Street kids in Juba: A tragedy of African urbanization

(Juba, RoSS) - My first experience with the so called street kids was in 2007 in Kampala, Uganda. It was one of those beautiful African Summer mornings with the Sun glowing as it rises, and I decided to go to Shoprite (one of the biggest grocery stores in Uganda) to buy a few things for the day. I had just arrived from the United States then, and I did not know anybody with a car, so I got on public bus and headed to downtown Kampala where the nearest Shoprite was. As we approached downtown, our bus stopped at the traffic light right in front of Shoprite. Within a few minutes, our bus was surrounded by children (aging from 4-12) who were begging for change/coins. These were the street kids.

It really broke my heart to see innocent children roaming the streets in poverty, without parental guidance or affection. Since then, I had been asking myself about what really went wrong in those children’s lives that forced them to end up begging on the streets. I also asked myself why there were never street kids in my village, and if there will ever be street kids in South Sudan. But recently, my worst fear became a reality; there are now street kids in Juba. So how did the Juba’s street kids come about? And is there anything that could be done to at least reduce,if not prevent the spread of street kids in Juba and the rest of the Republic of South Sudan?

Why Juba Street kids are a tragedy of African Urbanization

When I came into this world, I had no lack of people to welcome me. I was born into a family of eight siblings, and three parents (my biological mother, my step-mother and my father). As it was in my small village of DukPadiet, in modern Jonglei State, the Republic of South Sudan, and probably in the entire Dinka culture, my entire family welcomed me with open hands when I was born. By the time I learned that they named me Thon, I also learned that my two mothers (my biological mother and my step-mother) equally addressed me as their son and all my brothers and sisters addressed and treated me as their brother regardless of who comes from which mother. With such a tight bond, it took me a while to learn that my siblings and I were not all from the same mother, but that did not change my attitude toward my step brothers and sisters.I always treated them just like my other brothers and sisters from my biological mother.

My father was a farmer owning cattle and farming the land. He divided his assets between his two wives giving each of them almost equal number of cattle. He also fairly divided his yearly harvests between them.My father was a hardworking man and we usually had surplus each good farming year. We had food shortage only when Mother Nature did not favor the entire village and allowed natural disasters such as drought or flood.

Of course, there was no running water, no electricity and no schools in my village of DukPadiet during my childhood. We used to see vehicles passing on the Bor-Malakal road once or twice a month during the dry season, and none during the rainy season. In general, my village was near-virgin of modernization/urbanization, but I have to say that I was a very happy child in my village.

Not every child was fortunate in my village, however. Some children were victims of misfortune by losing a parent or both; usually to natural death. However, such orphans were taken care of by the closest relatives (elder brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc.).

In my village, if a man died, his wife was automatically inherited by the brother or by the next closest male kin. In a situation of the deceased having many brothers, the most fit (usually financially) is given the wife although age is often taken into consideration; that is the brother closest to the deceased in age would inherit the wife.  During those days only men had the financial power, so if a family man died, his family needed to be taken care of and that is why it was important to choose the most financially sound brother to support the family of the deceased. Having many children was also a norm in my village and there was a need for the widow to continue having children with the chosen brother-in-law. These children were usually given their deceased father’s name.

Apart from natural misfortunes, irresponsible pregnancy can be another way a kid can end up on the street, and this occurred in my village then as it exists in today’s cities. The common cases were that once a girl got pregnant, the man responsible would agree to marry her even before the child is born. But in rare cases, the man who impregnated the girl may decide not to take the responsibility and have nothing to do with the child, and thereby rejects that child together with the mother. In such a situation, the girl’s family had the right to go to court and declare that they would take care of the girl and her child and that the man who denied the responsibility would never have anything to do with the girl and her child;the child then becomes a member of the maternal family and is given family name. This ends the father-child relationship forever, and it would be considered a crime by the court for the irresponsible father to ever re-appear in that child’s life in anyway.

Based on the above account, a kid can end up on the street if a parent/parents died early and there is nobody to take care of that child, or as a result of irresponsible pregnancy.

As for other potential reasons that can produce street kids, some kids can run away from homes even when the parents are financially and morally capable of bringing them up, but such kids don’t run away from parents at the age of 4-12 (the age of most street kids in Juba). War can also generate homelessness, but not only for children, but for everybody. Even during the Sudan civil war in which many South Sudanese were displaced, there were no street kids. Families suffered and survived, or died together. Therefore early death and irresponsible pregnancy could be the chief catalysts of producing street kids. And as seen above, the difference is that children who became victims of death or irresponsible pregnancy before the CPA and the ensuing independence were taken care of by either the paternal or maternal relatives, or both based on the situation. This is rarely the case with the street kids currently living in Juba.

Therefore, as South Sudanese transition from traditional African way of life to the modern/urban way of life, it is imminent that the number of street kids in the country will keep increasing.This is because young people,both boys and girls are flocking to cities and especially to Juba for search of modern lifestyle when they don’t have what it takes (skills and other means of earning incomes) to survive in the city. Such young people become vulnerable to irresponsible pregnancies and possible fathers and mothers of the current Juba street kids. This tragedy of African urbanization might have been what our late Hero Dr. John Garang De Mabior sensed when he urged the people of South Sudan to bring town to the people, and not people going to towns.

If we followed his advice, this tragedy could have been avoided by pursuing a hybrid urbanization in which villagers who do not have what it takes to abruptly move to town could maintain their village life of farming and raising cattle. People in this category would also keep their traditional way of life (communalism) to help those who are not able while gradually transforming their villages into towns and cities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Street kids are everywhere in Africa and many parts of the developing world, and there seems to be no exceptions for the newly independent Republic of South Sudan as there are already street kids in Juba. And as South Sudanese adapt the modern life which is more individualistic than communal, orphans and neglected children will become more vulnerable to street life since their close relatives will not support them.  It is not however too late to at least reduce, if not prevent the increase in the number of street kids in South Sudan.

The task of reducing/preventing the increase of street kids in South Sudan first lies with our young men and women living in the cities. Both young South Sudanese men and women have equal responsibility to prevent irresponsible pregnancy. If you are a young man living in the city without a job or reasonable income to support a child, you should know better that once you get a girl pregnant, you are producing a street kid. If you are a young girl of the same category, please wage your options and make the best choice for you and eventually your kids.

The second responsibility lies with the parents/relatives of the irresponsible young parents. If you are doing well (in town or in the village) and your son or daughter is caught up in a situation of losing a child to the streets for whatever reason, please help that kid until the kid  is able to take care of him/herself. This could be effectively done by keeping our communal way of living and not so quickly falling for the individualistic way of life usually encouraged by money and other aspects of urban life.

In a situation where there are already street kids, the government of South Sudan should intervene by creating welfare systems for these street kids. The better way for the government to help the street kids is to build centers for them and employ social workers to take care of them. Most of these kids are normal and if they have something to eat, a place to live and access to education, some of them could become our future leaders.

For the general public of South Sudan, there is no such thing as a street kid other than a kid whose parents have neglected. So if you are a parent who is not participating in the upbringingof your kid, that kid can simply end up as a street kid.  This applies to everybody, including those who think they are this and that in life. So please be responsible parents, and as a community, we can reduce if not prevent the spread of street kids in our newly born country.

*Thon Agany Ayiei received an MA in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and works in Juba. He can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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