New Internationalist

Tanya:’Its better to die of AIDS than hunger’

Issue 377

Tanya, 14, sometimes sits so still it seems that she’s in another world. Her frame is slight and fragile. But in her tattered black T-shirt and faded denim skirt, she appears worldly wise. She describes what she does to stay afloat in Zimbabwe’s tide of troubles.

Andrew Kokotka
Andrew Kokotka

‘The streets of Harare are my home.’

Sitting in the shadow of a closed shop front, Tanya reaches for some morsels of bread on the floor beside her, always on the lookout for movements around her.

‘I was 10 when my parents died of AIDS-related diseases almost five years ago. First to die was my mother, who was buried in her rural home of Bindura. The death of my father – a soldier – followed. When my daddy died he had been struggling with diseases for about five years.

‘Soon after the death of my father I was evicted from the house where my parents lodged in Mbare [a densely populated suburb]. I went to stay with my grandmother who lives in Mabvuku [another high density area]. There were 10 of us children staying there and we had all been left by deceased relatives. Life was difficult because, being an old woman, my grandmother had no means of sustaining herself and all of us at the same time.’

The tears she has been holding back now burst forth. ‘When I was living there, I had to do all the routine household chores like sweeping the house, doing the dishes and the laundry, before bathing and going off to school. It was not long before I was forced to drop out of school because my grandmother could not afford it. Where do you think I could get money for school fees when there was no-one working in the whole house? But I have a dream: to go back to school and learn how to speak English – good English. I can already speak a little bit of English just to beg from white people.

‘Life is not easy on the streets. How can you talk to people who are hungry?’

This is Tanya’s indirect way of asking for money: ‘I have not eaten anything since yesterday morning… and I want money to take my “sister” to the hospital.’

Special guidelines used for this edition

To protect the integrity of the children in this edition and their stories, we followed guidelines worked out beforehand by street children’s charities. All the children consented to talk with our reporters after being told where and how their stories would be published. Their views have been recorded without censorship. They have been able to withdraw from the project at any point and strike out things they decided not to share with a wider audience.

Names have been routinely changed. Photographs were taken with the active participation of the children. Where sexual exploitation was an important aspect of their testimony or where children were not comfortable being photographed, visual anonymity has been maintained.

Her ‘sister’ is another street child – Joyce – who sits beside her and listens to her every word. ‘She has not been well for some time. She has njovera [a Shona word for sexually transmitted infections (STI)].’

Joyce puts her finger on Tanya’s mouth to get her to shut up. Then Joyce says accusingly: ‘She is also suffering from njovera… Tanya tell the truth!’ The girls accuse each other of having an STI. It finally emerges that Joyce has the infection. Tanya explains how she got it. ‘The streets are full of people who want to hurt and use other people, especially those of us who are younger. So you have to be ready and you must always watch out for yourself. Men pick us up here – not just common men. Joyce was picked up by a man who was driving a Pajero.’

Joyce interjects: ‘The old business guy asked me to take a bath before he slept with me the entire night. The man did not use a condom, because he said that if he did he would only give me a few dollars.’

Tanya nods to show that Joyce is telling the truth and continues: ‘The guys usually ask us to bathe before we have sex with them. Sometimes they give us food… with luck some money as well. We are not doing this because we enjoy it. We know the risks involved but we are poor and hungry and there is not much else we can do.

‘Some sugar daddies [older men involved in relationships with young girls, sexually abusing them for money] are our clients because they have the money to give us. I know it sounds scary but just think of yourself in the same situation: what would you do if you were a street kid with the chance to make $20,000 [Zimbabwean dollars, about US$3] just for having sex with someone?

‘Even if they don’t use a condom, it’s not like I was ever going to make much out of my life anyway. I don’t see myself ever leaving these streets and having a better life, so I might as well do something that will help me to survive for the moment as tomorrow is another day.

‘I’m afraid to visit the hospital for HIV tests. But if I cannot have sex with these men, eventually I’ll die of hunger. It is better to die of AIDS than hunger.’

As she speaks her eyes show the telltale signs of a person who has had no decent sleep in a long time. Her eyelids look heavy and she explains that she spends most of her nights half-awake warding off potential bullies and rapists, while the days are spent rummaging through bins and rubbish heaps in search of edible scraps.

‘We hate cops. We’re not best of friends because they sometimes beat us up, accusing us of loitering and littering the city. My life is one of constant fear of being caught by the police and being returned to the “camps”.’

Street children in Zimbabwe

The estimated number of street children in Zimbabwe is 12,000. They are the casualties of the country’s HIV/AIDS tragedy in addition to the economic and political turmoil. UNICEF reports that 34 per cent of adult Zimbabweans are HIV-positive. Life expectancy has dropped from 52 years in 1990 to a shocking 37 years. One million Zimbabwean children have already been orphaned as a result of AIDS-related deaths alone. Most of the estimated 300 people who die from AIDS-related illnesses each week are unable to afford treatment and are usually sent home to die after a brief and rarely helpful stay in hospital. (Zimbabwe has for the past four years experienced acute shortages of hard currency and essential imports, including medicines.)

With African traditions of communities caring for children eroding under such pressure, the orphans are often left struggling to care for their younger siblings. Street children face the constant threat of violence – often sexual. The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe reports that 19 per cent of all women in the country had been raped in their lifetime – a percentage that is bound to be higher for those living exposed on the streets. Boys are not immune.

The Government has adopted an ambitious National Plan of Action for orphaned and vulnerable children aimed at providing basic services for at least a quarter of the country’s orphans by the end of the year. The chances of success, however, may be judged by the Government’s track record in other areas.

Working to help are Streets Ahead PO Box CY 2265 Causeway Harare Email: streetsahead@zol.co.zw Tel/fax: +263 4705074 Streets Ahead reaches out to street children, especially new arrivals to the city, offering them support, skills training and treatment for STIs.

Tanya remembers vividly when she and her friends were picked up and beaten by the police and then dumped many kilometres from Harare. ‘The police bundled us up and left us for dead. We spent the entire night at the police camp. And some of the police officers forced us to sleep with them. They promised to free us if we complied with their demands, so I slept with one of the cops. Like anybody else I want to survive.

‘At home they call me Tanyaradzwa, but here on the streets I’m better known as Tanya. I’m a sister to many, a friend to a few, and a “wife” to some. We have been sleeping in this park for the past four years.’

I'm a sister to many, a friend to a few, and a 'wife' to some

The main entrance of the park is adorned with a billboard urging residents to keep the city clean and maintain its reputation as the ‘Sunshine city’. ‘There is nobody who can come and claim this place. This other boy [another street child] wanted to remove me from this place but I fought him off. For your information I’m a good fighter. I fear nobody, nobody!

‘We scavenge in the rubbish bins for food and beg for money. But the amount we get from begging is not enough. Sometimes people give, sometimes not. It is not good to beg. It makes me feel real bad inside. We’re sometimes hired for amounts ranging from Z$20,000 for a short time to Z$150,000 [$27] if you want our service for a whole night. We also earn money by working at a nightclub on Nelson Mandela Avenue that opens as early as 12 noon.

‘It is bad on the streets. Sometimes it is very cold and wet. We cannot eat properly. We often get sick. We eat junk food from the rubbish – what you call leftovers. We go through the bins when the shops close. You often get chips in the bins – sometimes a bit of old salad. But we go very, very hungry and we have no proper clothes to wear. If I can find someone who can assist me, I’ll go back to school. After school, then I want to find work. I don’t know what, anything good.

‘And when I have money, I will not forget all the people on the streets. Perhaps I’ll give them clothes to wear when it’s cold. Perhaps I’ll help them get food. I cannot ever forget the others on the streets because it is so bad.’

Tanya spoke to Stanley Karombo, a correspondent with Inter Press Service and Voice of America radio.

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