Rose sang us a song. It was a gospel number - more Janice Joplin than Charlotte Church, despite her young age. Before pulling her scarf to her face and breathing deeply into the material stretched across her hand, she said she’d sung in her church choir.
After a few minutes in 14-year-old Rose’s company, my nose began to run. I felt nauseous and dizzy and remembering my days as a journalist investigating substance abuse some decades ago, I knew these were the classic symptoms of sniffing solvents. Rose’s ‘substance’ smelled like the cheapest of lighter fuels.
In Scotland, laws have prevented the sale of glue and butane gas to children for many years. But in Zambia in 2017, the economic downturn has increased the street children problem, and the substances available on the street have become more deadly. The children – some as young as eight, many in their early teens like Rose – use empty plastic bottles to concentrate the poison. Or like Rose, they simply pour it onto a piece of cloth that passes for a scarf or the cuff of a ragged sleeve. Then they breathe deeply to assuage their hunger and anaesthetise them into a disturbed sleep that helps pass the night.
One of Rose’s friends was heavily pregnant. It was difficult to judge how old the boys were - their bodies pre-pubescent because of the lack of nourishment. At other sites around Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, we met boys huddled around braziers and children who swarmed around the gratings of supermarkets. The temperature in Zambia can sink as low as 5 degrees during the night at this time of year.
When Fr Renato Sesana, known as Fr Kizito, set up the Mthunzi Children’s Project in 2001, the street children problem was bad. I had attended a pan-African AIDS conference in Zambia at the end of the 1990s when it had been discussed as an outcome of the HIV-AIDS pandemic that would have to be addressed. I was introduced to the Mthunzi orphanage in 2002 and in the coming years set up a charity in Argyll to support the education of its residents. As our role changed, so did our name and we are now ZamScotEd, supporting education of vulnerable children in the wider community. Support in our diocese and beyond has been generous.
The first residents at Mthunzi had sniffed glue. But few of those children had been addicted and their progress (some now work in a range of jobs including social work, accountancy, journalism and nursing) was not impeded once they were well fed and nurtured at the orphanage.
The world economy, however, has intensified the effects of poverty in countries like Zambia. Jeremy Corbyn asked if it was right that so many people in the UK have no home and only a street to live in. Of course it isn’t. But with Nigel Farage calling for a curtailment of overseas aid, it is little children in countries like Zambia whose very lives are threatened .
Rose may die before anyone gives her the chance to sing in her church choir again. Meanwhile, Mthunzi outreach social worker Edward Kambole hopes 11-year-old Joseph can be admitted to Mthunzi before more harm befalls to him. Joseph had been beaten up the night we met him and was terrified.
Our chain of action offers rescue from the streets, rehabilitation, followed by education that can break the poverty cycle. But ZamScotEd can only spit against the rainy season. A decent overseas aid budget that seeks to address gender and poverty issues can affect real differences in terms of migration and peace. Meanwhile, we’re working for justice for Rose, Joseph, and all the Zambian kids whose bellies are empty.