Although he has just turned 18, the young man looks half his age. A demonstrative talker, his story is peppered with anecdotes of life on the streets of Angola's capital.
"It's been four years now since I've been in Luanda," he told IRIN. He indicates to a group of boys standing under a nearby tree. "You see after four years I'm the leader of the group. We make sure we make it everyday even when we don't have anything to eat."
But the veneer of bravado begins to slip when the conversation turns to how the youth ended up on the streets.
"My father was killed in the war in Huambo in 1993. My mother and I took a bus to Luanda. When we got here we stayed with my uncle. He had many children of his own. Then my mother fell ill and she died. Soon after that my uncle began to treat me differently to his other children. I couldn't take it anymore and so I left. And now I am here and I cannot get back to Huambo," Fernando said.
A 2001 survey estimated that there are some 5,000 children who eke out an existence on the streets of Luanda. Beneath plastic sheeting or anything else that can provide cover, they sleep on sidewalks. Or they sleep on the balmy beach. Most wash cars or guard parked cars. Others survive by begging and doing odd jobs.
Fourteen-year-old Jose Manuel shines shoes for a living. Although the fourth grader does not live on the streets he spends most of the day moving around the capital in search of customers.
"I had to leave school to make some money for me and my brother. Now it has been such a long time since I have been away from school that I don't even want to go back. Even if I had the money I don't want to go to school," he told IRIN.
Jose and his older brother left the eastern province of Benguela in 1998 after their parents died. They settled in one of the many musseques (informal settlements) bordering central Luanda.
"We thought we could make it here but it has not been like that at all. My brother sells carpets at Roque Santeirio (a sprawling open-air market) and I make about 200 kwanza (US $3) a day shining shoes. That is not enough," Fernando says.
Stories like Fernando's and Jose's can be heard in most of Angola's towns. Aid agencies and NGOs agree that the number of children on the streets has steadily increased over the years. However, they are optimistic that peace could mean an improvement in how these children are cared for in the future.
UN Children's Fund child protection officer Abubacar Sultan told IRIN: "We are hoping that now that there is peace we would see far fewer children on the streets. Many of these children are the product of the war. Many of the adults fled from the interior of the country to escape the fighting and many children also simply left. At times on foot, sometimes by boat from coastal cities. Somehow they made it to Luanda."
But while the war has shouldered most of the blame for the problem, it is not the only factor.
"One of the consequences of the war is the almost complete collapse of the family unit within Angolan society. What we found in some cases was that because of a death of a parent or ongoing violence in the family, couples often separated and remarried. The children in some cases were ill-treated by the step-parent. If this ill-treatment was sustained the children left home and sought refuge among strangers," Sultan said.
On the streets children organise themselves in small groups at times based on a common language, area of origin or the kind of small chores they perform.
"They are also very territorial about this which at times does result in violence. There is concern over drug use within certain groups but it is difficult to control because many of the children survive by scavenging through rubbish where they come across these substances," Sultan said.
Fernando lives with four youths in the basement of a building. "Some people in the building are kind and they give us food and clothes. But this does not happen every day which means we have to wait for shop owners to throw out their old food," he said.
While there are fewer girls on the street, there are concerns that they are often victims of prostitution syndicates.
Sultan confirms that the sexual exploitation of minors has become an increasing concern among aid groups assisting street children in Luanda.
Existing support structures for these children are few and often under resourced.
"The challenges are indeed significant but it is also important to address the underlying problems. It is crucial to deal with endemic poverty. Without a strategy which addresses this fundamental problem we will not succeed in the battle to provide the proper care that these young people need and deserve," Sultan noted.
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