A seven-year ordeal: A street child’s experience in Burundi

Seeing things no child should see, sleeping on boxes and asking strangers for money to buy food.

By Nicholas Ledner
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
29 June 2016

For Aimable and his younger brother Timothée, every day of the past seven years was a struggle to survive. The two boys had been living on the streets of Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura, sleeping on boxes and asking strangers for money to buy food. Now, thanks to the UNICEF-supported Kabondo Football for Hope Centre, they are finally reunited with their family and attending primary school.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, 29 June 2016 – Aimable was sleeping on the side of the road one evening. A car stopped near him and the driver asked why he was there. He explained that he is homeless and spends his days in that area asking for money. The driver drove off, but a few minutes later, returned with milk and bread. This was one of Aimable’s happiest memories from sleeping on the street for nearly seven years. He doesn’t have many nice memories from this time. 

At least he had his younger brother Timothée with him. He tried his best to protect his brother, but there was no security for the two boys living on the streets of Bujumbura. They had to fend for themselves. And Aimable felt responsible for his little brother. “One time, I tried to defend my brother from other street children, but got beaten up,” he said. Other times, he was luckier, bribing them with 100 francs to leave them both alone. For seven years, he stayed by his brother’s side. They slept on the ground and used boxes as their mattress. He hated those nights when his brother would wander off and Aimable couldn’t protect him. After all, Aimable wasn’t only Timothée’s brother, but also his guardian. 

Seeing things no child should see

Aimable and his brother left home simply because their father lost his job and their family had no money to feed the two oldest children. They don’t seem to blame their father. They understand. In the streets, Aimable can ask for money, he can buy something to eat for his brother and himself to continue living. 

Aimable at class in his primary schoo
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Aimable at class in his primary school. As a new student, he is catching up on the education he missed while living on the streets.

On one very good day, Aimable earned 10,000 francs from begging, equivalent to around US$5. That amount of money is a windfall in Burundi – a fragile, crisis-affected country that suffers from widespread poverty. In 2009, there were an estimated 3,250 children living on the streets of Burundi’s three main cities, looking for food and money to survive. That number is potentially higher now, due to the socio-political crisis that broke out in 2015. 

Not only are these children separated from their homes and out of school, they are also exposed to exploitation, abuse, health problems and undernourishment. 

To counteract all those risks, Aimable had a group of friends on the street. They shared everything. They were their own family. They pooled the money they collected. Even if one child made less than the others, they distributed the earnings equally. No child left behind. 

Aimable had dreams of saving up enough to buy his family a house. One they could all live in together. Once, he dreamed he had 20,000 francs, which he delivered back to his mother at home, instructing her to use it to feed the rest of the family, and then promptly returning to the street, where he thought he belonged.

Aimable saw tragic things while living on the street. One recent morning, he awoke to hear there were three dead bodies nearby. He was already in close proximity to them, so he walked over, and that’s when he gazed upon a dead man. This is an image Aimable can’t erase from his mind. He talks about it casually. 

The joy of returning home

After seven years, Aimable and his brother, are now back home with their family, and for the first time, getting a chance to go to school. This is thanks to the UNICEF-supported Kabondo Football for Hope Centre for children living on the streets in the capital of Bujumbura, run by partner NGO Giriyuja. At the centre, children can take showers, wash their clothes and receive hot meals provided by the World Food Programme. For those that need it, medical care and legal assistance are also available, as is a psychologist with whom the children can talk one-on-one about how they feel and what they went through. 


Aimable and his family
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Aimable and his family. After seven years of living on the streets with his brother, the Kabondo Football for Hope Centre helped him return home.

But the centre is designed to act as a transitional space, with the ultimate goal of reuniting children with their families.

“UNICEF’s vision is to see every child being brought up in a family environment,” says Aissa Sow, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Burundi. “In some cases, depending on the outcome of the family tracing, that environment could be with extended family, or trusted and responsible community members. But all children deserve protection and quality care in a family environment.” 

Aimable is now a primary school student, but of course he has a long way to go. He likes mathematics and says the subject comes naturally to him. He just needed the opportunity to go to school to demonstrate his talent. His long term goal is to get a diploma, and then make money to help other children still living on the street. He wants to help them get into school and be with their families, too. 

Aimable’s dad is happy to see his son back home and in school, and reflects on the time the family was separated. “I couldn’t be responsible for my children then, I had no job. I was afraid for them because they had no security,” he says. He is thankful for the UNICEF programme for all it has done to reunite the family and help Aimable and Timothée. He thinks Aimable can grow to take on greater responsibilities, and wishes other children would get the help his family did. The family is whole again. 

Aimable’s main message right now for other street children? 

“Return home and go to school. Stop going in the street and asking people for money. Live with your parents and siblings and be a family. The love from a family is the most special thing in life.”