Asha works as a maid twelve hours a day, earning just three thousand Ugandan shillings—that is less than $1 US. She lives in a small apartment she shares with ten girls, aged two to seventeen. Her place is next to the slums where she helps the Street Kids survive.

Though she has dealt with many hardships, Asha remains positive and hopeful. “As a girl who grew up on the street, I knew that life was difficult, but I taught myself never to lose hope, always keeping myself positive even though life was hard, loving others, respecting people. And all that was through loving Jesus Christ and God,” she said. Asha takes comfort from the Bible and her faith. She has a mission.  She wants to help her “brothers and sisters” who still suffer in the slums.

Asha is a role model for the Karamoja Street Kids and it wasn’t long before Comboni Missionary Fr. John Bosco recognised her leadership and compassion. Fr. John Bosco runs a programme to help the street kids and other families displaced in Kampala. Because of her perseverance and dedication to helping her “brothers and sisters.”

Uganda, a country of 40 million people, has 1.8 million orphans, according to the best count available. Ten thousand of these children are exiles from the Karamoja region, and live on the streets of Kampala. At best, they are fending for themselves; at worst, they become prey to those who manipulate, traffic, or even enslave them. They are called the Karamoja Street Kids.

Karamoja is the least developed part of Uganda. It is isolated, poor, and the area of Uganda most affected by infighting and war. For the children of this region, the streets of Kampala might seem like a relief from the constant hunger, insecurity, and violence in their home province.

Photographs of the living conditions are horrifying. In the camp, the children live in shanties built from scraps of metal, plastic, and cardboard; they have minimal adult contact and very little hope for a better life. The camp—or slums, as most people refer to them—provide the children some protection, as they live in a group. It is preferable to living alone on the sidewalks or in alleyways. However, there are literally children raising other small children in the Karamoja Street Kids camp. Whether they were abandoned, lured, or orphaned, and no matter their age, living on the streets is a horrible reality for these children.

Most of the Karamoja street children are not as fortunate as Asha. There are some programmes to help the children; however, there are few opportunities once they become adults.

The AIDS crisis, war, abandonment, and other economic issues caused a widespread epidemic of orphaned children across Uganda. Some ended up on the streets, while others moved in with relatives. In some cases, older children began caring for younger siblings. Families became overstrained, impoverished and homeless, as famine increased. The situation in Karamoja is dire for many families. That’s why children, rarely accompanied by parents, began to travel the 380 miles from Karamoja to Kampala—often on foot or sometimes as stowaways on buses and delivery trucks.

They hope to find a better life in the city, but are usually misled by promises of jobs or education. Ultimately, they end up on the streets picking through garbage, begging, prostituting, working odd jobs, and otherwise being exploited by adults, police, and older children. In order to survive, gangs often form for support and protection. These child-clans become increasingly more corrupt as children are exposed to violence, sexual abuse, alcohol, and drugs.

When the situation became dire in 2007, the government began gathering the Karamojong children and returning them to various regions in Karamoja. However, because of the continued poverty, abuse, and starvation, the children faced in their home communities, many returned to begging in Kampala. In response, the government set up “rehabilitation” schools; such as the Katwe Child Street Rehabilitation Community School, in areas of resettlement, so that children would have food, shelter, and education.

These shelters rely on peer mentors, adults to stand in as parents, and the promise of food to keep the kids from going back to street life. However, many were addicted to drugs, sex, and violence and saw the centres as prisons. There has been some success in rehabilitating children. However, many are still starving or have minimal food. The situation is grim as the influx of children to Kampala continues.

The government has implemented more programmes to teach kids skills and is cracking down on child labour. Police monitor the streets to ensure that begging children do not have access to the traffic lanes. They hope that the new measures, combined with programs to reintegrate kids and teens, will get children off of the streets.

Even Comboni missionaries in Kampala continue to reach out to the Karamoja Street Kids. Because of his new programme, Fr. John Bosco was able to help Asha. The Comboni Missionaries, with the support of friends and benefactors, hope to help even more children over the next several years. (Sarah J. Stephens)

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