“Street children” are among those emblematic figures of poverty and family relegation that feed prejudice. Ethnographic survey in Burkina Faso.
The "street children" are at the crossroads of fantasies : the case of “unaccompanied minors” wandering in certain streets of the French capital demonstrates this well. They often arouse confused impressions, oscillating between compassion for beings bruised too early and the diffuse fear of an onslaught of miserable people.
However, joining the street does not take the same forms in Paris, Beijing, Calcutta, Ouagadougou or Kinshasa. Each urban environment is characterized by its dead ends and its specific opportunities. My field surveys, carried out alongside them in Ouagadougou for more than ten years, have led me to consider “street children” other than through the opposition between victim and threat.
Alone in the street?
In Burkina Faso, a inhabitant out of two is under 16 years old. As sociability in the urban environment is deployed very widely in the public space, the "street children" hardly distinguish themselves, on a daily basis, from the mass of children and young people who roam the streets of the city: small itinerant traders, Koranic beggar students, children playing football in the streets of their neighborhood or young people sitting in the shade of a tree remaking the world over tea.
Nor are they the only children sleeping rough. The latter are under the responsibility of an adult (a parent, a Koranic teacher, the blind person they assist, the shopkeeper they work for, etc.).
The “street children”, meanwhile, live there independently. It is therefore less the place than a relational position that characterizes them.
Overall, they eat their fill, which is not the case for all Burkinabè. Begging, odd jobs, theft and trafficking are significant sources of income. Despite the omnipresence of violence and an obvious emotional deprivation, leisure and amusement make up an important part of their daily lives. Those who make a living from theft sometimes wear “trendy” clothes, and even occasionally send money to their relatives back in the village. In fact, they are rarely orphans, and even less so in a society where the brothers and sisters of the parents of the child are considered by him as fathers and mothers.
Many of these street “children” grow up there and are in their twenties or older. “Street children” can therefore be “adults”. Their presence, which implicitly signals the limits of reintegration projects, is however largely overlooked. Charitable associations only come to the aid of minor individuals: at the age of 18, the street child, a victim to be helped, suddenly becomes a unrepentant offender to lock up.
The “street children” are therefore very far from being the only children in the street and, above all, they are not all children. They also consider that this designation is slanderous and stigmatizing: it would imply that they were born “in the street”, even “of the street” – in the sense that they would be “son of the street”. Ultimately, they prefer the name bakoroman, a term from the Nouchi language, the urban slang of Côte d'Ivoire, which designates someone who lives and sleeps in the street, without anyone there being responsible for his existence.
Migrate to the streets?
If poverty is found at any age, it appeared that only adolescents adopt this way of life, most often between 12 and 17 years old. The older bakoroman simply stayed on the streets. But after 25 years, they are rare. The observation of their trajectories thus redraws the contours of adolescence, moreover confirmed by the recent works in neurobiology, who have shown that the brain does not reach full maturity until around the age of 25, even if the law now considers that one is an adult from the age of 18.
The bakoroman most often sought to escape difficult family situations (poverty, divorce, abandonment, death, etc.). They like to introduce themselves like migrants, actors of their destiny.
For young Burkinabè, migration is a "departure on an adventure" and a recognized means of accessing material resources, raising one's social status and gaining experience by rubbing shoulders with the wide world, before settling in his adult life. Leaving home can bring hope when neither the family nor the State offer you a path to success: many children work in the fields all day, classes bring together sometimes more than 100 students and school fees too often make it impossible to continue school beyond the primary cycle.
The bakoroman thus seek to fit into a certain normality of the departure on an adventure adolescents and young men in West Africa. And just like for the migrants who go up the Sahara or who embark on makeshift boats to cross the Mediterranean, reducing their mobility to a last resort in the face of misery prevents us from understanding their trajectories.
The increasingly precarious position of miners and unskilled workers on the marché du travail, growing insecurity in the countryside and the structuring of networks of bakoroman who take charge of welcoming new arrivals contribute to channeling certain young adventurers towards the mirages of the street. They thus join, in increasing numbers, marginal networks, marked by massive drug consumption, a flexible hierarchy, low tolerance for coercion and access to relatively large financial gains. So many characteristics that complicate their reintegration, especially since, in the street, they missed this essential step for the future which is that of training, school or apprenticeship.
At the end of the street ?
Putting the street back in the prism of youth migration helps to understand the high failure rate of institutional reintegration projects, which consider the bakoroman as belonging to children in danger. Those Regional programs generally offer a return to the family with modest material or economic support, or placement in a residential center with a view to schooling or entry into an apprenticeship. Not only do these initiatives not always appear as solutions in the eyes of the children in care, but they deny their project of economic independence and their desire for individual affirmation.
This aid is nonetheless essential. Because this way of life is conditioned by the opportunities offered by the indeterminacy of their status, between childhood and adulthood, the bakoroman know that the street will end as they grow up. While some are bogged down between drug addiction, homelessness and crime, others manage to turn their backs on the streets for good and become responsible heads of families. If the street is never the shortcut to success that some hoped for, it does not necessarily represent a way of no return.
The way of life adopted by the majority of “street children” is conditioned by the in-between, neither children – they are able to survive on their own – nor adults – they have not yet acquired responsibilities. It is only by fully recognizing their capacity for action, but without forgetting that they do not yet have the maturity and skills necessary to take charge of themselves, that we will be able to support them in overcoming the impasses of the Street.
The work of Muriel Champy, "Making your youth in the streets of Ouagadougou", has just been published by the Société d'Ethnologie.