Young children selling food and small household items on the street are all too common in Goma, a town on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our Observer, Eliezaire Ushindi Mwendapeke, a student in the town, spoke with several of these children, who typically come from poor families, or have been left on their own and are forced to seek refuge in the streets or in small shops.

In his town of Goma, Eliezaire frequently sees children rummaging for scraps or weighed down with containers filled with water in the hopes of selling them to locals. Some of them have left school and are forced to survive on their own.

Boys selling items in the street in Goma, Congo. Photo: Eliezaire Ushindi Mwendapeke

It’s a situation that Eliezaire himself knows well. As a boy, he also helped his family out by selling fruit in the evening while continuing to attend school. He describes a recent encounter when he was out accompanying his mother, who was selling fruit in the street.

“They pass the time by wandering in the streets, collecting items in cardboard boxes and trying to sell them.”

I saw these children take some fruit from the rotten pile of bananas, pineapples and avocados in the basket and eat them. I followed the children to ask them what they were doing.

A boy rummaging for food scraps in Goma, Congo. Photo: Eliezaire Ushindi Mwendapeke

They told me they were no longer in school but did not want to stay in their empty homes, because their parents were working, and they had nothing to eat. They found other ways to pass the time by wandering in the streets, collecting items in cardboard boxes and trying to sell them.

I met another girl who was carrying bananas, who told me that usually, after coming home from school at 2 in the afternoon, she does her homework and then heads back into town to sell the fruit, which she buys in bulk at the Goma port. "I’m tired, but I have to do this," she said. "My family’s financial situation is like this, how are they going to eat, so I help my mom out by selling bananas."

A girl selling banans in Goma, Congo. Photo: Eliezaire Ushindi Mwendapeke

“When I see something, I post it on social media. It’s a way to hear the voices of children in Congo”

And it’s not unique to Goma   there are an estimated 40,000 street children in Congo, according to the World Bank. This is partly due to the decades of conflict and human rights abuses that displaced communities and often left them impoverished. Often left to fend for themselves, street children are more likely to be drawn to substance abuse, crime, vandalism and sex work.

The kids range from 7 to 14 years old. They don’t make much money. Bananas can bring in around 1,000 Congolese francs each [Editor’s note: around 0.50 euros]. It’s just to earn a little money for the family, to pay for school supplies, for example. I met another girl who was selling household supplies and who set up near my mother around 3pm to sell to people coming back from work. They’re helping their parents make some money.

When there are water shortages in Goma, some parents leave it to the children to get water. They take scooters to get water from the lake and come back carrying these containers. They might sell a container for 500 Congolese francs [Editor’s note: around 0.30 euros] during water shortages. Some of these children don’t go to school, and others who do then travel for two or three hours to collect water and have to wait in the oppressively hot sun.

I also met three boys rummaging in a trash disposal site in Bukavu [Editor’s note: a city located in the South Kivu province, around 200 kilometres from Goma]. They were penniless, they didn’t go to school, they were street children who slept under the stars. They were looking for scraps of food from the kitchen and plastic items like bags that they could resell to other families.

A video by our Observer, Eliezaire Ushindi Mwendapeke, on the plight of children in the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces in Congo.

My childhood wasn’t easy either. I also sold bags of food, like pineapples, peanuts, or avocadoes, it depended on my mother. But I studied at school as well. That’s why I’m interested in these kids. I’ve lived that life too, I know how tiring and shocking it can be, and I don’t want them to go through that.

When I see something, I post it on social media. It’s a way to hear the voices of children in Congo, and to call on the authorities to protect these children, no matter where they are.