PATIENCE WANTS TO SEE HIS FATHER, whom he calls ‘Big Patience Jean-Claude Doctor’. But the boy, who lives on the streets of Goma, a city in the shadow of the Nyiragongo volcano on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern frontier, has been unsure about how to approach his family. For they abandoned him when he was about five years old.
“My father beat me,” says the boy, “like a man who never had a son.”
Symbols of the intense conflict that has ravaged this mineral-rich region for 16 years, tens of thousands of children roam Congo’s urban alleys. They hide from society yet live off its pity, often forsaken by families that can no longer afford to feed them or flee with them from the violence. The separation can be painful. Ever since rebel chief Laurent-Désiré Kabila, at the start of the First Congo War, took over the country with an army that included child soldiers, society has developed an irrational fear of children. Congo’s children are now often accused of sorcery—inducing murder, misfortune and death—and abandoned by their own mothers.
But Patience has come to see the street as liberation.
“I have a remarkable age,” he tells me, motioning like a rap artist. “I am thirteen.” He relates with seriousness the new names the street has given him—“American Rat”, “Kick”, “Like the Wind”. This is a different life—with no parents or teachers, no sources of discipline.
Early each morning, wearing his only clothes—a pair of dirty shorts and an old red T-shirt—Patience makes his way to the local supermarket, called Shoppers, where a security guard, himself a poor man, has usually saved leftovers from the store cafeteria to share with the children.
The boy eats hungrily, scooping up food with his hand. A little he sets aside in a plastic bag, which he twirls around his finger to make a knot. At an intersection not far from Shoppers, Patience hides the bag in a tree; and an hour later a squint-eyed boy picks at the bag like a bird, hurrying to eat while the city is still asleep.
The grinding of cars and motorcycles in Goma begins, and the children arouse themselves for the day by sniffing from bottles of glue. Patience sometimes pushes heavy carts of vegetables along roads for a dollar. More often he begs. He is the leader of a gang that harasses customers at Shoppers—many of whom are United Nations officials and Russian pilots. These are the rich of this region, and they have grown vastly wealthier from the rising global demand for cellphones and circuit boards. The land is laden with precious metals, around which a small industry has developed. Militias fight over the mines, displacing people like Patience’s family and impoverishing them. Pilots export the metals to world markets. UN agencies are sent to contain the violence and give aid to the suffering.
Today, a woman from the Red Cross has offered the children a bar of soap. So at noon, when the day is at its hottest, Patience and his friend make their way down the black road to Lake Kivu. They slip over the jagged basalt, remnants of the last volcanic eruption in 2002, when a stream of lava ran through the city. The boys’ legs are slightly cut up from the basalt.
The afternoon is spent in the turbid water, where they strip naked and start to wash. They twist their clothes, which will need to be worn immediately, still wet. “Don’t rub too hard,” Patience advises his friend, “or you’ll wear out the cloth. Just scrub enough to get the dirt off.” The way Patience rubs himself with soap—over his head, behind his ears, over his feet and between his little toes—one is reminded that he once had a mother.
“I go to see them sometimes,” he says of his family. “But it is difficult to find money for transport.” It seems like an excuse.
The glue kills the appetite. But now the boys are beginning to grow hungry. They go to a little kiosk—where the poorest of Goma eat—to ask for leftovers. But the waitress throws them out. Many children have gathered.
“But I will pay!” Patience shouts at her.
She grabs a steel ladle and threatens him. The children run out.
Soon one of the chefs brings out a little bowl and throws pieces of dough to the boys, who push each other out of the way as they try to catch the food. Patience falls over; today he is unlucky and has gotten nothing. The squint-eyed boy is too weak to fight. They walk to a patch of grass on an empty hillock, and sniff some glue as consolation.
An aircraft passes above—probably laden with minerals from the war. Patience mumbles that he would like to be a pilot. He leans back on the grass. His friend says that he would like to be respectable one day, and work in an office.
Patience says that if he had good clothes he would go to church. “For what?” his friend asks. Patience replies that he would like to pray. “To help me grow up.”
But now Patience reveals to his friend that his begging had been productive. He draws a few dollars from his underwear. “We are rich,” the friend says. “I have money, I have money,” Patience begins to sing and make a little dance.
It is late afternoon, and the boys start their walk back to the city centre. SUVs hurtle by on the roads, kicking up dust. The traffic is heavy with people returning from their offices.
But near the brightly lit supermarket wait the older boys. One of them leaps onto Patience and pushes him over. Patience struggles, but the bigger boy easily controls him, twisting his little arms behind his back. “Boy, give me what you have.” Patience writhes on the ground, yelling. He kicks dust in the older boy’s face, but is quickly overpowered.
Patience is downcast. I offer him transportation to his father’s house; he readily agrees. He is helped into a car, and over the course of the journey the boy seems to get his hopes up. Again he is talking of ‘Big Patience Jean-Claude Doctor’. He explains that his father, working at a local clinic, circumcises boys.
Patience expertly guides the car. His house is near the foot of the volcano, whose crater emits a red glow at night. The journey takes time; the basalt roads cut into the rubber tyres. Normally, Patience says, he walks for the better part of a morning to make this journey. He grows talkative.
But as the car pulls up to the shack he points to—a single room of blackened wood—he notices a lock on the door. He leaps from the car and bangs on the door, pulling at this lock. Some neighbourhood children, attracted by our car’s rumble, gather round. They tell us the shack’s residents have moved, and start to scream out directions. “Can we get there by car?” Patience asks.
We have to drive further from the city. It is dark, and he is now talking nervously, asking questions. One of the neighbourhood children, relishing the ride, directs our car.
At last a cluster of small cement houses appears. They don’t have doors, only curtains over the doorways. A woman points out Doctor Jean-Claude’s house. Patience walks up slowly. He is received by a girl—his half-sister. The parents have left on a journey to the interior, she tells us.
“When did they leave?” asks Patience.
She says two days ago.
Before he was abandoned by his family, Patience had fled with them to Goma. A militia had attacked their land in the interior—it was how the family’s poverty had begun. The father had gone to see if he could recover this land, the girl explains.
When I tell her that Patience did not know the family had moved house, she speaks to diminish him—“It is his fault, he never visits us.” Patience is seated on an old sofa chair and pretends to play with a raggedly made stuffed doll. His defiance seems suddenly lost; he does not look at the girl.
When asked why she does not visit Patience, she is silent.
I ask her if the family has totally abandoned the boy. She smiles sickly, and turns to hide her face.
Now she tries to act kindly. “Which class are you in at school?” she asks Patience.
“Third and fourth grades,” he says uncaringly, not looking at her.
“Two grades at once?” she feigns surprise. “Will you succeed?”
“Of course,” he whispers, holding up the arms of the stuffed doll.
Patience is morose, and seems overwhelmed. He says he wants to leave. The half-sister does not protest.
The headlights show rising dust. Patience is silent on the journey, and he hangs his head. Perhaps he is thinking about his father’s land. Perhaps, if the war abates, he might be able return with his family to their old home and life.
The children in the city have all dispersed. The streets are empty. Patience will have to spend the night alone. The lights of Shoppers burn strong. He exits the car and makes his way to a gutter. Stray dogs move in the shadows. The boy’s movements are weary. From the dark he pulls out a hidden piece of cardboard, which he carries to a fenced area near Shoppers, and places on the ground. The boy now appears to be concentrating. The scrap of cardboard is not set right; he turns it around. His slippers come off slowly. He places them under the cardboard to make a raised area like a pillow. He looks up at the sky, as if scanning it for something.
He first lies down facing the street. Then he turns over to face the fence. He bunches up his bare feet, scarred and calloused. The boy shakes, twists. After a while, hand under his head, he falls asleep, his body exposed.
Anjan Sundaram has reported from Africa for The New York Times. His first book Stringer, on Congo, will be published in February by Penguin India.