Khartoum, Sudan — Four barefoot boys in torn, old clothes trot toward the railroad station. One of them, Saif-el din Abdulla, 11, has a few scraps of bread in a small cardboard box. Pausing to talk to Munir Ahmed, director of a local program for street children, Saif says he and his friends will eat the bread later. Although their search for food is a daily ordeal, they share what they find, beg, or steal.
These boys are about to stow away on a train to visit their families in distant towns. But they will probably be back, attracted to the cinemas and the ``freedom of the street,'' a social worker says.
The number of street children in Africa is on the rise. The reasons for this seem almost as endless as the children themselves. In Sudan, some were orphaned or displaced by the war in the south. Some have fled famine in their villages. And some, like Saif, come from families to poor to keep them fed and sheltered. Many others are ``throw-aways,'' children parents no longer want, says Mr. Ahmed (who prefers to be called Munir), director of Sabah, a center for street children here.
Very few of the children are girls. The ones that are often work as prostitutes.
There is concern here that today's street children may become tomorrow's criminals. So Sudan is trying to help some of them draw on their energy, resourcefulness, and sense of sharing to build a sound future for themselves - and their society.
Sleeping on dusty sidewalks or in sewer pipes, and wandering the streets, these children may seem to have little to look forward to. But for a number of them, the future appears to be brightening.
A dozen or so, like 14-year-old Sunday Dud, are still on the streets, but now they have bicyles and a job delivering mail under a creative courrier program called SKI, for Street Kids Incorporated. Soon they will be offered language and math classes. Sunday hopes to earn enough money ($25) to go back to school, and to visit his mother in the south.
Sabah is sponsoring training in welding and carpentry for a number of the older youths. Some 40 are trained and employed. Eighty have been trained and are seeking employment, and another 60 are still in the nine-month courses. Sabah also offers food, limited medical care, and counseling for street children.
Another program has reunited some 150 street children with their families in Nyala, Sudan, one of many towns from which street children come to Khartoum. But only those placed in job training in Nyala tend not to return to the streets of Khartoum, says a program worker.
Often these ``street kids are the top achievers ... mostly likely to succeed,'' says Cole Dodge, who heads Unicef in Sudan. The youths in the off-hours training program outperformed the regular students, he says. ``I think the idea of technical training for street children is applicable to many cities in the world,'' he adds.
Jukeri Wani of the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) says more centers for street children are needed. Sabah social worker Hanan Hilali says other cities need to build more cinemas and sports facilities to keep the children from being so attracted to Khartoum.
There may be as many as 10,000 street children in Sudan, half of them in the Khartoum area, says Dr. Wani. But no one knows exactly. So far, SKI and Sabah have helped only a fraction. While Latin America and Asia have long had more street children than Africa, some experts say that Africa - which has the fastest growing population - will outpace them.
In the early morning, dozens of boys can be found curled up together in groups outside a police station. They often sleep there, says Munir, because elsewhere they face homosexual attacks. Many street children, however, participate voluntarily in homosexual acts, he notes. And a number of them have sexually transmitted diseases, including ``some'' cases of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
The children have nothing but their clothing and a few rubber bands around their wrists. They exchange the rubber bands for cinema tickets (the ticket takers use them to bind currency). A boy I had met earlier gave me one of his rubber bands. I'm still wearing it.