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Understanding the private lives of 'street children': Interview with Dr Watch Ruparanganda
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
July 14, 2011

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Watch RuparangandaDr Ruparanganda spent 15 months researching the lives and sexualities of street dwelling children and young adults, culminating in his study titled Genitals are Assests? Sexual and Reproductive Behaviors of "Street Children" of Harare, Zimbabwe, in the era of the HIV and AIDS Pandemic (Lambert Academic Publishers). As a result of his experiences Dr Ruparanganda has become a staunch advocate for the rights of street dwellers.

What prompted you to undertake this study?
Previous studies had only scratched the surface and focussed on issues of scavenging, the attitudes of these children and those of society. I felt there was a need to really go into the world of these children and youths and try to understand them from within. I wanted to go into their private lives on the streets. Also I had realised that most of the NGOs dealing with children in Harare had failed to get out of the mode of operation of only thinking about small children, not realising that the problem was quite huge. These children were becoming adults and having children on the streets. Most of these NGOs are still operating the same way they used to operate in the 80s, and yet we can now talk of a street community, a constituency. We can talk of a quasi tribe; they have their own subculture and even language. You can see that they lead their own life on the streets, although you find that their behaviour patterns and attitudes towards life also reflect what is happening in mainstream society. Especially when you look at gender relations, boys want to behave like men in mainstream society objectifying women and girls on the streets, and also mystifying their activities as part of their constructions of masculinity.

What aspects of their subculture did you find most interesting?
You find the language they use, because of the attitude of mainstream society, of condemning them and marginalising them, they have developed a language to hit back at society. They have what we call street lingo, like when they are talking of STIs, they call it sko'ngo. It took me time to understand these children when they were talking amongst themselves. When they are referring to masturbation, which is quite prevalent, they call it gwetengwe. They have codes they use to communicate even about security issues. When they are referring to Remand Prison, it is called Reeds. I discovered that what we, as mainstream society, consider to be unacceptable, they consider it acceptable like foul language, stealing, snatching things. It's part of their livelihood.

Would you say that this is a sub-culture that has arisen in reaction to mainstream society?
They are reacting to the negative attitude and hatred by mainstream society. Yet the street does not become pregnant. The street does not bear children. It's like society shooting itself in the foot. It has neglected part of itself.

What are the origins of street dwelling in Zimbabwe?
I deliberately went into the socio-historical context of the phenomena. You find that in pre-colonial traditional communities, the extended family systems were intact. There was no visible orphan hood. I am reminded of Hard Times where Charles Dickens describes the difficulties faced by children during the early years of the industrial revolution. The same happened and is continuing to happen in Zimbabwe. Where you now find that because of urbanisation and industrialisation all these problems are attributable to modernity, colonisation, independence; they are continuities rather than discontinuities. The spirit of ubuntu has been blocked. You don't care about the next person and how they are surviving; this is how we get children on the streets. People have now become individualistic because of the new way of life. People no longer bother about their own kin who are in the rural areas. This is an irreversible process. Listen

Do you think Zimbabwean society is evolving in a way that will be able to meet those deficiencies?
At the moment it's difficult to say, especially when one looks at the performance of our economy. [Government] can't intervene meaningfully to assist street children. This is why we have found other arms of the government coming in to use a punitive approach of harassing and abusing these children. This is a human rights issue because Zimbabwe is a signatory to the rights of the child. It makes me angry. I get emotional when young children get harassed. They are loaded onto lorries and dumped hundreds of kilometres away and they have to walk back. It has been happening since the mid 80s. International organisations are here, like Save the Children, but which children are they saving? We have so many organisations purporting to be for children, but when you go to the streets and you live there like I did for more than fifteen months, you don't see any officer from any of those organisations. We talk of HIV/AIDs, we talk of STIs; the girl child on the streets is being abused and no one bothers. Listen

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