Bringing street children back home

Ousmanou, 13, has lived in the streets of Cameroon’s political capital Yaoundé for four months. He and his brother used to live with their grandmother in the northern city of Maroua but she could not afford to feed them properly.

Now Ousmanou often forages for food in trash bins.

“We often have no choice but to search the garbage for something to eat,” he told IRIN, nursing an arm injury for which he said he cannot afford to see a doctor. He said he has been unable to find work as he had hoped and has turned to begging.

Ousmanou is among what authorities say is a growing number of street children in Cameroon’s cities. Despite the country's relative stability and substantial natural resources, about 40 percent of the people live in poverty – most of them in rural areas – with the number of those unable to meet basic needs rising in the past few years, according to the government.

Some 430 children aged four to 18 live in the streets of Yaoundé and the commercial capital Douala, according to government statistics as of December 2008. Authorities estimate that 7 percent are girls.

Under a project launched in 2007 the government has helped 119 street children reunite with their families, with 62 of the children returning to school, according to Luc André Bayomock with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The government's ongoing programme to bring children off the streets requires significant time and resources including skilled social services workers and food and shelter for children during the process, Bayomock said. The Social Affairs Ministry is seeking partnerships with humanitarian agencies and with other ministries to boost these resources, he told IRIN.

Reasons for children ending up in the streets vary, from economic hardship to family conflicts to peer pressure, according to ministry interviews with children. Many children in Yaoundé told IRIN they left home desperate to find work, their families unable to support them. But most said they regret their decision, having hit a dead end.

Photo: Reinnier Kazé/IRIN
Street youths sleeping alongside a road in Cameroon's political capital Yaoundé

B. Simon, 15, who ran away from home two months ago and lives in the streets, told IRIN: “Initially I was excited by the idea of finally being free. I thought I was finally going to do whatever I wished, but little by little I understood that life in the streets is difficult. It is horrible."

He added: “Children are used to transport drugs; they are recruited into gangs."

Some of the youths IRIN spoke to in Yaoundé are from neighbouring countries, where Cameroon is seen by many as a sure route to employment.

“A friend advised me to come to Cameroon, telling me there is work and money to be had here,” 18-year-old Moussa, a native of Nigeria, told IRIN. “But since I arrived [two months ago], I have seen nothing of that.”

The Cameroon government says a lack of jobs is one of the main causes of poverty in the country.

Ousmanou said he is eager to return home to northern Cameroon, despite what he calls “too much suffering there”, but for now does not have the means.