KINSHASA (Reuters) - Kevin Lusongo has been on the streets since he was 11. He sleeps on a piece of cardboard in an unlit parking lot in a poor neighborhood of Kinshasa, behind trucks he hopes can shield him from view.
Some nights he’s unlucky. Recently police came looking for a stolen handbag and beat him up when they didn’t find it, said the boy, who’s now 14.
Then there are the older children.
“Often when you sleep, the others come and burn your feet with (flaming) plastic bags,” he said. “The oldest will see you and take your money. If you complain, they beat you severely.”
Kevin has the gaunt frame of a boy unused to nutritious meals since he was turned out by his family. He works odd jobs, begs and picks through trash to survive.
He is one of 25,000 street children in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, a number that has nearly doubled in a decade, according to 2014 figures from the U.N. children’s agency, with thousands more in the country’s other cities.
Congo is Africa’s top producer of copper and a mining boom has fueled annual economic growth of 8 percent for five years, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But like many commodity-dependent African countries such as Angola and Nigeria, it has struggled to translate export-driven growth into broader social gains. It is still suffering the after-effects of a civil war in the east that ended in 2003 but left disease, displacement and inter-community violence in its wake.
Kinshasa to the west is groaning under one of the world’s fastest-growing urban populations. Outside the well-heeled city center, there is little sign of prosperity, with most of its 11 million people crammed into rundown neighborhoods where rubbish is piled in alleyways.
None are more vulnerable than the street children, who are known as “shegues”.
Denis Mabwa, who works for REEJER, a coalition of groups assisting street children, said charities like his find homes for about 3,000 children each year, while around 6,000 new children move in the opposite direction.
“There has been a reconstruction of large infrastructure. There is a stabilization of the currency,” said Jean-Pierre Godding, director of the Ndako Ya Biso center that works to reunite street children with their families.
“But in the big working-class neighborhoods, no investment has yet been made to improve the infrastructure,” said Godding, citing routine flooding and frequent power blackouts. “The popular neighborhoods have really been neglected.”
The statistics on poverty paint a confusing picture.
The government says economic growth has helped the whole of society but that it wants more rapid progress. At a news conference in January, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo said 50,000 jobs were created in 2015 and poverty was declining.
The percentage of the population living below the national poverty line has dropped to 63 percent from over 70 percent since a civil war ended in 2003 and more children are completing primary school, the government says.
But the IMF says the annual rate of poverty reduction has hardly budged since the 1990s, when Congo - then called Zaire - was registering negative economic growth.
Among so-called world megacities of 10 million or more people, Kinshasa is expected to record the second-highest annual growth rate between 2014 and 2030 at 3.67 percent, according to a U.N. report, and residents say lack of government social provision is pushing many families toward financial ruin.
Ruth Tumba-Maseu, 15, said she fled her uncle’s house in 2014 after he beat her. She slept on the streets before being directed by a friend to a center for girls affiliated with Ndako Ya Biso where she is now able to live full-time.
She said girls sleeping rough were often beaten and sexually abused. “Life in the street isn’t good for girls. The boys think that you are there for the taking.”
According to Unicef, girls comprised 26 percent of the population of street children in 2006 but now account for about 44 percent.
“The conditions are deteriorating,” said REEJER’s Mabwa. “You see terrible overcrowding. The children really can’t stay (at home).”
Child rights advocates fear street children could be used as pawns in street protests and get caught up in violence ahead of a presidential election due in November to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila.
Groups that help street children say they get no consistent government support.
The minister of gender, family and children, Lucie Kipele, told Reuters the government was very concerned by the issue of street children and was creating a committee to study it. However, she said she was not familiar with numbers showing the problem worsening and that funding of children’s groups was handled by multiple ministries.
The war in eastern Congo that ended in 2003 killed millions of people, and since then armed groups have fought over mineral supplies. There was almost no fighting in Kinshasa, but many people fled west to the capital.
Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country for decades until 1997 and provided only minimal social services to the population. Many citizens now view the government with suspicion and doubt its ability to improve their lives.
Norbert Toe, head of an IMF mission to Congo, said the mining boom had contributed little to overall welfare.
“Capital comes in, (the companies) exploit the natural resource, take it out as exports, and the profits get repatriated,” he said on the IMF website.
Relatively low taxes on the mining sector compared with countries such as Zambia constrain Congo’s annual spending to less than $5 billion, limiting the government’s ability to spend on social sectors, he said.
Some international donors including Britain and the United States have also questioned the government’s spending priorities.
In unusually pointed remarks in Dec. 2015, British ambassador Graham Zebedee criticized the government for spending as much on the presidency, parliament and the prime minister’s office budgets as on primary, secondary and technical education.
The government allocated just 3.4 percent of its 2015 budget to the health sector, roughly the same amount it spent on parliament, according to the donors.
In response to written questions, Congo’s Budget Minister Michel Bongongo said that close to 30 percent of the government’s spending in 2014 went toward “improving the living conditions of the population”, including on health, education, electricity, drinking water and communal transport.
He said that government action, including urban infrastructure development, has benefited working-class neighborhoods outside city centers. “Whether its infrastructure for schools or hospitals that are rehabilitated or constructed, or even roads, many are located in outlying areas,” he said.
Back on the streets, Kevin told how he started living rough more than three years ago when he was kicked out of his uncle’s house, where his mother was living, for lack of space.
For the past year he has spent his days at Ndako Ya Biso, which is funded by donors - where he receives schooling, food and medical care - before returning to the street at night.
He still dreams of being reunited with his mother.
“They’ll be talking to my mother,” he says, describing the imaginary scene at the center. “I won’t know that they are speaking about it but then they’ll take me to the house.”
Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Pravin Char