Every day, in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, children scavenge to earn enough to to survive and many also have families to support. Our Observer, Ferdinand Bi Sengi, recently met a group of children who gather waste metal in the streets of Bujumbura, and sell it for recycling.

“They sell the scrap by the weight, for very little, given the strenuousness of the work”

Ferdinand Bi Sengi is a Burundian journalist.

Two weeks ago, when I was out in the street, my eyes were drawn to a group of children who were going through a pile of rubbish where they were gathering bits of metal in bags. So I decided to follow them for a few hours and take photos.

Metal-recycling children in Bujumbura, September 2018. Photo: Ferdinand Bi Sengi.

These children come every day to the centre of Bujumbura, from neighbourhoods on the edge of the city, such as Kamenge and Buterere. Some of them have come from the provinces and sleep in the street. These children are sometimes very young, ranging in age from four years old to 11.

They walk around the Buyenzi and Bwiza neighbourhoods in Bujumbura because in these areas there are many mechanic’s garages and shops selling spare parts. It is in the surrounding open-air landfills that the children have the best chance of finding scrap metal. They generally collect used spare parts, nails, and pieces of sheet metal. Sometimes they also fish metallic objects out of the Nyabagera river, which flows through the city.

At the day’s end, the children go to the wholesalers located throughout the city to sell the scrap metal they have collected.

“Some have given up completely on school to help their families”

They sell the scrap by weight, for between 300 and 500 Burundian francs per kilogramme [between €0.14 and €0.24]. It is very little, given the strenuousness of the job. They work 12 hours per day and walk for several kilometres loaded down with metal.

Children recyclers carrying their booty in plastic bags. Photo by Ferdinand Bi Sengi.

The wholesalers then sell on the scrap metal to factories that manufacture nails, iron for reinforced concrete, grills and other construction material [Editor’s note: scrap metal is also exported to Uganda and Kenya, where they are recycled in steel mills].

It is not known how many of them there are, but the children who do this work are numerous. They can be seen every day on the roadside, walking several kilometres to reach Bujumbura. To get home at night, they often dangerously jump on to the back of lorries.

Metal-recycling children hanging onto an oil tanker to get home. Photo by Ferdinand Bi Sengi.

Some of these children have completely given up on school to work and make a contribution to their families’ income. Others work only during the school holidays to earn enough money to pay for school supplies and clothes.

The authorities have recently taken measures such as bringing children who come from the provinces back to their family. But they often return to the city. When asked why they don’t go back to their parents, they say they have nothing to eat there.

Burundi’s ministry for Human Rights in April this year launched operations to reunite street children with their families. “More than 1,800 children have been taken off the streets and brought back to their families”, said a ministry official.