Today, I came across an abandoned child.
Working in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, I had been invited to Muvi TV, a lively, popular channel, widely watched in Zambia and broadcast across the whole continent via satellite.
Watching from the control room, I was impressed when their kids’ news programme took to the air. Never before, aside from the BBC’s “Newsround”, have I come across a similar service. I looked down onto the studio floor at the presenter, a young woman who also edits the daily show. Close by sat a boy, 4 or 5 years old, in a plastic chair. Suddenly the camera was on him. Silent, unsmiling, the child stayed still. People were chatting in the control room so it was only after a few seconds that I became aware of the presenter’s words. And even then, I thought I’d misheard. Reading snappily from autocue, she explained that he’d been found a week ago in the street near a market in Lusaka.
His name was Jabes Tembo, he knew his sister’s name, Maria, and his brother’s, Enokio, and those of his friends. But not his mother’s.
I have worked in developing countries for 9 years including a spell with the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF, but even so, this astonished me. I turned to a young woman standing beside me in the control room – Evelyn.
”Did she just say that child was found wandering?”
It transpired out that Evelyn was the daughter of the elderly woman who had found Jabes, wandering up and down outside her house. Evelyn had brought Jabes to the studio.
“Muvi TV often do these appeals to find the families of lost children and they reunite quite a lot of them,” she explained.
Evelyn knows from his accent that he comes from the east of Zambia, far, far from Lusaka..
“Did you go to social workers? The police?”
“The police told us to take him home with us,” she said. “He’s staying with my mother because my place is too small but he eats with my children. He’s very bright and polite and he already calls my mother Grandma.”
This will be no easy thing for the family. Evelyn makes a living selling tomatoes at the side of the road. How many children did she have already?
“Three boys and a girl,” she replied, then laughed: “Now I have four sons.”
I was struggling. “If this happened where I come from it would be on the news every day.”
Evelyn explained that newspapers want payment to advertise a lost child, Muvi TV does it for free.
Another woman, also at the studio, runs a project for street children. She shook her head at my query about social protection. “It’s not the same here.”
After 15 minutes sitting silently in the plastic chair in that studio, intimidating with its metal tripods and cranes and cameras, Jabes was released. We went into the sunshine for photos.
He smiled when I stroked his face but most of the time he was withdrawn.
Later I tackled a Zambian colleague, Carol Nyirenda, about what I’d encountered.
“How did the child get here to Lusaka? He must have been abducted.” I couldn’t imagine how such a little boy had travelled around 1000 km on his own.
“No, there are lots of children who get brought to the city and are lost by their parents,”
So a child’s disappearance is so commonplace that the media don’t think to publicise it.
Unless you pay.
But here’s something else commonplace – an elderly woman – nearly 80 years old in fact, and her daughter, a market trader, taking in a stranger’s child.
Jabes’ mum saw the broadcast and was travelling to Lusaka to collect him. I have been unable to discover how he became lost.