Inside Rwanda’s street life: Juveniles as crime partners of respected adults

By Jean d’Amour Mugabo

Marembo Centre hosts former delinquents girls and helps them with rehabilitation and reintegration into their or foster families. Photo Mugabo

Early September in Nyabugogo area of Kigali City, a lady in her 20s was assaulted by four street girls who qualify themselves as “marine” to mean the toughest among delinquents.

For onlookers, the act seemed as a usual attack aimed at stealing the lady’s handbag or revenge over something bad she did to the delinquent girls but the gang took nothing from her nor did they even have any grudges with the victim who received heavy punches and sticks. The delinquents did it in seconds and ran away to disappear in Nyabugogo swamps after having made what they term “good cash” without revealing the exact amount.

A month later, Pan African Visions’ (PAV) reporter based in Kigali caught up with two of the delinquent girls who were involved in the assault. They briefly recounted the deal which led up to assault without going into details for fear of retribution.

“A woman recently came and gave us cash to beat a girl with whom her husband was going out. Some men also give us money to buy illicit drinks for them because they fear to go to buy the drinks for themselves. For us, we are fearless; we do not fear jail; we feel like our life is worthless,” said an 18-year delinquent girl who preferred anonymity.

The delinquent from Huye District in Southern Rwanda said she has taken part in many similar deals over the last three years she has spent on Kigali streets after a spell in Nyamata city in Bugesera District.

“If one pays us for beating someone, we do it. I have done those deals with many non-delinquent people. Some people pay us to beat others with whom they have conflicts. We do it as a group of delinquents; we surround the person we want to beat, beat them, and then run away,” she said, adding that she has also been doing prostitution to earn a living since she got on streets at 15 years of age.

Prostitution is not a crime under Rwandan law but having sex with any person below 18 years of age is a child defilement crime.

Drug trafficking, theft partnership

Moving forward, our investigation found more crimes jointly committed by delinquents and admired people in their surroundings.

Gigi (not real name), a 15-year boy, spends his day on streets and market of Nyabugogo collecting waste foodstuffs and goes back home where he stays with his parents at Yanze in Gatsata Sector of Gasabo District in the evening.

“As I do not spend nights here, nobody has ever asked me to help them in illegal activities here in Nyabugogo. However, some people in our neighbourhood send me to buy some items for them including cigarettes, illicit brew or gin and weed,” said the boy who has been on streets for four years during which he faced detention three times at Kwa Kabuga transit centre in Gikondo, a Kigali suburb.

“I don’t fear police catching me while carrying drugs to those people because police can ask me the person to whom I am taking the product and I can show them that person. They can let me walk free because I would have shown them the adult person who sent me to bring them that illegal product,” the boy innocently added.

He said his parents are aware that he spends a day on streets to work for a living where he makes around Rwf1,000 daily and hands over the money to them for the family’s upkeep.

Gege (not his name), 18-year “marine” boy from Nyagatare District in the Eastern Rwanda, said he has been doing petty theft the three years on streets of Kigali and the theft is sometimes commissioned by non-delinquents especially small retailers.

“When I step in a place and see someone with stuffs, I keep monitoring that person’s movements and when they shortly get busy, I steal that stuff and run away to sell the stuff and get money to buy food; that is how I earn a living, I can’t lie to you,” he said.

“Non-delinquents commission us on some illegal tasks. There is time, at that place of Kwa Mutangana (at Nyabugogo Market), a man put down a sack of rice while buying other stuffs, then a saleswoman told me to pick the sack and hand it to her for money, I did it and she paid me.”

Gasene, 17, who left home in Mbazi Sector of Huye District four years ago, said he has done a lot of petty theft offenses including grabbing phones from people’s ears or pockets and non-delinquents used to task him on illegal activities but he has changed to running away with the money of whoever tasks him on illegal activities after tasting the wrath of the detention centres.

“Once on Huye streets, a man told me that he knew where his neighbour was keeping the door’s key; he told me to go and pick the key, open the house and steal for him the big tape radio. I did it and he paid me Rwf15,000. Another school teacher man used to pay me Rwf800 when he sent me for buying him chief waragi (an illicit brew); I would see security people and threw away the waragi and ran away; he would lose his money but when I delivered it to him, he had to pay me for the service,” he said.

“But if one sends me now for drugs, I will run away with their money and not buy them the drugs because I know the consequences I can face if security people catch me carrying drugs. Yeah it happened; a man gave me money to buy him weed but I escaped with the money and ignored him.”

Gasene said he sometimes finds his colleagues being paid for assaulting someone “but I have never done the deal of assaulting anyone for money. I am trying hard to avoid being taken to Kwa Kabuga (a renowned transit centre in Kigali). It’s a hell on earth, that is not a place anyone feels they can go to. There are very bad men detained there who heavily beat us and treat us in harsh conditions.”

Umuna (not her name), a 14-year old girl who live at Marembo Centre in Kigali’s Kicukiro District since August, said she has spent her life rotating from streets to orphanages to families and back to streets. On Kimironko streets in Kigali’s Gasabo District, she used to collaborate with non-delinquents adults as they sent her to buy them illicit drinks.

“When I lived on Kimironko streets, one married woman sent me to buy for her illicit brew called Icyuma (metal). The brew looks like water, I bought it, they wrapped it in an envelope and I delivered it at her home,” she said.

More street teenage girls spoke of doing sex work with adult men who lure them with often Rwf1,000 which the delinquents use to buy meals. Some of them get pregnant and give birth on streets and keep living with their babies on streets.

Irebe (not her name) lives on Nyabugogo streets and often spends a day in the bamboos on Nyabugogo River where she takes shower and washes clothes of her own and of her five-month baby. She came to streets with a three-month pregnancy when the wife of her former boss, who impregnated Irebe at her 17 years, sacked her from their home in Gatsata Sector where she served as a house maid. Her former boss who allegedly impregnated her escaped from the area after Irebe told him she was pregnant.

Government pledges solution

Modeste Mbabazi, the Spokesperson of Rwanda Investigation Bureau, told PAV last week that the bureau hasn’t categorised the crimes committed by delinquents because once they commit a crime, they are dealt with as any other criminal, adding that a survey might be required to determine the extent of delinquents’ crimes.

Aimé Bosenibamwe, the Director-General of Rwanda Rehabilitation Centre (NRS), told PAV last week that his office in collaboration with security organs have started an operation to take all delinquents out of streets by December, and that NRS has commissioned a survey to determine the magnitude and causes of delinquency whose report is expected to be published early next year.

“We want to take them (delinquents) to rehabilitation centres and then reintegrate them back to their families but we are also working with local governments to help in solving the family issues which push children on streets,” he said. Mr. Bosenibamwe said NRS is aware of the threat that delinquents pose to the society and that security organs arrests them and courts try them when they commit crimes.

NRS statistics indicate that there were 4,407 delinquents, including adults and children, in transit and rehabilitation centres in March, 2019 but the National Children Council’s report of May, 2019 indicated there were 2,882 street children in Rwanda including 2,621 boys or 91% and 261 girls or 9%.

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