The words "suffer the little children to come unto me" might have been uttered with Africa in mind. For with one million orphans often living rootless and disaffected lives, and the number rising exponentially, who can doubt that this will be the most serious challenge that a continent riven by so many crises must face? Africa is awash with feral children, faring little better than vermin. Orphaned children are the sharp end of the Aids pandemic but urban drift, civil war, a collapsing education system, human trafficking, and corruption are all playing their part. I have just been in Southern Sudan and northern Kenya with the humanitarian organisation, Jubilee Action, and saw first-hand some of the implications of this new crisis - and some of the ways we can respond. In a timely report, "Children On The Brink" several agencies including the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), have just spelt out the scale of the disaster. They say that in 88 countries studied "More than 13 million children currently under the age of 15 have lost one or both parents to Aids, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2010, this number is expected to jump to more than 25 million." World-wide, by 2010 UNICEF says the number of orphans in the world will have risen to around 106 million (about a quarter Aids related). By the same year, in 12 African countries orphans will comprise 15% of all children under the age of 15. There are already indications that this will not be the peak. In Zimbabwe, for instance, 17. 6% of children are already orphans (three-quarters left parentless by Aids) and, in Kenya, HIV prevalence among pregnant women ranges from 3% in Mosoriot to 31% in Chulaimbo. Bishop Patrick Harrington, the bishop of Lodwar, in Kenya's remote Turkana region told me that the District Medical Officer reports 34% of the population infected by the HIV/Aids virus. Poignantly one young Kenyan simply said to me: "help us, Kenya is dying." The consequences of a vast dislocated and embittered underclass of orphaned children will be devastating for Africa. Tomorrow's revolutionaries and tomorrow's coups are already in the making in the festering slums to which children with no hope and no prospects migrate. Here is a fertile breeding ground for both Marxism and the radical fundamentalism of some Islamic groups. Culturally disaffected young people will always create unrest but the numbers in Africa are without precedent. The crisis of orphans is shoed away; I see no evidence that national governments either understand the scale of this catastrophe or to what it will lead. Aids is a major contributor to this crisis but not the only one. The ravages of African civil war and tribal killings also take their terrible toll. In Southern Sudan the vicious policies of the Sudanese government have caused two million deaths and 4 million internally displaced people - including vast numbers of children. Development is impossible in places like Sudan's diocese of Torit, which is being pounded into the ground. The auxiliary bishop, Akio Johnson, showed me where bombs had showered down on their schools and the shelters where children take refuge "like foxes in holes." For most children there is no education at all. There are just 20 secondary schools in an area the size of Western Europe. In neighbouring Kenya the picture ought to be better. The day before I arrived in Turkana a missionary had buried seven parishioners murdered by a raiding party from nearby Ethiopia, who had come to steal women and cattle. Elsewhere the Rendille told me how a mother had been killed and her six year-old castrated by a Somali raiding party. Rushed to Nairobi's children's hospital he has survived, becoming another of the orphaned statistics. In the 1980s I was Chairman of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and Kenya was a shining light of educational achievement. Today, under President Daniel Moi's Kanu government the education system has collapsed and incompetence and corruption has seeped into every last vestige of society. I didn't meet a single Kenyan who wasn't hoping for a change of government after elections later this year. A senior schools inspector, Samuel Lepati told me that "the country's children have become marginalised." At the Kenyan Parliament the chairman of the National Alliance Party, the hon.Dr.Noah M.Wekesa told me that political strife was destroying Kenya: "When two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that suffers." In Kenya it is the children. Dr Philista Onyango, the formidable regional director of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), says that the rot began in the mid 80s when Moi introduced "cost sharing" for Kenyan parents. Forced to pay large fees towards education many simply withdrew their children from school and if it was a choice of sending a boy or a girl the boys get priority: "32% of our children lack access to any kind of education, either through not enrolling or dropping out," she says. Traditionally, if a Kenyan family was poor, children would be sent away to relatives or family friends to find work. Today, urban drift leads to children being exploited, driven into sex slavery and prostitution. Most of the children are totally uneducated and with no employment prospects. Handed over to bogus employment bureaux run by racketeers it is not long before they are prostitutes and themselves HIV/Aids positive. The chance of building a stable civil society in such circumstances is negligible." There is no way we will have democracy with illiteracy," says Dr Onyango. I visited the slum town of Kibera, where 700,000 people, one third of the population of Nairobi, are living in 21,115 structures. It would be hard to call them homes or even dwellings. It is said to be the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. In rooms six-foot by six foot whole families try to survive. They live among garbage heaps where typhoid, TB, cholera and HIV are rampant. Drug abuse, incest, crime and prostitution equally so. At 15, children must leave and find some way to make a life on their own. At Kibera we saw some of the men who had migrated from the Rendille and Turkana tribal lands, now employed on a pittance as watchmen. They have abandoned their wives and children; and those that do return have visited HIV on their kinsfolk. Aids is a gun pointed at Africa's female gender. Steve Wathome, who co-ordinates Kibera's Community Based Organisations, has embarked on a series of small-scale self-help initiative: "dependency syndrome has become a disaster," he says. Dr.Onyanga makes her point even more graphically asserting that "The day the international agencies go, Africa will develop." ANPPCAN provides more than thirty pro bono lawyers to champion children's rights and in two respects Kenya has begun to address the challenge. They have put new children's courts and children's laws in place. But they need an Enforcement Unit, as the laws are not yet biting. They have established a new Standing Committee on Human Rights under the impressive leadership of Thuita Mwangi but only time will tell whether this is a government public relations ploy or a watchdog with teeth. In opening ANPPCAN's latest initiative, a textile factory employing former prisoners, I saw plenty of evidence that given a chance people can make it on their own. I reminded them of the prophet's words that "where there is no vision, the people will perish." Along with clearer vision there are practical things that can be done to relieve the suffering of the children. Jubilee Action's new dormitory for blind Rendille children in northern Kenya is an example: a sign of hope. The wonderful health, education, and self-sufficiency initiatives I saw in Turkana's diocese of Lodwar; an adult literacy project run by a Christian couple who have spent 22 years among the Rendille tribe are others. Employment projects particularly help to curb the urban drift. There are superb personal initiatives, like the centre for 160 street children built at Wea, central Kenya, by a group of people from the British High Commission, and which has been handed over to the Catholic church to run. But none of this is enough. Unless there is a realistic response to Africa's new catastrophe I fear that civil unrest will lead to children being hunted down like rats; summarily executed on the streets by frightened military leaders who fear anarchy and disintegration. Alarmist? It's happened elsewhere and frightened corrupt elites who feel threatened will have no compunction in using violence. So if they aren't to perish, what should be the vision? Perhaps the motto of the blind children at Loglogo Jubilee Action project best sums up what Africa's children now need. "Give us only opportunity, not sympathy," it reads. David Alton is an independent Crossbench peer; he is one of the founders of Jubilee Campaign; was founding chairman of the all-party parliamentary Street Children Committee; and Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University. This article is also published in today's Catholic Herald.
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