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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June 2005, 19:36 GMT 20:36 UK
A lost childhood in Africa
To mark the Day of the African Child, a Congolese student called Gracia told the BBC News website how by going to school now, she is making up for the childhood she never had.

The Day of the African Child was initiated to commemorate the children that died demonstrating in Soweto, South Africa on 16 June 1976 protesting about the inferior quality of their education.

Gracia ironing a dress that she made (Unicef Kinshasa/Dede Kibambi)
Gracia wishes that some things could have been different
The first thing I do when I wake up is pray.

I am grateful to have a family that cares for me and thankful that I am able to go to school.

My life is very good. I am happy and satisfied.

I have not always felt this way.

Vague memories

I lost my parents when I was about two months old, just a baby.

I don't know what happened to them.

I think that is why she chased us away

All I know is that a certain sensible woman found my twin sister and I. She took care of us.

As she was Luba (ethnic group), she gave us Luba names. She called my sister Beya and me, Gracia.

At some stage we moved to Kinshasa to live.

When Beya and I were about nine-years-old she left us with her mother and went away to somewhere else.

After a while, the woman still hadn't come back, her mother told us girls that she was no longer happy to have us living with her.

She told us that it was really a lot for her.

I think that is why she chased us away.

The streets

We started living on the streets because we had nowhere else to go.

We lived mostly in the market because there were lots of mothers there everyday selling things.

We did little jobs for them in exchange for food.

Children playing fusball at the Solidarity Action for Children in Distress centre, Kinshasa (Unicef Kinshasa/Dede Kibambi)
These children, like Gracia and Beya, also used to live on the streets of Kinshasa

It was a very miserable life.

It was so hard, everyday asking yourself where to live, what to eat, where to sleep... when we were sick we couldn't get any healthcare.

I looked after my twin. I think maybe I was the older of us.

My sister became ill.

My worst memory is of during that time.

Beya was dying.

I was so alone.

And then she died, on the street.

Some people from social services helped me to bury her and then they took me to the Solidarity Action for Children in Distress (SACD) shelter, which is funded by Unicef.

There were lots of other children there who, like me, had also been living on the streets.

Everyone at the centre cared for me and made me feel special.

School, at last

They proposed I learn a skill as I was 14-years-old but had never even been to primary school.

Former street girls now at the Solidarity Action for Children in Distress (SACD) shelter , Kinshasa  (Unicef Kinshasa/Dede Kibambi)
These girls are learning a profession to become self-sufficient

I chose to learn how to sew because I wanted to do something that could help me find money.

All my life I had been by myself and so I thought that even if I ended up alone again, at least I would be able to get money from selling the clothes I had sown.

Our classroom is wonderful. There are sewing machines and lots of material for us six girls and four boys to sew.

Our teacher shows us how to make clothes and how to read and write.

He gives us a lot of homework everyday but I love doing it and practising what I have learnt.

Gaining my life

Everyday I wear a dress that I have made myself. It makes me feel proud.

The centre is teaching me how to reclaim my life.

Children playing at the Solidarity Action for Children in Distress centre, Kinshasa (Unicef Kinshasa/Dede Kibambi)
Gracia loves looking after the younger ones

They also found me a family nearly two years ago.

There are 11 of us - a mama and a papa, the other children, lots of cousins and me.

I am very happy with my family. They are always loving and caring to me.

I have already made clothes for all of them and when I have time I like to look after the younger ones.

I wish that I had found everyone and started my education sooner.

I wish it could have been different.

Your comments:

What a story. And she has remarkable resolve to make it in this life. It is sad how our (African) leaders have neglected our young generation. Thank God there are people who still care and are eager to help transform the gloomy future facing these young ones into prosperity.

I say a big thank you to social workers and volunteers all over the continent of Africa who have been doing all the thankless jobs for our future leaders. Your reward, sadly enough, is in the satisfaction that comes with the work!
Papa Amuah, Calgary, Canada

I have been working in Africa for the past fifteen years and find the strength and innocence of these young children inspiring. There is a lot to do for them. I wish governments would take more responsibility for their young rather than wait for good Samaritans to the job.
Rishi Ramrakha, London, UK

We take so much of what we have here in America for granted. This story, this young lady, she's amazing; she embodies the spirit of her name. To rise from such hard beginnings and still maintain that beautiful attitude of hope and cheer, Gracia makes me want to be a better person.

I've recently graduated from college and have no aim, but Gracia has helped move my arrow toward getting teaching credentials and working with children who need a hand up from poverty. I may not save every child who crosses my path, but I'll still try. Blessings to Gracia and those who saved her from the streets.
Mary D, Travis, California

This story brought a lump to my throat. How can society allow this to happen? How can a world so rich in resources allow so much poverty and suffering to take place? It makes me feel so helpless, guilty and makes me wonder what I could do to make a difference. Gracia you are such a strong girl and may you be blessed and succeed in whatever you do.
Samuel, Newcastle, Staffs, UK

I was truly touched by this story. I think Gracia was so good and determined to get an education. I also think she was brave. I admire her sprit.
Harriet King, Petersfield, England

Gracia, your strength and will to move on and provide a better life for yourself is so amazing. You are a role model to those people who despite great difficulties and obstacles in life can rise above. You should feel very proud of yourself, and thank you so much for sharing your story.
Shannon, Philadelphia, PA, USA

My heart goes to the people in Congo. I also read a lead article in this week's Economist, which detailed the incessant war in Congo. The brutality and savagery of some soldiers make me ashamed to call myself a human being. I wish I had more than a sense of outrage.
Natarajan Ramachandran, United States

I don't know what one is supposed to comment on about this good story of a poor kid. I've never experienced anything like that in my life, for which I don't know if I should thank God. I didn't or ask Him to, so I can finally start doing something about it. This kind of story lies on our human conscience. You can deny it all you want.

The thing is, we are all guilty when somebody around the world struggles in poverty and injustice, as we don't do anything, but sit in our western lavish homes, take our kids to the mall, and fight with sins. The real life struggles are out there, mostly in Africa, and I feel very, very bad I don't do much to help. Something good is about to happen to Africa through the campaign to make poverty history.
Ellie B, Indiana, US

I was touched by Gracia's story and I have to say that she is a great girl with determination and it's good that she's contented with what she has. God bless all brains behind organisations like this that look out for orphans. Back home in Nigeria we used to support two orphanages through SOS Children's village and Little Saints Orphanage both in the capital of Nigeria and Lagos. These people are doing wonderful jobs taking care of the children and giving them a sense of belonging.
Abby, VA, USA

This story is sad and happy at the same time. I am always touched by this kind of true story. I pray I can also make a different in someone's life who need help like this girl needed help. It also makes me thank God for what I have. I am not rich in money, but I am rich because I have family, where to live, a job and most of all, God.

This girl only had God who really helped her and took her out of nowhere. But many times you take our blessings for granted and ignore the pain of others. I pray for those leaders who had dedicated their profession for the missions and to help people like these children. May God bless them.
Mily Roman, Boston, MA

I just happened to read this article and it made me cry as I thought of my own daughter, who is six and how vulnerable she would be surviving on the street here! It makes me sick to my stomach to think about a child having to go through this, and yet she is still so thankful for what she has now, no bitterness for the past.

I hope my son or daughter never have to watch their sibling die and feel as helpless as this young child. It makes me realize how amazing children are, and how disappointing a place the world can be.
Vince Smith, Chicago, USA

The solution to the problems of the millions of Gracias around the world is to join hands in brotherhood and eliminate the type of brutal, destructive conflicts that deprive these children of their parents and all the care they so deservedly need in their lives.

One practical way to go about is exactly helping traumatized, but resilient kids like Garcia not only take control of their lives, but help them in a way so that they can become agents of positive change in their societies. Often, unfortunately, Garcia and her likes in poor countries appear in short stories just like this one on the BBC, but then are forgotten by almost everyone a mere few days later.

If we are really moved by this story and want to do something good to contribute to the betterment of conflict-stricken children good will alone is not enough. We need to take action; i.e. follow in the footsteps of the professor from Liberia.
Janan, Kabul, Afghanistan

I am very happy that BBC writes so many articles about both the troubles and successes in Africa. I was a teacher in Guinea-Bissau for two years, and I saw so many children without a chance to go to school. There has been almost 10 years of instability in Guinea-Bissau, and I worry about my friends there. I hope to return soon to adopt a child and give them a future.
Susan Barnes, New York, NY

Gracia manifests qualities that my wife and I noted in many impoverished African children: a courage and resourcefulness born of difficult circumstances, and an eagerness to grasp tightly to hope when offered.
Pete Weiseth, Tacoma, Washington, USA

People in Africa are facing poverty at its peak and it's just unbelievable how they manage to deal with their life. I think a major step should be taken to improve the lives of those people by allowing people to donate generously towards those people. Major contributions can be made by the UN for example so that everyone gets to live a life like you...
Arslan Ali, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

My prayer goes out to all these children who lost their parents and have to end up on the street.
Doreen Wynter, Brampton Ontario Canada

It would be very nice if we had more good volunteers who believe in Africa to go around and help. There are plenty people lacking education in Africa. Africa needs a lot of help to improve the standard of living and education.
James Chukwu, Abuja, Nigeria

It is sad that all children across the continent have to experience this kind of drama at such an early age that was cursed by senseless war. As we see, the war and power hanger has broken the fabric of the society, and has left children to face life and horrible conditions.

As human beings we have let this kind of condition exist in every part of the world: across Asia, South America and the Dark Continent, Africa. I will pray that God will look for those that are defenceless, wandering the big cities streets looking for scraps to nurture their body and looking for a place out of dew's way for the night.
Atenafu, Ethiopian in USA

I was moved by this story. I was recently in Liberia working with orphans there and found that education took precedence over finding parents - they were strong, hopeful, dependent on God and steadfast. I met a man there who is the administrator of the orphanage (working full time without any pay). He was so remarkable. Now he teaches full time at the University of Liberia and after work takes two hours every night to tutor the children for their West African exams. These kinds of leaders make such a difference in their lives and they need our support also.
Gina Campbell, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

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