In Somalia, childhood dies fast. By the time they are old enough to count money and carry a can of polish, Mogadishu's shoeshiner boys have little to look forward to.
Abdi Adan Nur can't remember a happy moment in his life. When he was born, 10 years ago, the Horn of Africa nation had already become a by-word for "failed state" and civil violence has only worsened since.
With a torn red tee-shirt dangling from his bony shoulders and no shoes of his own, Abdi leaves home every morning without eating breakfast to polish shoes in central Mogadishu.
"On a good day, I get about 40,000 shillings (1.5 dollars) and I give it to my mother so that she can prepare a decent meal," he said, fumbling a wad of grimy notes in his trouser pocket.
"I have never done anything nice in my life, let alone go to school. I can only read a few lines of the Koran," said the child, his hair red with days of accumulated dust.
One of the world's poorest countries, Somalia also has one of the world's lowest school enrollment rates.
According to UN agencies, 22 percent of children attended primary school between 2000 and 2006, while only six percent were enrolled in secondary school. The statistics are considered unlikely to have improved since, and do not bode well for the future of a country where the UN estimates about half of the population of 10 million is under 18.
Boys in poor families become bread-earners at a very early age and many of them living in the Mogadishu area begin their lonely struggle for survival as shoeshiners.
None of them have heard of soul legend James Brown, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or any of their illustrious shoe-shining predecessors who made it big.
In a country where the alternative would often be to join an armed militia, all they want is a chance to lead a normal life and go to school.
"I believe I have the right to a better life and education, just like the children in the West but the war took everything, leaving children from poor families like me in misery," said Hassan Qasim, a 12-year-old orphan.
Hassan and many of his friends harbour some hope that Somalia's newly-elected president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, will succeed where his predecessors failed and help them reclaim the childhood they never had.
"I hope the new president will set up programmes to improve our lives, if he manages to ensure security that is," the young boy said.
Mohammed Daud is only eight but already a savvy political commentator.
"I started sitting near tea shops where I listen to the radio for a short time every day so that I can be well informed," he said, towing his can of shoe-shining equipment behind him.
'The children are facing the worst time ever'
The young boy lives with his mother and two sisters in a shelter made of plastic lining stretched over a flimsy structure of twigs, in one of the camps for the displaced where fighting in Mogadishu has regurgitated hundreds of thousands of families.
"I need to know what is going on in my country and what the president says about children like me. I never have much time to waste sitting in one place to listen to the radio but I want to follow politics and I support the president. He can change my life," Mohammed said.
Earlier this year, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a young cleric whose movement fought Ethiopian troops before eventually joining a UN-sponsored peace process, was elected president.
The Islamist leader is now seen as occupying the political centre and retains respect in Mogadishu for establishing a tribunal a few years ago that briefly restored a semblance of social order and justice in the lawless city.
"I believe that with the election of the new president our hopes are higher than before. We need an education, we don't want to spend all day running after people's shoes in the streets," Abdirasak Ali said.
"Some of my friends went with the armed groups and three of them died already. I don’t want to join them," he said.
Rights organisations say many Somali children have been recruited by the multitude of militant groups, clan militias and other armed gangs in the country in recent years.
"The children in this country are facing their worst time ever. Nobody is caring for them. Some of them have joined armed groups and are dying in the war," said Abdullahi Mohamed Yasin, a human rights activist in Mogadishu.
Somalia's hopeless cycle of political feuds, deadly conflict, displacement and starvation was already a decade old when Mohammed and Abdirasak were born and some of their young colleagues find it hard to imagine any change.
"I think there is more suffering ahead. I have been a shoeshiner for nearly two years and see no hope for peace yet. Everybody is armed in this country and everybody wants to be president," said Abdulkadir Kusow.
The small boy shook his head with the dejected smirk of a wizened adult, picking from a pile of gravel and tossing the stones one by one on the street.
"So I just need to work hard and forget about all this stupid politics," he snapped, grabbing the lady's handbag he uses to carry his brush and polish and rushing to the other side of the street where a customer hailed him.