Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo – Cecilia held the microphone in her hands. The large headphones covered her ears. The small room that functioned as a community radio station in the bustling Gambela market in the outskirts of Kinshasa was crowded with other street children like Cecilia.
The group had identified this week’s theme of their radio show as violence and abuse in adoptive families – which Cecilia knows a thing or two about. She and her friends did the sound-check, prepared the audio recorders and microphones and the broadcasting began.
“People should treat their adopted children like their own,” Cecilia started to say into the microphone in a professional matter. “When they have a child at home that’s not biologically theirs, they shouldn’t just consider that child the house slave.”
Her fellow young radio reporters nodded and cheered her on. As thousands of people tuned in, 15-year-old Cecilia began to tell her story.
Life hasn’t been easy for Cecilia since she was orphaned in 2009. Most of her relatives and older siblings were in Angola, unable to help or support her. Before being able to fully process the sudden loss of her two parents at a young age, Cecilia found herself homeless and in the streets.
Two weeks into her life on the streets, a woman approached her. “You are too pretty to be in the streets,” she said to Cecilia. “Come home with me and I’ll make you my daughter.”
Thus began Cecilia’s life as what she described as a “domestic house slave”. For six years, she experienced physical, verbal and sexual abuse in her adoptive home. She received next to no food compared with the other children in the house and was made to sleep on the floor.
One day, her adoptive mother punched her so badly, she broke her front teeth. This incident was the last straw for Cecilia. That day, she decided to run away and return to the streets, despite the risks presented by such a life.
There are 25,000 children on the streets of Kinshasa like Cecilia and the figures have nearly doubled in the past decade, according to UNICEF.
The urban sprawl of Kinshasa coupled with the high fertility rates in the DRC, have allowed the number of street children in the Congolese capital of more than 10 million habitants to rise as well. In a fragile post-conflict economy, children living on the streets are vulnerable to recruitment as child soldier, for illegal mining work, sexual exploitation or witchcraft.
Without economic prospects or educational opportunities, many children beg for money and food; some hustle for small, exploitative manual jobs carrying things around; and some turn to crime.
From criminals to community workers
Joachim Ambambo, 37, a former street child, isn’t afraid to admit he was one of the children that turned to crime. But after spending six years in the juvenile prison, he turned his life around and decided to give back to the community of street children in Kinshasa.
“There are many street children in Kinshasa. A lot of them are working and sleeping around Gambela market,” Ambambo said.
“These children [around the market] are suffering from intense stigma. Tradesmen or people in the market don’t treat them nice. Sometimes the police beat them up. If there’s a crime in the area, [the street children] are the first suspects.”
Having suffered the perils of being a street child, Ambambo knew one of the most effective ways of making a difference in this community would be to shift perspectives about street children.
He was also aware of the power of radio, and how everyone in Gambela market and beyond tune into to the local radio stations. Thus, in collaboration with the Children’s Radio Foundation, the radio programme Mungongo ya Mwana – meaning The Voice of a Child in Lingala – was born.
Since March 2016, Kinshasa locals now tune into this programme every Sunday and hear the voices of the street children that they pass by every day. The Mungongo ya Mwana project trained 17 broadcasters in 2015 – all of whom are street children aged between 12 and 17.
“Radio is incredibly cheap and easy to learn,” said Clemence Petit-Perrot, a programme director at the Children’s Radio Foundation.
“[Street children] can go from nothing to full production in five days. Producing their own radio programme and hearing their own voices on the radio is very empowering for them. It also gives them a different set of new and valuable skills,” Petit-Perrot said.
In addition to providing the children with a new skill, radio can create tangible results to improve the daily lives of street children in Kinshasa.
“Personal is powerful,” added Petit-Perrot. “Opinions of people [about street children] who listen to this programme change over the time when they hear the first-person stories from the children. [The listeners] no longer see them as just thieves or prostitutes. Children become citizens and actors rather than a shadow. Even the attitude of the police around the market starts to change.”
Through Mungongo ya Mwana, the audience can also begin to see the complex realities behind some of the decisions that these children make.
Radio as a form of rehabilitation
Chloe, a 16-year-old citizen reporter at Mungongo ya Mwana, is a sex worker. Through her access to the radio platform she has been vocal about why she made this decision.
Chloe is one of the rare street children who has a family, but she ran away from home and will never return. Her sister wanted to marry her off to a man many years Chloe’s senior – but Chloe wasn’t having any of it.
“I’d rather be in the streets and risk being sexually abused than be married to an old man,” she said. “If I have to, I prefer being a sex worker to being a young wife.”
Despite the global rise of the internet, radio remains the most widely available medium of communication globally. Especially in Africa, radio is the first choice of communication [PDF], with more than 80 percent of the population having access to it. Community radios are taking off across Africa and they grew 1,386 percent between 2000 and 2006.
“Radio is cheap, portable and can work without electricity, which makes it especially more important in countries without reliable power supply,” said Claudia Abreu Lopes, the head of research at Africa’s Voices, a communications for development charity with a focus on Africa.
“Even in the rural or remote areas, almost everyone is using mobile phones, through which they can have access to radio.”
More importantly, radio means community, dialogue and a push for social change, Lopes explained.
“Community radios act as a hub for information and dialogue. Even the very existence of such initiatives gives people an agency to speak up. When people express dissatisfaction with things freely on a community radio, it can mobilise communities.”
“Radio training and skills also give women and marginalised groups a new status,” added Lopes.
When street children like Cecilia and Chloe speak up their minds and tell their stories on their community radio, they believe the community that they interact with every day starts to see them with a different pair of eyes. That said, once the weekly programme is over, Cecilia, Chloe, and others go back to the streets and their daily realities.
Cecilia is really into fashion. She wants to be a fashion designer one day and create her own brand. Likewise, Chloe wants to go to school and doesn’t want to be a sex worker, if she can find a better alternative than being a wife.
Although they cherish the opportunity to become citizen journalists, their educational and economic prospects for the future remain very limited.
“Street children already have a very tough reality. Our community should acknowledge that and should treat us with a particular kindness instead of looking down on us and making life harder,” Cecilia concluded, as she finished the weekly show of Mungongo ya Mwana.
She is not sure if she will be able to have a home again one day or go to that fashion school. But at least, she has told her story and got it off her chest.
Didem Tali was an African Great Lakes Initiative Fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Some names and personal details have been changed to protect the identities of vulnerable minors.