A place for Maputo’s children

Building Design, October 2006, Feature

Thinking about it now, it was probably only a toy gun. But surrounded by 40 teenagers living a Lord of the Flies existence on the margins of society, most likely in an altered state through glue or alcohol, arguing with our minder in an African language I couldn’t understand, I was ready to believe the worst.

We were in the rubble-strewn back yard of a derelict shell of a building in downtown Maputo. Home, if you can call it that, to a gang of street children aged between 15 and 21. We were here to try to talk to them for a short film on the work of Architects for Aid, to be shown next month at BD’s Architect of the Year Awards. But as their hostility made clear, they weren’t keen to talk to us. Another British journalist had been here a few months before and had paid them for interviews. Information was now a currency to be traded, a commodity like the junk the children scavenge to sell on the street. There would be no filming without an exchange of cash.

How much of their resistance was deep felt and how much play-acting was hard to tell. Children are forced into early adulthood, and the evidence of that dual state of being was all around: a game of ball against the back wall among last night’s empty gin bottles; an anarchic regime without the rule of parents but still with its own hierarchy (it soon became clear that one boy, the oldest perhaps, was their leader); teasing each other and fooling around among the grown-up squalor. The gun I spotted in the hands of two boys no more than 15 — a toy or a weapon? It could have been either.

The number of children living on the streets in sub-Saharan Africa rises daily. In the Mozambique capital, Maputo, the problem is particularly acute.

As summer begins here — with temperatures near 30°C and humidity soaring — so does the rainy season. Six years ago the rains brought with them the worst flood in living memory. It destroyed the country’s infrastructure and left nearly a million people destitute, the worst hit of course were the most vulnerable slum neighbourhoods. It was a cruel blow to a country that had just begun to rebuild itself after 16 years of vicious civil war, hampering the reconstruction effort. Even today more than 50% of the country’s population lives on less than $1 a day.

The legacy of this combination of political and natural disasters — exacerbated as well by the Africa-wide HIV/Aids pandemic — has been to devastate the traditional family structure.

The worst to suffer have been the children — orphaned through war, flood or illness, or having to negotiate new stepparents or simply no longer able to rely on family for support, they have been migrating to the city centres to eke out their own fortunes. There the children build their own societies, forming themselves into gangs and marking out their rival territories.

Individual stories are harder to get at. Of all the children I met, none of them would give me a complete picture of the circumstances that led to them living on the street. Field workers with the local NGO, Meninos de Mocambique (MDM), spend years gaining the children’s trust before they learn the truth. The personal accounts of the traumas of war, disaster and parental abuse isn’t easily expressed.

When the street children we visited eventually decided to let us film, we saw how they lived. Without doors, or glass at the windows, the bathroom burnt out and unusable. A fire boiling water in-between the exposed joists where the floorboards once were — stripped out for burning perhaps? Faces peering out of the gloom of the basement rooms where the younger children sleep. Walking through this house I remembered the warnings I’d been given about the germs and disease that these children often carry — TB, hepatitis, malaria.

While MDM does all it can to give these children a future, reintegrating them with their families and their communities, the best cure is prevention.

Which is why Architects for Aid is here. Set up by Maxwell Hutchinson after he was caught up in the Asian tsunami in 2004, the charity now has a clutch of projects around the world from Kabul to Transylvania.

Working with British NGO, Street Child Africa, Architects for Aid has sent out Michael Ferreira — a South African-trained architect working in the UK — to design a centre for vulnerable youngsters in the Luis Cabral settlement on the outskirts of Maputo. After 10 years working with street children in the city centre, MDM is extending its outreach work to the outlying communities — to intervene early with children at risk before they end up on the street, by giving them the skills they need to build a more positive future.

This is Ferreira’s second visit to Luis Cabral. In May he came here to talk to local leaders and begin the laborious process of securing land. The original plan was for a creche and medical centre. Here 46% of the neighbourhood’s children have teenage mothers and are without childcare support. These young mothers can fall into a cycle of poverty, dropping out of school and into prostitution.

But as Ferreira explains, the project is as much a process as a building — and during this visit the brief has continued to develop. As well as the creche, it will now also house a training centre teaching employment skills such as carpentry, welding and hairdressing.

On the way to visit the site in Luis Cabral we saw an example of how this building will make a difference. Two teenage girls, formerly street children, have just set up their own business after a three-month training course from MDM. Now two-weeks-old, their hairdressing salon, an immaculately kept reed wall hut at the side of the road, is the fulfilment of a dream. With a dedicated training centre, stories like theirs will become more common.

Although Luis Cabral is one of the more developed settlements — the houses here tend to be constructed from concrete and corrugated iron as well as the more usual reed walls — architecture with a capital A is nonetheless an alien concept.

So this building — with its strong exterior face and internally open welcoming spaces — will be an opportunity to make a real statement and provide a new symbol for the community.

In the west, the role the built environment can play in community regeneration is well established, but in countries such as Mozambique, still struggling to re-establish basic infrastructure, the debate hasn’t even begun. This project, and others being supported by Architects for Aid, could begin to make that difference.

Zoë Blackler