Monday, November 29, 1999

Childhood in Africa has many faces

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Nairobi, June 16 (DPA)- Simon is eight years old and lives in Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum. These days he is proudly wearing a football shirt,- a charitable donation. His mother, a laundry worker, earns less than one euro a day and could never afford to kit-out her six children with football jerseys.Besides his football shirt, Simon is proud of his achievements in school. Like many children and teenagers from the shanty towns, he is hoping to be awarded a scholarship for secondary school.'I want to become a doctor', Simon says. 'Then I can buy a nice house for my mother.'Princess is about the same age as Simon and lives a few kilometres away from Kibera, in Hurlingham, an area which is popular with Kenya's aspiring middle class. She and her three-year-old sister Angel do not know hunger and poverty. They also do not have any household duties. Their home is run by two maids.Every morning, the eight-year-old is picked up from the property in a compound and brought back home later in the day by her private school's bus. The compound is guarded around the clock and surrounded by a wall and electric fence.At the moment children in the slums as well as in sheltered middle-class homes are dreaming about the success of African teams at the Football World Cup in South Africa. This is the only thing they have in common, though.Childhood in Africa has many, often extremely different faces. On the International Day of the African Child, June 16, attention is drawn to the children of the continent.Africa's children often impress foreign visitors with their lust for life and will to survive. At the same time, there is probably no other continent where the problems of millions of children are so extreme.Health issues present a big risk. In Europe, measles is a children's ailment. In Africa the illness is considered a killer, even though vaccination campaigns have lowered the number of child victims considerably.Every minute, somewhere in Africa, a child dies from malaria. Clean water is not normally accessible for residents of slums as well as for most of the rural population. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than a quarter of the cases of death of infants can be attributed to diarrhoea from unclean drinking water.Despite legal prohibitions, early marriage and pregnancy as well as genital mutilation continue to ruin the lives of young girls in many African states.Hunger is another big worry for African children. Droughts and crop failures, which are also due to climate change, continue to make food scarcity an everyday problem. The first victims will always be the weakest members of the population - infants, sick and old people.At the moment the United Nations and other aid organisations are warning of an impending famine in the Sahel, especially in Niger. Tens of thousands of children are already severely underfed.War and armed conflict strongly impact children's lives. Whether in Sudan's Darfur region or Somalia, in Congo or in the Central African Republic - the often forgotten armed conflicts on the continent affect hundreds of thousands of children. They experience their parents helplessness to protect them and the trauma of rootlessness in refugee camps.Thousands are forced to kill as child soldiers, girls are abused as sex slaves or raped by soldiers and rebels in conflict regions. The aid organisation Peace Direct assumes that there are currently 8,000 child soldiers in Congo alone, some of them as young as eight.Child labour also ruins many a childhood. Only very few African children know what it means to have time to play. Most of them have to assume duties at a very young age. They fetch water, collect firewood or herd cattle.In the streets of African metropolises children from the slums sell peanuts, bananas or newspapers. Others beg, often under the observant eyes of adult family members. It is hard to resist sad children's eyes. Many people want to help with a small contribution but they are not aware of the effects which their donation will have: a successful begging child is too valuable to be sent to school.

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