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West African Street Kids Face Bleak Future

Kids who live in the streets are a growing problem in West African cities. Troubled youths, orphans, and children with family problems often run away from their homes in small villages and wind up in cities surviving off what they can beg and steal. As Naomi Schwarz reports from the Senegalese city of Thies even the volunteers who try to help these children are suffering from a lack of resources.

In a compact square, near the center of Thies, a small Senegalese city 60 kilometers east of the capital, a group of boys hang out on benches, on a windy day.

Idrissa Diop is one of them.

He does not work, he says, and he does not go to school. Both his parents have passed away.

It was a long time ago, he says, when he was eight-years-old.

Now Diop, 18, says he lives with his grandmother in a nearby village, but it has been a long time since he was there.

"I do not sleep there," he says. "I sleep here," he continues, gesturing to the small square where he and the others have been sitting around.

Nearby, another man, Modou Barry, who hangs around with the kids, spits out a rag he has been sucking on.

The rag was infused with a drug, says Jean Badiane Seck, a volunteer with the Association for the Protection and Promotion of Youths (ASPJ).

Ignace Thomas, another volunteer, says drug and alcohol habits are some of the reasons these youths ended up on the streets to begin with.

Their families would punish and yell at them for drinking too much, he says, and the boys did not want to be told what to do, so they would leave.

In other cases, he says, there are family problems that lead the youth to leave. It is difficult to come by accurate statistics about the number of children living on the streets of West Africa, but there are many examples, and few opportunities for help.

Seck recounts the story of a young man who left home when his mother remarried. He did not get along with his stepfather. Like other runaways, he slept in the streets and survived by begging, taking small jobs, and stealing. When he became sick with tuberculosis, he wanted to go back home.

We called his mother, Seck says, but she refused to accept him back.

ASPJ organized medical treatment for him, but by the time they tried to bring him to the hospital he had disappeared.

The group has been working to with runaways in Thies for more than 10 years. Founded by a sociologist from a nearby village, the association used to have a shelter that offered programs in the arts and skills for street kids. They also offered start-up money and advice to help some youths find legitimate employment.

But the lack of funds forced them to close the center a few years ago. Now, equipped only with a pharmacy in a duffel bag, Seck and Thomas and other volunteers go out on the streets to find the runaways.

Mame Couna Thioye, an activist with a Senegalese-based human rights non-governmental organization, says the number of kids on the streets is growing.

She says the problem is that people are not enforcing laws designed to protect children.

She says, legally, all children under the age of 15 should be in school, but many are not.

Families, driven by poverty, see children as an extra helping hand and send them to work.

And, Thioye says, when troubled kids rebel or run away from a problem situation at home, there is no state mechanism to help them.