As I enter the food store to spend a few minutes, he waits outside staring at the tainted glass and hopeful I would have some change to spare when am out. On the way back to my car, I am barricaded by not just ‘fifty’ but a dozen other young men. Frail looking and visibly bearing a heavy toll, they all begin to cheer me with empty adoration. “Brabie, anyone try you, we will deal with them. This Brabie here is the only senior man in the town. Brabie, your pekin them really hungry o.”
The chorus of praises is now pitching high and my colleague quickly intervenes by ditching out USD20.00 to thunderous chorus of praise. But “Fifty” who had trailed me from the main street to the food store looks visibly dejected. He wants more, he needs more - he is hooked.
Benjamin Smith alias “Fifty” was an ex-combatant and amongst hundreds of young men roaming Monrovia’s busiest streets begging for alms. Money they eventually spend to support their dangerous drug habit. ‘Fifty’, now deceased, earned his nickname from the now exiled notorious former Special Security Services Director Benjamin Nyeatan, to ex-Liberian President (Charles Taylor). Nyeatan was accused of serious atrocities in Liberia civil war and went by the code name ‘Fifty’.
But the new “Fifty”, the street king and gang master, is unfazed by the notoriety of his namesake and relishes the aura of authority and power that comes with the tag.
The Capitol Insider is on the streets to understand the issues affecting the so-called “Don Bosco” boys – the name given to young men roaming the busiest street corners in Monrovia and harassing the city’s affluent working class on a daily basis.
It is interested in knowing why some of the Don Bosco boys have succeeded and why others have failed.
TCI discovered that not all street hustlers are victims of the era of tyranny and mayhem that defined Liberia in the years gone by; some are rather the bi-products of a dysfunctional social system, lacking any serious programs to absorb the growing number of less fortunate young people.
According to UNICEF, Liberia is home to 340,000 orphans due to the war. Perilously, despite the return of the country to peace, hundreds of them in their adolescence or beyond still hopelessly ply the streets as medicine sellers, drug addicts and hijackers. Apparently, a lot of initiatives intended to address the plight of these people have come and gone without much success.
The main problem, according to youth therapist, James Tetteh, is that most of the programs designed to address this problem are not effectively structured to address the root causes of the destitution faced by the “Don Bosco” boys. “These are typically one-off donor-funded programs that seek to look at the immediate degrading physical and emotional conditions of drug users, after which, the program fades and these people easily get assimilated in their comfort zone.”
“We need a holistic approach in dealing with this. This is a national crisis and until we begin to treat it as such, with the urgency and investment needed; we will risk growing a core of dangerous drug users that would definitely affect the broader society.”
True, but there have been a few success stories to point to. The Don Bosco Youth Center, from where the generalized “Don Bosco Boys” came from was one of many interventions meant to address the problem of young destitutes wandering about the streets. Salesian Missions has been working in Liberia since 1979 with its first vocational technical institute. Since then, it has developed programs with a focus on providing the youth of Liberia with skills to transform their lives and their country.
The lives of Trokon ‘Bosco’ Wleyou, 27 year-old Global Youth Ambassador on Education; James B. Kollie, 28 year-old Professional Chef and Josiah Jones, 30 year-old Nurse, are important references.
Trokon, son of a female rubber tapper became an orphan at the age of seven following the infamous Liberia Peace Council (LPC) invasion in the Southeastern region. He lost his mother during the crisis, not from gunshots but medical condition that could not be treated anywhere. He narrated that as the war intensified, his older brother, the only person left to take care of him gave up and dropped him by the roadside to fend for himself.
“I began a journey to nowhere by jumping in the bush. I walked through the forest for several hours until I reached our village. But everyone had left. I went on to the next town and luckily found a lady who said she knew me. Our encounter was short-lived due to the invasion of the LPC rebels that caused everyone to go astray. I was left alone again,” he recalled.
Trokon was constrained to sell greens and cassava to make ends meet. Whenever there were no crops to sell, he would scavenge dumpsites to find food.
He was picked up by the Salesian of Don Bosco when they came searching for Liberia’s war victims, mainly children.
Emerging from the shackles of poverty, Trokon is now “A World at School Global Youth Ambassador”- an initiative launched in 2014 by the United Nation Special Envoy on Global Education, Mr. Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister, in consultation with the United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
His advocacy for education led to the establishment of the “Liberia Youth Network on Education” a year ago. He is now reunited with his parents’ relatives in Grand Bassa.
Trokon is a rare example. The vast majority of wayward drug guzzling young men roaming Monrovia’s streets, did not have that opportunity as they were already hooked on drugs when opportunities came knocking. They are now growing in alarming numbers with crime also growing at a proportional rate.
Some of the ‘Boys’, including Alex Khan, alias Ghankay, say they are willing to leave the street if opportunities are provided.
“We want to rebuild our lives and move forward. But we need help. We have our association ‘Determined Youth Against Poverty’ and we need opportunity to make our lives better,” Khan tells The Capitol Insider.
Lawrence Karbah is a different story. Previously enrolled in a vocational program organized by the National Oil Company for less fortunate children and adults, he has gone back to the street and the use of drug since the Ebola crisis interrupted the program.
Karbah explains that he started using drug whilst in the eleventh grade. “NOCAL took most of us off the street to different vocational training centers across Montserrado and most of my friends did not complete because their desire for drugs was high. I did industrial plumbing. I really want to leave this life. I want to be taken care of medically,” he pleads.
The “Don Bosco Boys” in Monrovia today can be classified into three categories - the less fortunate young men directly affected by the civil war; the semi-literate street beggars and the hardcore criminals and drug users.
They would load cars, hijack pedestrians’ belongings, cajole people to buy fake phones, rob and prostitute to make a living. While the most dangerous are the drug users who are the main targets of law enforcement officers seeking to rid the streets of common criminals, the vast majority also contribute to the mounting pressure facing a struggling criminal justice system lacking the capacity to deal with the alarming number of troubled, idle and dangerous young men, a good number of which are ex-combatants.
At the moment, not much is being done by the Government to deal with the situation, as the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, created to address cases like these claim it is acutely under-resourced and lacks the capacity to handle this.
But beyond the government, donor funding directed at addressing this problem hasn’t been that successful either or programs have shut down when funding disappeared.
Speaking in an interview with TCI, Father Nicholas Ciarapica, explains that the Don Bosco Homes has closed down due to funding but yet, the program has assumed a new dimension through the Holy Innocents Parish Matadi Foundation, created to promote and support education especially for the children most in need.
He said the organization is now offering 300 scholarships to the children who lost their parents or tutors due to Ebola. Among them are orphans, children from single mothers and children from very low income families.
“We created a Net of Don Bosco Clubs in different parts of Monrovia involving more than 2000 youths,” Fr. Nicholas further discloses.
According to him, among the educators at the schools are also some of the street children who have been educated by the Salesians.
But this is a drop in the bucket when analyzed against the plethora of cases across the country. A lot more national attention is needed to bring the situation under proper control.
The few cases highlighted by TCI may be just the tip of the iceberg with a lot more unreported cases across the countryside.
If anything, it is time for the government to take the issue of street wanderers and young destitutes very seriously.