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Catch me if you can - Ambiguities and Complexities of street children [bashege] of Kinshasa
HENDRIKS, M., PONSAERS, P., MULAMBA TSHONDO, J.,
EU Criminal Justice, Financial & Economic Crime, COOLS, M., DE RUYVER, B., EASTON, M., PAUWELS,
L., PONSAERS, P., VANDER BEKEN, T., VANDER LAENEN, F., VANDE WALLE, G., VERHAGE, A.,
VERMEULEN, G., VYNCKIER, G. (Eds.), Governance of Security Research Papers, Volume 5,
Antwerpen: Maklu, p. 111-128, 2011
To refer to or to cite this work, please use the citation to the published version:
HENDRIKS, M., PONSAERS, P., MULAMBA TSHONDO, J. (2011), Catch me if you can - Ambiguities and
Complexities of street children [bashege] of Kinshasa, in : EU Criminal Justice, Financial & Economic
Crime, COOLS, M., DE RUYVER, B., EASTON, M., PAUWELS, L., PONSAERS, P., VANDER BEKEN, T.,
VANDER LAENEN, F., VANDE WALLE, G., VERHAGE, A., VERMEULEN, G., VYNCKIER, G. (Eds.),
Governance of Security Research Papers, Volume 5, Antwerpen: Maklu, p. 111-128 (ISBN:978-90-
“Catch me if you can”
Ambiguities and Complexities of street children [bashege] of Kinshasa
Maarten Hendriks, Paul Ponsaers, Joseph Mulamba Tshondo
In this article, we will explore the phenomenon of the so-called “bashege”, or street children, in
Kinshasa, the capital and largest city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from a
criminological/ethnographical perspective. Four months of participant observation and
ethnographical interviewing with the Congolese NGO ORPER (Oeuvre de Reclassement et de
Protection des Enfants de la Rue) in Kinshasa have enabled us to develop a rich understanding of
everyday life among the bashege and the ambiguities and complexities they encounter in this
While the presence of street children, or “bashege”, in Kinshasa is not a new phenomenon, their
number has increased dramatically over the last few years (De Boeck, 2005; Mulamba, 2009). In fact,
children and youngsters living on the streets in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have always
existed, but according to Tate (2006), the phenomenon has “exploded” during the last 20 years.
Most authors assert that, generally, street children live in groups, in which they - perhaps surprisingly
- manage to organize themselves in a structured and hierarchical manner. They are often considered,
not as an anarchistic bunch, but as a true gang. As Tate (2006: 29) observes: “Groups of street
children are generally self-organized by age group with a leader. Each group is part of a larger group
that is controlled by a neighborhood leader.” Indeed, during our observations on the streets, we
The authors‟ affiliations are respectively: Maarten Hendriks is student in Criminology at Ghent University.
During his studies, he carried out the fieldwork for this article in Kinshasa in the framework of his internship in
the research group Social Analysis of Security (SVA - Ghent University); Paul Ponsaers is professor at Ghent
University (UGent) in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Law and is co-director of the research group
Social Analysis of Security (SVA - Ghent University); Joseph Mulamba Tshondo is professor at the University
of Kinshasa (UNIKIN) in the Department of Anthropology and is member of the research group „Chaire de
Dynamique Sociale‟ (CDS). He wrote his PhD thesis on the limits of reunification and social integration of street
children in Kinshasa in 2008.
noticed that the younger street children are generally organized “by age group” and often even by
sex. However, the elder “bashege” live, like Geenen (2009: 349) argues, in “a group of around thirty
youngsters (aged approximately fourteen to thirty), both male and female”.
Furthermore, each street gang “possesses” a geographical domain, a so-called secteur (see also
Kahola and Rubbers, 2005), which, according to a former street child and actual employee of the
NGO ORPER, is ‘the territory where a group of “bashege” lives and takes care of their affairs’1. These
are often places that include opportunities, which have something to offer to them, like crowded
market areas with a lot of “ambiance” - such as Bandal and Bon Marché - or important financial and
administrative areas, such as the Gombe, the financial heart in the city centre of Kinshasa.
The Congolese government and inhabitants of Kinshasa look at these “bashege” in the first place as a
safety problem. Media, such as Digitalcongo.net, often refer to these children as a ticking time bomb,
because they are perceived as making the city unsafe with rude and criminal behavior. Although not
all social scientists agree with this perception (as for example Geenen, 2009), we document in this
contribution that it’s very likely that the increasing numbers of street children in the capital of the
DRC is leading to an aggravated problem of pick-pocketing and theft, but to look at them essentially
as criminals is a highly overstated perception.
The etymologic origin of the word “shege”, singular of “bashege”, is not entirely clear. While some
(many street children themselves included) assert that it is derived from the name of “Che Guevara”,
the Cuban freedom fighter who spent some time in the DRC and is still a notorious icon in Kinshasa
street culture (Geenen 2009: 348), De Boeck (2005) claims that the origin of the word “shege” is to
be found in the Luxembourg town of “Schengen”, famous for its treaty that washed away the
internal boundaries between the participating EU countries and resulted in a space of “free traffic of
persons and goods”, the so-called “Schengen Territory”. By analogy, the “bashege” of Kinshasa
would consider their secteur or cité as a sort of micro-Shengen in which the traffic of drugs, sex and
their own bodies is “free”.
After providing a detailed image of everyday “bashege” life: how they end up on the street, earn a
living and cope with a world of violence and abuse, we will examine different strategies of social
reaction on the phenomenon of street children in this contribution. We will take a closer look at
some of the often well-intentioned NGO efforts to “reunite” with and “reintegrate” street children
into their families or at least in a more “normal” society. Furthermore, some of the reasons for the
failures and successes of these NGO projects will be examined.
Finally, the resistance tactics used by these children in view of these NGO actions will be examined.
We will focus particularly on how they deal with their environment and their neighbors and try to
1 Interview with papa Mulumba, head of the mobile center, 16/03/2010.
understand why “bashege” prefer a life on the streets, while there is an abundant offer of education
and professional formation within a variety of NGO projects and programs.
1.1. Methods and methodological difficulties
Spending four months carrying out participant observation during the period of February to May
2010 and ethnographical interviews with the Congolese NGO ORPER (Oeuvre de Reclassement et de
Protection des Enfants de la Rue) gave a lot of insight into the phenomenon of street children in
Kinshasa. Maarten Hendriks, the field researcher, interviewed 12 adults (educators) working in the
framework of ORPER and other NGOs. Moreover, these observations and interviews were
complemented by discussions with Joseph Mulamba Tshondo, professor in anthropology at UNIKIN
(Université de Kinshasa), who wrote his PhD on the subject of street children: “Limites des approches
de récupération et de réinsertion sociale des enfants de rue à Kinshasa: Plaidoyer pour une
contextualisation des stratégies de réintégration durable” (2007-2008). Hendriks was during the
period of his fieldwork in permanent contact with his supervisor, Paul Ponsaers, by means of e-mail.
All fieldnotes were exchanged and commented. This facilitated a constant monitoring of the
The integration of our experiences has enabled us to give a rich description of everyday life among
the bashege and of the ambiguities and complexities they encounter. In an attempt to avoid getting
lost in the bedlam of NGOs in Kinshasa working with street children, we focused on a single one,
namely ORPER2, founded in 1981 by Father Frank of the Catholic congregation of SVD, Societas Verbi
Divini. This NGO is generally considered to be one of the best functioning NGOs working with street
children in Kinshasa because they are well structured, have a lot of experience and their registers are
carefully kept up to date. These registers allowed us to first have a background on a child before
approaching him/her. These registers gave us also an initial idea of the amount of reintegrated
children during a certain period by ORPER (see infra). Our observations and interviews were
complemented with the files the NGO kept on their bashege.
Interviewing educators, heads of the different centers and the director of the pollsters, who is in
charge of the strategy of reintegration, allowed us to obtain an adequate background on the
functioning and the goals of the NGO. In addition to this interviewing, we also conducted participant
observation in the centers, as well as during the evening/night with the centre mobil (see infra) in
2 Kinshasa has more than 150 registered NGOs that have existed for five or more years. The full amount of non-
governmental organizations or projects engaging themselves for street children in Kinshasa is unknown.
different secteurs where street children gather together and/or sleep, which allowed us to penetrate
further into their turbulent environment.
These occasions gave us the opportunity to talk a lot with street children inside and outside the
centers. About 50 interviews were conducted, some of them were more structured than others. All
of the conversations were documented in fieldnotes. The most important obstacle in these
interactions was the fact that “nalobaka Lingala moke moke” or: Hendriks, our field researcher, only
speaks a few words and sentences of Lingala and the majority of the bashege don’t speak French at
all, except some of them in Gombe, where French is their “business language”, because of the many
foreigners present in that main financial centre of Kinshasa. This communication problem made us
strongly dependent on translations from the educators.
In addition to the linguistic difficulties, the bashege are master manipulators and very good in taking
on different roles, depending on the person they are talking to and the situation. They know exactly
how to cope with NGO people, but also how to deal with social scientists. In doing so, they place
themselves, in a “street smart” way, in the role of victim and try to tell you what they think is socially
desirable - e.g. “NGO talk” (see Scheper-Hughes & Hoffman, 1998; Geenen, 2006) - often with the
goal of trying to get a bit of money or even to convince their interlocutor to donate the clothes he or
she is wearing. Plus the fact that an educator (a former gang leader) often accompanied Hendriks
during his field work didn’t make it easy to break through their defenses. This discourse of the
bashege (“poor children as victims”) is often described in other scientific work, as for example
Salmon, Tsimpo and Wodon (2009), in “Nous ne sommes pas dangereux, mais en danger - Les enfants
de la rue à Kinshasa”. In this contribution, we want to break through this stereotype image of street
children in Kinshasa.
1.2. Shege as a category?
A distinction is made by NGOs and some social scientists between the children of the streets and the
youngsters/adults of the streets. Although the word bashege is mostly translated as “street
children”, youngsters and adults are also calling themselves shege. So, an interesting question is
where the difference (which is always to some extent arbitrary) lies. In other words, when is
someone considered to be a “child”, a “youngster”, and an “adult” in today’s Kinshasa? And anyway,
isn’t shege life defying such a “scientific” classification, made for analytical reasons? Aren’t these
children” “playing the adult game” making themselves active agents, and thus defying the western
child/adult classification (De Boeck, 2005)?
However, the field observation in function of this article especially took place at the NGO ORPER,
which from a children’s rights perspective works with all children and youngsters between the ages
of 5 and 18, who permanently spend their lives on the streets of the city and consider these streets
as their home. So although we don’t share the opinion that it would be wise to think of the bashege
as a “category” of “children” and “youngsters” between the ages of 5 and 18 (cfr. supra), we were
limited and bound in our field observation because of the working principles of the NGO ORPER.
Consequently all field data on which this article is based are extracted from street children between
5 and 18 years old.
2. Shege life
2.1. Ending up on the streets
Seen from a European angle, a child on the streets is unacceptable. When a minor runs away from
home, the police will start a serious investigation within 24 hours because his/her disappearance will
be qualified as “suspicious”. If a child is chased away to the streets, the whole community (if known)
will be indignant. The situation in the DRC is different. Street children are a common part of the
street landscape, and instead of feeling sorry for them, many of the Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa)
take a generally hostile stance against them. In this section, we want to describe some of the current
causes of this phenomenon. In other words: How do these children end up on the street? This is
certainly not an obvious matter and is marked by complexity; every child has his/her story and every
situation is different.
Let us take the example of Kalonsi, a 10-year-old boy who can be found in the Popokabaka3 shelter.
His parents are separated and his father is unemployed. After a while, his father labeled Kalonsi and
his sister as “witches” and chased them into the streets. Kalonsi lost track of his sister until now4.
Another, more tragic, witch story is that of the 13-year-old Mishiga. In his case, the troubles and
abuse at home began when he caught his big sister having sexual intercourse with her fiancé in their
parents’ bed. Feeling it was his duty, he told this to his mother, who didn’t believe him or didn’t want
to believe him, fearing that her daughter’s marriage would be cancelled5. Understandably, the sister
was furious with Mishiga afterwards and began to molest him on a regular basis. The other family
members also began to treat the boy as a scapegoat for all the problems they endured and often
beat him. The climax occurred when his little sister died because of a fever. His family accused
Mishiga of witchcraft and being responsible for the death of his little sister. The members of his
family almost beat the boy to death and even cut him with a knife, leaving a huge scar on his left arm
that he hides with a wristband. To finish the job, the family poured petrol over him, with the
intention of burning him alive. Fortunately for Mishiga, some nuns came to his rescue, stopped the
tragedy and took him to the Popokabaka shelter, where Hendriks found him.
3 The shelter for boys, between the ages of five and fifteen, of ORPER. Officially, it is called Foyer père Frank,
but everybody refers to it as Popokabaka, the name of the street.
4 Register of hearings, shelter Popokabaka + interview with Kalonsi. (15/03/2010, rue de Popokabaka).
5 Which would certainly almost be the case if the father of the house knew about and believed the fact.
While speaking to educators during the observations, they all agreed that most children who found
their way to the ORPER shelters are so-called “witch children”. They are seen as the cause of all bad
things that happened to their family. At night - in the so-called “second world” - they are believed to
assemble with other witches, often in a graveyard, eating the human flesh they’ve “hunted”. This
gathering and consumption of human flesh is believed to transfer HIV or other diseases to family
members. Other unfortunate events are also attributed to these “witches”, like unemployment and
famine. In other words: they are considered to be the cause of evil, terrorizing their own family
members and acquaintances, striking them with economic and other difficulties. Consequently
children are increasingly accused of witchcraft and chased into the streets6 (De Boeck, 2005).
In the case of Kalonsi, his own (biological) parents accused him of witchcraft, which is rather rare.
Most often the fences of the family house close when the parents of the child separate. The single
parents will often remarry and the new guardian of the child will, in certain cases, cast off, molest or
accuse the child of witchcraft7. The same story can occur if both parents are dead or absent and the
children have to move in with an uncle, grandmother or other member of the larger family, certainly
in a context of difficult socio-economic circumstances. Once a child is accused of witchcraft, the child
will be chased away and consequently end up on the streets; or in certain cases, he will be left in the
hands of a pastor leading a “church of revival”, a flourishing business in Kinshasa nowadays8. This
church preaches a mixture between traditional and Christian religion (Tate, 2006) and emphasizes
the battle between good and evil, where the figure of the “witch” also receives a prominent place.
Because of that, the children accused of witchcraft are often taken to such a churches to be “healed”
or “delivered”, for a certain price (comparable with “exorcism”). The pastor confirms that the child is
a witch and starts the process of “soul healing” or “deliverance”. This process can take days, weeks
and even months. During this period, the child is placed under the care of the pastor. It is no secret
that during these sessions of “delivery” the child is often physically and mentally abused. This abuse
is the main reason for the NGOs and their partners to condemn these new churches and their
practices (De Boeck, 2005). As a result of this abuse some of the children flee from the pastor, to end
up on the streets.
For example, the fifteen-year-old Nayelle, born in 1995 in Kinshasa, has been living on the streets for
the past three years. She sells little plastic sacs on the market in Gambela9. She was the youngest of
four children. After her father died, the family lived for a while with only the mother to take care of
the children. One day, her mother had to travel to Kikwit for business reasons, so she sent Nayelle
and the others to her sister’s for a while. The children of the aunt started getting sick frequently and -
6 Kinshasa: “Récits de la ville invisible” is highly recommended for those who want to know more about
witchcraft, witch children and Kinshasa (De Boeck, 2005).
7 Registers of hearings, ORPER, observations by papa Pierre 15/03, interview.
8 According to Human Rights Watch (Tate, 2006, 46): The past 20 years.
9 At least this is what she has told the educators of Irebu (ORPER shelter for girls). In general however, the main
activity of street girls as of a certain age is prostitution (infra), but prostitutes are not welcome in Irebu. We will
never know whether or not she is lying, but this could be an example of street smartness and placing herself in
one of her roles to cope with NGO people.
as a result - the aunt accused Nayelle of being a “witch”. After her mother came back from her
journey, they took Nayelle to a church and placed her in the hands of the pastor. He began to abuse
her to make her confess being a witch; this is why she decided to flee from the church and her family
toward a life as shege10.
On the other hand, a child who finishes the ceremony of “deliverance” is considered to be “cured” of
witchcraft and can, with the blessing of the pastor, return home. This is why De Boeck (2005) argues
that the role of these churches is consequently an ambivalent one. They are a part of the problem of
“witch children” by participating in the construction of the “witch” label. But at the same time they
seem to offer a pre-solution. They are considered to have the power to “deliver” the child from his
demonical self and thus to prevent him/her from once again ending up on the streets.
Would it therefore not be advisable, given the gravity of the continuing augmentation of the
phenomenon, for NGOs to build up an alert cooperation with these new churches? At the same time,
this would allow them to raise awareness among these pastors about not abusing their “customers”.
However, even as a child is “delivered”, some parents/guardians chase him/her back into the streets
anyway, because they don’t believe the pastor’s11 judgment (Tate, 2006). Nevertheless, the almost
total ignorance of NGOs toward these churches has to be questioned, even with all the ethical
obstacles considered. Some NGOs however do take small steps toward these churches (see infra: The
In addition to this witchcraft, abuse can also cause the child to take refuge on the streets. Fourteen-
year-old Deborah is an example of this. After her father passed away, her mother gave birth to four
other children. One unfortunate day, she left Deborah and her sister, taking the two youngest
children with her. Deborah moved in with her maternal uncle, who went searching for his sister and
other nephews and nieces. In his absence, his wife began to molest Deborah and forced her to wash
her knickers (underwear), which is seen as humiliating in some families in Kinshasa. Knickers are the
most intimate garment and taboo12. Anyway, Deborah’s abuse went much further than this, which
made her flee to a life as a shege13. Although abuse can be an isolated cause for a child to take refuge
on the streets, in most cases, abuse is mostly preceded by an accusation of “witchcraft”.
Besides the cultural reason of witchcraft, difficult socio-economic circumstances also make parents
abandon their children or make children embrace the streets on their own initiative14. Even further,
as Barry (1998) points out, another reason why some children or youngsters leave the intimacy of the
10 Register of hearings 2010, shelter in Irebu: Père Gerard
11 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters (ORPER), 24/02/2010.
12 Giving your knickers as a mother or guardian to the child is considered as denigrating. However, we can‟t
generalize this because others see absolutely no problems in a daughter who washes the family‟s underwear.
13 Register of hearings 2010, shelter in Irebu: Père Gerard. Looked at on 10/02/2010.
14 Register of hearings for the shelters 2008, 2009, 2010: Popokabaka (boys) and Irebu (girls).
household is because they long for the freedom that the streets seem to offer them. Often these
babelesi, children who live at home, are being influenced by friends who are already on the streets15.
In short, not all street children are victims of questionable parenthood. Being a shege is also
considered to have a certain value (see infra: “resistance among the bashege”).
As argued in the beginning of this section, the reason why these children end up on the streets is not
an obvious matter and is marked by complexity. The causes described are certainly not complete, but
give some insight into the reasons for the phenomenon. We can conclude that these reasons are
mostly connected and intermingled with each other. For example, a situation of severe poverty can
cause parents to accuse their children of being “witches”. So it would be wrong to think of these
reasons in dichotomies. There are usually several reasons.
2.2. Earning a living
2.2.1. Survival activities
On January 24th, 2010, the Kinshasa newspaper Kin Dimanche emphasized16: “Street children usually
called shege excel in inventiveness”. It is exactly this “inventiveness” of street children that
characterizes a lot of their everyday activities and makes them a particularly clear example and
reflection of the popular “creativity” often attributed to Kinshasa’s informal economy in general,
confronted with so-called “state failure” (Trefon, 2004).
In the introduction, we already mentioned the multiple so-called “affairs” these children take care of.
An important part of these affairs take place in the “informal economy” or “survival economy”, such
as running errands for the malewas17, guarding vehicles in the financial centre, selling small plastic
bags (mostly performed by younger girls), shining shoes for pub and restaurant customers, painting
women’s fingernails in different colors or picking up fallen embers until they reach a certain amount
that they can sell. Not only do they participate in these informal economic activities, they have also
become an important player on this market, performing an essential role for the everyday
functioning of the city. For example, Geenen (2009) reports that when a raid is held by the Congolese
National Police (PNC) it often becomes difficult for other actors on the marketplace to properly
pursue their activities and “vendors deplore the lack of dishwashers, sweepers, wrap-up boys, and
15 Interview with Mama Suzanne, head of the Foyer Père Gerard shelter, 11/02/10.
16 X (2010). Les enfants de la rue communément appelés des "sheggers" brillent d'inventivité. Kin Dimanche.
Kinshasa: p. 11.
17 Traditional places where you can eat. Mostly on the side of the road and outdoors.
When one carefully acknowledges the fact that these children are fully embedded in an informal
survival economy, it also becomes clearer what a so-called secteur consists of: a primarily economic
microcosm. Nevertheless, in attributing “inventiveness” to their economic behavior, social scientists
sometimes tend to give a rather too romantic or populist picture of everyday street life. In this sense,
Shapland and Ponsaers (2009) argue that the “informal economy isn’t an innovative economy” at all,
but that - on the contrary - it “flourishes where the opportunities already exist”. Accordingly, a
secteur is to be considered as the territory where a group of bashege lives because of the “flourishing
opportunities that were already there”. In other words, a secteur must be seen as an opportunity
structure. So, referring to the strain theory of Cloward and Ohlin (1960), who state that social
structures within society may encourage citizens to develop innovative (legal and illegal) behaviour,
we could state that a secteur offers informal “legitimate opportunities” to the bashege in order to
survive and make their living.
2.2.2. Illegal activities
While the abovementioned activities could be considered as more or less “legal”, a lot of the
Kinshasa bashege also practice activities belonging to the so-called “illegal” economy, such as
stealing, robbing, dealing marihuana and prostitution. Almost exclusively, girls start working as
prostitutes around the age of eleven for the simple reason that this is the most profitable. Geenen
(2009) argues that it is not so much the money they gain from the client, but the possessions they
gather during their work that makes prostitution lucrative. These “darker” sides of shege life can
explain the bad reputation street boys and girls have among the Kinois. So next to the “legitimate
opportunities” a secteur as an opportunity structure offers, it also provides “illegitimate
opportunities” to the bashege (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960). Absolute figures on their criminal activities
are lacking, and while it remains clear that these more violent phenomena cannot be
underestimated, one should not forget the role played by labeling rumors and presumptions.
2.3. Abuse and violence
2.3.1. Forms of inter-group violence
Another characteristic of shege life is the omnipresence of violence and abuse, both among
themselves and at the interface with the broader “adult” world.
First of all, in a secteur, where all street children and youngsters intimately know each other, the
stronger will always dominate the weaker (Kahola and Rubbers, 2008: 29). During the observations
with the ORPER centre mobil, we witnessed more than once how older bashege beat up younger
ones in order to rob them of their hard earned money. Indeed, because younger street children
generally earn money more easily by begging, on account of their pitiful appearance, than the older
bashege, who have lost their “cute looks”, the stronger often tend to harass the weaker and younger
ones. On the other hand, violence among the bashege is not restricted to the relationship between
the elder and the younger; the game of demonstrating who is the strongest is a continuous and
never-ending battle within age groups as well. Violence is therefore often the “normal” way to
handle disputes among themselves and is an important element for installing and consolidating the
hierarchal order, where the strongest, physically, may call himself the “leader” (Tate, 2006).
Another phenomenon worth describing is the so-called “rite of passage”, a sort of inauguration ritual
in shege life and which every newcomer has to undergo. During this “initiation”, boys often become
victim of atrocities, such as being molested by holding burning plastic bags above the body of the
newcomer, the girls mostly have to endure sexual harassments, often being violated by a group of
boys, slapped and even mutilated by having burning cigarettes put out on their vaginas. These rituals
can be considered as a way to test the endurance of the newcomers and make them customized to
the harsh circumstances of shege life (Kahola, 2008).
2.3.2. Violence against citizens
In addition to these acts of violence among themselves, street children are also often involved in
violent acts toward citizens, visitors and passersby, mostly taking their money or other belongings
(Pype, 2007). However, one should be very careful making generalizations on this subject. Moreover,
it is clear that almost all street youngsters who commit these acts are to be found among the
stronger and elder “children”. Indeed, while a seven or ten year old can steal, it is hard to imagine a
child like that beating up an adult. Nevertheless, these younger bashege also become dangerous
because they operate in groups. While the elder and stronger are making trouble, they often use the
opportunity to steal like experienced pickpockets and flee as quickly as they came.
Moreover, we cannot lump them together with another recent phenomenon in Kinshasa: the kuluna,
which are gangs of frustrated youngsters that surround certain places, like pub or restaurant terraces
where people drink their beers and soft drinks, and force customers to hand over every possession of
any value, threatening them with machetes, clubs and broken bottles18. The difference with street
children is that these youngsters don’t live on the street; in other words, they have a home to go to.
Bashege is also a collective noun for children and youngsters living on the street, while contrarily,
kuluna are mostly adolescents tired of waiting for a non-existing job. Occasionally, the elder street
children will join these kuluna, as we could notice during our fieldwork19.
2.3.3. Forms of violence against bashege
18 Many people talked to me (MH) about them during my stay in Kinshasa.
19 11/03/10: three elder street boys, who occasionally washed themselves in Foyer Père Frank, were arrested by
the police after imitating the “Kuluna”.
Last but not least, street children themselves very often become “victims” of violence and abuse
committed by adults. Indeed, the commonly hostile attitude of the Kinois toward these children can
quickly result in tensions and even violence20. Nevertheless, we have to be careful with a too rude
dichotomy between offender and victim, because quite often the violent reactions of a part of the
Kinois population are also reactions to previous acts of theft and violence by the bashege
themselves. Even more so, these two forms of violence are often mixed up in a chain of reactions and
counter-reactions, so that victims are at the same time offenders.
Even worse, from a moral point of view, is the abuse of these children committed by policemen
because this abuse cannot be connected to the same circuit as their legally allowed monopoly of
violence, in line with their “police function” - e.g. protection of the public order. According to the
Human Rights Watch report (Tate, 2006), the authorities of law and order don’t hesitate to physically
abuse these children by kicking them with their boots, slapping them with sticks and even raping
them. Furthermore, the PNC police force organizes occasional sweeps to clear the bashege off the
streets. The centre of Gombe is often the scene and the target of these raids. After their arrest, street
children are generally taken to the cachotte, or police cell, where they are often tortured, beaten and
stripped of their belongings. The vagabonds caught during these operations are normally not
imprisoned for a long time and most of them are set free before the fifth day.
In conclusion: street children cannot easily be classified as victims of a violent system because they
themselves are an integral part of it. Nor can they be looked upon as essentially violent criminals. In
fact, they can be both at the same time and navigate acrobatically between these two positions. On
the whole, they are simultaneously “makers and breakers” (De Boeck, 2005), as they become
abused, violated and beaten up, they do the same to others at the same time.
3. Reunification or social reintegration efforts
The street children of Kinshasa are in conflict with their family and the society at large. After all, they
have run or have been chased away from their homes and they do notn’t fit into the ideal image of a
safe and prosperous society. Therefore, the ultimate goal of every NGO concerned with these
“outlaws” is to reconcile child and family and, on a larger level, child and society. In this section, we
will discuss two strategies commonly used by NGOs, and more precisely ORPER, to achieve this
reconciliation: the reunification and social professional reintegration. We will compare the first with
a restorative justice approach, or mediation. Secondly, we will take a closer look at the resistance
20 19/02/2010: Boy (12) from the Popokabaka shelter lost consciousness after a fight with the neighbours. The
Centre Mobil (ORPER) brought him to the hospital.
03/03/2010: The Centre Mobil was stationed in Centre Ville (Gombe). An adult and a shege had an argument;
eventually, the man chased the boy away. Afterwards, the man blamed me (MH and all Caucasian people) for
trying to help these children. In his opinion, “its better to kill them all”.
among the bashege to the efforts made by NGOs. In other words, why do most of them prefer a life
on the streets instead of a life of education, training and shelter in one of the many NGOs and/or
reunification with their family?
3.1. The NGO ORPER
In this section, we will take a closer look at one of these NGOs: ORPER, Oeuvre de Reclassement et de
Protection des Enfants de la Rue. ORPER runs seven centers in Kinshasa: two shelters and five “centre
d’hébergement”; these centers are the foundation of the ORPER operations. Starting from this
foundation, they try to apply two main strategies to get “their street children” out of the shege life,
more precisely (1) reunification, and (2) socio-professional reintegration.
3.1.1. Focus on reunification and IDMRS
ORPER’s core objective, more than the socio-professional reintegration, is the familial reunification;
in other words, the reconciliation of family and child. This process of reunification can take weeks,
months or years, and unfortunately fails most of the time21.
To accomplish their goal of reunifying as many children as possible with their families, they hold on
to the methodology of IDMRS, which stands for: Identification, Documentation, Mediation,
Reunification and Follow-up (Suivi). The employees in charge of this reunification are called
“pollsters” (ORPER employs six of them). Their job is to work on solutions on the level of the child’s
Identification and Documentation
Once a street child has entered one of the centers, the first two steps, those of identification and
documentation, will be initiated. Educators and pollsters will try to identify the child, the problems
he/she has, his/her wishes and the socio-cultural context of his/her family. Everything the child
reveals to them will be carefully written down in the identification registry. In addition to the
information concerning the child’s identity, information on his/her family, as well as other
documentation, is gathered, such as a short history of the child, his/her activities on the street, the
regularity of being in the center and the way he/she behaves there (REEJER, 2009).
21 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters, 24/02/2010, Observations of Moise Amuli,
Identification and documentation are certainly challenging steps. After all, the creation of a climate
of confidence is needed for getting the right information from the child. This confidence is an
essential prerequisite in order to accomplish the goal of reunification22. “You must not expect that
the child is telling the truth the first time,… They lie!”23. Once the information about the child and
family is gathered, an “explorative investigation” is held by the pollster to verify whether the child
has spoken the “truth” and to hear the other side of the story from the family. Very often, however,
the shege has given a false address and not even his/her real name24.
Mediation and Reunification
The third step consists of bringing the two parties together to work out a solution (REEJER, 2009).
The pollster takes up the role of mediator and starts negotiations with the family; if possible and
desired, he takes the child with him on these occasions. In a best-case scenario, the mediation will
end in reunification. In order to get the parents (or other family members) to the point of taking their
child back, it’s usually an advantage if the child already has a certain degree of education or if he/she
is learning a profession, certainly if ORPER is willing to continue the financial support in this matter
(which they do in certain cases).
The job doesn’t end when the reunification is successful; after all, the goal is that it becomes durable
so that the child won’t be found on the street again after a while. Therefore, ORPER will normally
follow up on the situation for six months to a year25.
Popo and Irebu
Two of the seven centers are shelters or centres d’acceuils, one for the boys in Popokabaka (Foyer
Père Frank) and one for the girls in Irebu (Foyer Père Gerard). These are semi-open centers for
children from the ages of five to fifteen. “Accepting elder youngsters would be problematic because
they often threaten and steal from the little ones”26. The purpose of these shelters is to identify and
22 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters, 24/02/2010.
23 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters, 24/02/2010.
24 Observations of Moise Alumi, pollster, 02/04/2010.
25 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters, 24/02/2010.
26 Moise Amuli, ORPER pollster, 16/03/2010.
observe the child. Children may come and go as they please. During our observation in Popokabaka,
we noticed that many of them, mostly the older children, only come to wash themselves. However,
the doors close at 10 p.m. Those who decide to stay afterwards have to go to sleep, “… otherwise it
would be no different from the streets”27. This is why the centers may not be considered as
In contrast to the boys’ shelter, where not all the children get regular meals28, all the girls from Irebu
who conform to the rules of the center receive food daily. In this way, Irebu attempts to control
prostitution by trying to keep the girls in the centre29. The regime is also stricter and more structured
because ORPER argues that “the girls are more vulnerable than the boys”30. With regard to schooling,
the focus of these shelters lies on literacy and training courses in cooking, hair-dressing and technical
In addition to these shelters, ORPER has five centres d’hébergement. These are different from a
shelter because the children are not supposed to leave without permission. Here they try to get the
children accustomed to the structure of “normal” life again. They go to a normal school outside the
center or follow professional training courses in hair-dressing, technical skills or cooking.
Surprisingly few children run away from these institutions. In Home Suzanne, a center for girls from
the ages of six to sixteen, only two out of a total population of thirty girls ran away in 200931, which is
remarkably little, knowing that these girls come from a life of total liberty and freedom to a life of
structure and strict time schedules. The amount of children who run away from other similar ORPER
centers is also rather scant. The explanation can be found in the selectivity ORPER practices when it
decides which child to offer a possibility to move from the shelter to one of the different centres
d’hébergement, categorized by age and sex. Tree parameters are particularly taken into account:
level of literacy, age and regular presence at the shelter32. The children who are being placed here
(voluntarily of course) are thereby generally motivated to abandon their life as a shege for the
purpose of learning a profession or getting an education.
27 Observations by the head of the Foyer Père Frank shelter, 15/03/2010.
28 There is only enough room for 40 boys.
29 Interview with Guilain Zozi Mayoma, director of the pollsters, 24/02/2010.
30 Papa Alpha, Director of ORPER, 5/03/2010.
31 Interview with Caudine Nlandu, head educator at Home Suzanne, 15/02/2010.
32 Interview with Caudine Nlandu, head educator at Home Suzanne, 15/02/2010.
Both the shelters and the different centres d’hébergement can be looked at as transit areas waiting
for a successful reunification with the family or eventually, in some cases, an adoption33. In the
meanwhile, the child has the possibility to follow different training courses (as hairdressing, cooking,
technique) and to improve his/her reading and writing skills or even have a proper/traditional
education in a normal school (if he/she stays in a centre d’hébergement). As argued above, if the
child is reunified, ORPER will continue to pay for the education if this is considered necessary. If the
child ultimately cannot be reunified, because of the persistent unwillingness of one of the actors
(family or child) or when a reunification is undesirable, the NGO will try to reintegrate the child
socially and professionally in society, by making it ready for the labor market or paying for his/her
higher education- e.g. socio-professional reintegration.
In short, the strategies of reunification and socio-professional reintegration cannot be seen as
separate from each other. The second is complementary to the first, because while the child is
“waiting in the transit area”, the socio-professional reintegration can be already started if the child
agrees to step into one of the many schooling activities. However, with this socio-professional
reintegration by NGOs, there is a risk of a perverse effect that can show up. Poor families that are
incapable of supporting their children can decide that the child is better off on the streets, because
there he/she will be sheltered, fed and educated by a NGO. Although it already happens that families
chase their children out onto the streets because of bad economic circumstances, it can become a
well-considered decision in which the families only want the best for their children.
The mobile center
Finally, one of the newest ORPER projects (operational for 5 years now) is the “centre mobil”. This
accessible initiative consists of a minivan with a nurse, head educator, driver and a former bashege
street leader on board. Every evening, except for Saturdays and Sundays, it stops at three secteurs in
the city. They provide first-aid to children in need, listen to them and try to raise their awareness, for
example, by handing out contraceptives to the girls. Urgent cases will be taken to the hospital at the
cost of the NGO. If necessary, they will also refer them to more specialized services. For example, a
girl who has been raped will be referred to DOCTORS OF THE WORLD34, an organization that focuses
specifically on street girls. The advantage of the centre mobil is the presence in the streets. They will
not just passively wait until the children appear in one of the centers asking for their help, they also
actively seek out the bashege in their own habitat and clearly explain what ORPER has to offer.
3.2. Resistance among the bashege
33 The educators have adopted some of these children themselves.
34 Observations by the “centre mobil”, 5/03/2010.
Many, if not most, of these street children are not interested in these reunification and social
reintegration “aid programs” because they prefer a life on the streets. This observation can be
perceived as controversial, since this attitude defies the Western reaction of “we want to help those
poor children”. The inevitable question that follows is why most of these street children prefer to live
on the streets instead of getting an education, job training and a roof over their heads at one of the
many NGOs, or return to their family to like any other belesi (Lingala for a child living at home)?
As Kristien Geenen expressed it at a lecture (2009): “Even if they put up a hundred more homes, you
can’t get these street children off the streets”. Could we derive from this disinterest from many of
the bashege toward the NGO efforts that they are using the wrong approach or does it mean that
there is something essentially attractive to living on the streets? Or is it both?
3.2.1. Lying to NGOs
A saying you hear frequently in Kinshasa is that the family is the basis of Congolese society; the NGOs
and their partners also like to believe in this principle. Therefore, as already expressed above, the
core objective of NGOs working with street children is mostly the reunification of family and child.
Although this seems attractive, street children are chased or have run away from their so-called basis
and consequently have almost no desire to return. In other words, in the majority of the cases, they
don’t want to be reunified with their family and will therefore resist these practices (of NGOs
“interfering” in their lives) by lying about their names, their parents’ names and their home address.
It also happens that they just change NGOs and name if they notice that the educators and pollsters
are making steps to reintegrate them. “There are children who come to us asking for a meal, saying
their name is Erik, the next day they go to another, saying their name is Martin”35 (educator at NGO
Using these actions (of resistance), they avoid the interference of the NGOs trying to reintegrate
them back into their families. After all, speaking in metaphors, a raped woman will think twice before
meeting her rapist again36.
3.2.2. Attractiveness of the streets
Secondly, why are most bashege not interested in the education, training and shelter that NGOs
offer them, which would obviously help them in their efforts to leave the streets to become an
“independent, good citizen”? If we think further, this determination is an indication that, apart from
the harsh reality of surviving every day, there also is another side of the story, or in other words:
35 Moise Amuli, ORPER pollster, 12/02/2010.
36 This has to be nuanced because not all children end up on the streets because they are victimized by their
family, see Barry, 1998.
there is also something attractive in being a street child. As De Boeck (2005) argues, they can
certainly not only be looked at as victims or children “broken” by society. In addition to the victim
part (of round-ups, rape and abuse) street children are also, in contrast to babelesi, in a way totally
free from the control of the “adult world”. They are not held accountable by their parents or any
other adult when they, for example, smoke weed or have sexual intercourse. Barry (1998) even
argues that this freedom of the street can be seen as one of the reasons why children run away from
their homes to become shege (see supra: ending up on the streets).
In addition to the total liberty of the street, being a street child also has financial advantages.
Bashege earn their living by setting up all sorts of illegal and informal activities (see supra: Earning a
living), which make them capable of not only supporting themselves and eating whenever they are
hungry in contrast to some babelesi, but their lifestyle also allows them some extras once in a while.
If they want to go to a football match in stade martyr or to a Papa Wemba concert, they work a bit
harder for a short time so that they can afford the ticket, which is less evident for the children of
Kinshasa who live at home (Geenen, 2006). During our observations, we noticed that, in general,
these children are not at all poorly dressed and they change their cloths regularly. So in one way or
another, most of them earn a certain amount of money.
This liberty and financial independence contributes to the “fierceness of the street”. After living as a
shege for any length of time, they become accustomed to being a street child and are even proud of
it. They are fierce because they are feared by many and manage to survive on the street on their
own, which makes them independent and free. So being a shege has a certain credibility 37. This can
be explained by the concept of “agency”: street children also have the power to shape their lives and
give meaning to it despite the structured external factors like age, gender, social class, etc. (Geenen,
2009; De Boeck, 2005). Tshimanga, a street child in centre ville Gombe, expressed it this way: “If I
want to eat chicken, I eat chicken; if I want to eat fish, I eat fish... I am the owner of my own life…”38.
These attractive factors of shege life are the greatest obstacles for NGOs that are trying to bring
more structure into these children’s lives and to convince them their place is not on the streets.
3.3. Bedlam of NGOs in Kinshasa
In addition to the resistance from the bashege, the NGO landscape itself is also detrimental to the
effectiveness of the different strategies used to get the street children out of the daily street
According to Mulamba (2008), Kinshasa has more than 150 registered NGOs working with street
children, which have been established for five or more years. The full amount of non-governmental
37 Observations + Interview with Felicien (head of the Maison Arnold Jansen), 16/02/2010.
38 Observations by the "centre mobil", 22/02/2010.
organizations or projects engaging themselves for the bashege in Kinshasa is unknown, but we can
certainly argue it is a bedlam. However, while REEJER, Réseau des Educateurs des Enfants et Jeunes
de la Rue, takes on the function of umbrella organization, we cannot speak in absolute terms of some
sort of close cooperation between these different actors in the NGO field. In general, most of them
work alongside each other.
Secondly, the different NGO interventions are almost exclusively aimed at individuals. ORPER’s core
objective, for example, consists of reuniting as many street children as possible with their families or
sheltering them in one of their many centers. What seems to be almost totally forgotten is the
continuing economic and social crisis that is very likely one of the biggest factors responsible for the
ongoing increase of bashege in the capital of the DRC. More attention should be paid to this macro
social level. Although we certainly believe that NGOs like ORPER are a necessity in a city such as
Kinshasa, it will continue to be a waste of time and effort if nothing is done to stop the daily influx of
children on the streets.
Finally, we can ask ourselves the (cynical?) question if, in general, the NGO world does really wants to
contribute to a real solution for the matter. From a pragmatic and financial point of view, the
disappearance of the phenomenon would be a disaster for a lot of, certainly black, employers of the
many NGOs in Kinshasa (working with street children). Many would lose their income and the supply
of Western money to these organizations will stop. After all: the more the situation deteriorates, the
more attention it will get.
With this contribution, we disclosed some of the many ambiguities and complexities that
characterize bashege life in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The often stereotyped
and romanticized image of these children created by the Western world dramatically simplifies the
turbulent world these children live in. Although the victimization of the bashege certainly cannot be
minimized, they should be considered as active agents who constantly and consciously shape their
lives. Further research from this perspective is recommendable.
This less known part of bashege life does not make it easier for NGOs to engage themselves properly
in helping these children and integrate them back into the more “normal” society, an occupation that
often fails, regardless of the daily new influx of children ending up on the streets. Do these children
often resist these NGOs and deny themselves a proper education and shelter in favor of a life on the
streets full of abuse, violence and struggle? Is this in balance with a life of relative freedom, financial
independence and even fierceness?
Can the bashege in Kinshasa, who really do want to get out their turbulent scene, shop among one of
the dozens of NGOs active in the capital? There seems to be an amount of examples of former street
children who were successfully reintegrated into their family or larger society by these social
projects. Street legends tell about bashege that made it through university, learned a profession or
became educators, working with street children themselves. The frequency of the reality stays
unknown until today. Further research should elaborate on this.
However, we are convinced that Western attention on and financial support of this problem is
certainly not a bad thing. However, should the current NGO landscape, goals and activities not be
evaluated and reviewed? Moreover, needs the actual focus of NGOs on the micro level (the
individual street child) not to be broadened and should there be no more initiatives on the meso-
and macro level? Should there be not a closer cooperation and tuning of communication between
the many actors involved? Not only between NGOs themselves, but also certainly between NGOs and
the government? Although some steps have been made, there is still a long way to be travelled.
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In this article, we will explore the phenomenon of the so-called bashege, or street children, in
Kinshasa, the capital and largest city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from a
criminological/ethnographical perspective. Four months of participant observation and
ethnographical interviewing with the Congolese NGO ORPER (Oeuvre de Reclassement et de
Protection des Enfants de la Rue) in Kinshasa have enabled us to give a rich description of everyday
life among the bashege and the ambiguities and complexities they encounter in this dazzling city.
After providing a detailed image of everyday bashege life: how they end up on the street, earn a
living and cope with a world of violence and abuse, we will examine different strategies of social
reaction on the phenomenon of street children. We will take a closer look at some of the often well-
intentioned NGO efforts to “reunite” with and “reintegrate” street children into their families or at
least in a more “normal” society. Furthermore, some of the reasons for the failures and successes of
these NGO projects will be examined.
Finally, the resistance tactics used by these children in view of these NGO actions will be examined.
We will particularly focus on how they deal with their environment and their neighbors and try to
understand why many, if not most, bashege still prefer a life on the streets, while there is an
abundant offer of education and professional formation within a variety of NGO projects and
Key words: street children, Kinshasa, NGO, reintegration, informal economy