By CHIOMA GABRIEL
Across the nation’s states, there is a class of children who neither feel good nor happy. Their outlook paints a vivid picture of their state of helplessness. They appear unkempt and totally hopeless regarding their future. In their tattered clothes, they find homes in the most filthy and awkward places like abandoned buildings, under overhead bridges and school premises. Usually, they retire to these “abodes” at dusk and dash out early in the morning before the prying eyes of security agents or the rightful owners of the structures turn out for business.
Holding a bottle of water mixed with little soap, another detergent in one hand and an improvised brush in the other, he walks up to a car in traffic uninvited, and begins to wash its windscreen, hoping the car owner or driver would be compassionate enough to give him some money. At the other end of the road, a teenage girl of school age hawks oranges when she should ordinarily be in the classroom. Yet, there are others whose only source of livelihood is begging for alms.
These ones approach you with words that will soften any heart. In that brief encounter of less than one minute, they will tell you the grief they have been passing through. Welcome to the lives of Nigeria’s street kids! They seem uncovered by the Nigerian constitution which clearly spells out in Section 34, sub-section 1c that “no person shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” Many of them, indeed, are “forced” to perform “compulsory labour.” And because “pretty much all the honest truth telling there is in this world is done by children” .
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, these needy children make no pretences about their poor state nor would they conceal the hardship they had been made to endure. Kids hawking in traffic However, there are some among them who turn to odd jobs and use the proceeds to train themselves in schools or to start off a trade. Their reasons for resorting to living off the street are common: abject poverty, battle to survive, being deceived to come to the cities for non-existent jobs and/or househelps pushed to hawk or into the streets by their host families.
For Sa’adatu Ibrahim, she had lived in the street since she was five. She is now 16 and says it is her child that now does the job more. “This (begging) is what I have been doing from when I was very young, maybe about five years. I was living with my mother in the Quarters in Oyingbo. At that time, I was giving my mother whatever I made. We also had an overall head. Even my mother went to deliver daily account to him.” The more pathetic story is that Sa’a (as she prefers to call herself) married a cripple who himself was a beggar. “When I grew up, I married,” she says, rather proudly. “I used to carry my husband around to beg. Now, he is sick and I’m doing the begging with my child. “It is not nice to beg. I know it but what do I do? Some of us become sick and die.
Others run back to the North. Some of us (girls) marry beggars like us who have no homes. Some just get belle (pregnant) and they give them husbands. “The girls don’t go far because there is always someone watching them. The boys, at times, go back to the North. Some get jobs as mai guard (security guards) or mai suya (meat sellers) in Lagos.” But is there really anything that can persuade Ibrahim to stop begging? “I don’t like it. Many of us don’t like to beg. We do it because we don’t have anything (with which) to feed ourselves. If the government gives me a job as a cleaner today, I will stop this work.”
Okechukwu Chibueze, 14, is an Ebonyi State indigene. He was lured by his uncle to join the latter’s retail business. He knew he ought to be at school rather than on the streets. But poverty drove him out of home to an uncertain future. “It was my uncle who brought me to Lagos,” he told Saturday Vanguard. “We were selling air freshner, dryer, key holders and other things for him. I found out that one had to trek all over Lagos to sell these things. Sometimes, we would trek to many places without food and without sales. And we were only allowed to take pure water. “One day, a friend of mine told me we should go to where there’s always traffic and where there is traffic light so that when the light shows red, we could wash people’s windscreens.
He told me that the kind ones would give us money. “That is what I have been doing instead of going up and down without food. I didn’t want to starve to death. I must not deny what God has done for me. At the end of the day, one makes up to N500 or more . On a very bad day, you can make less. “But the trouble now is that many other children are getting into the business. You see small small boys of about seven, eight years doing the same work. I may soon quit or change location.” Though he prefers what he does today to life in the past, Okechukwu is far from recommending it to other young people. “No, I don’t support any child from a good (wealthy) background to do it. I’m doing it because I have no choice. I would have loved to continue with my education and not drop out.
But there was nobody to help me. “Again, there are some car owners and drivers who are very wicked. That they won’t give you money is not the problem. The way they would shout at you and talk to you would make you cry when you get home. Such people should know that if we had the opportunity, we would want to be like their own children, going to good schools and not lacking anything.” The job of cleaning people’s windsreens without invitation comes with its own hazards, as Chibueze learnt one day. It was a bitter lesson and an experience he says he will not forget. Hear him: “One day, in the process of lifting someone’s wiper, I broke it. I have never cried like I did on that day because the man actually told me not to wash his windscreen. He just parked his car and arrested me.
As I was crying, other people continued begging him to forgive me. When he released me, I felt like going back to my village. But what will I be doing if I decide to go home tomorrow?” Olufemi Lawal, 15, shares the same feelings with Chibueze. “I have done all kinds of jobs since I came to Lagos from Abeokuta. I have hawked pure water, sweets and biscuits. But how many people buy sweets and biscuits? And it’s like everybody is now hawking pure water. “So, I decided to join those who clean car windscreens when there is go-slow (traffic jam). You don’t need much capital to start off. Just a bucket, detergent, water and a brush and that’s it. I have done this in many parts of Lagos: from Apapa to Ijora and sometimes Ojuelegba bridge. But it is frustrating.
Some people don’t want you to even touch their vehicles. Some will not give you anything after you had finished washing their windscreen. Some people will even shout at you when you come close as if you are a thief.” What are his ambitions? “Ah, ambition ke! If I have money, I’ll get a shop and start something. I’m also not too old to return to school. I left school when I was in JSS II because my father and mother separated. My mother said she could not train three of us at the same time and I decided to come and see what I could do in Lagos.” Isa Abubakar (8) and Idris Salihu (10) spoke to us through an interpreter. Hear Abubakar: “I’m not in school because I don’t have anybody to train me.
My father is dead and only my mother can’t send four of us to school. That’s why we beg.” Asked to choose between going to school and begging, Isa replied: “If I see somebody to help me, I’ll like to go to school.” And what about his other siblings? “Three of us are doing the same thing with our mother, but we don’t know where Shehu (first son) is. He left the house since last year.” Salihu’s case is not different. “I would like to work if you can give me one,” said the twelve-year old. “Yes, I like to work than to beg. But there is no job for me to do. I live with my family.”
Asked who his father is, and where they live, Idris looked a bit agitated. “I don’t know. Why do you want to know?” “Just to go and beg your father to send a fine boy like you to school,” he was told. “Will you give him money?” “Yes,” he was told. “Then, give it to me to take it to him,” he hit back. He smiled and walked away. Tina Mordi, 13, hawks oranges.
She told Saturday Vanguard: “I was brought here by one of my relations to live with one family. My parents were told that I would help my madam (who’s nursing a baby) to take care of the child when she goes to work and to learn a trade in the evening. This is my second year and I’ve not started anything. I’m not happy doing this but I know that one day, I’ll find a way to go home.” Temitope Mudashiru from Badagry, Lagos State ran away from his grandmother under whose custody he had been for years. His mother re-married and now lives with her husband in Osun State.
What bothers Mudashiru more is that he does not know his father or how to trace him; neither does he know his mother very well because he had always lived with his grandmother who is now old. “I have lived under the bridges for a long time,” Temitope revealed. “I have been a bus conductor and sometimes, my friends and I stay at the bus-stops to carry loads. There are some lorries that bring in big loads from the North to Lagos. I mean trailers and even containers for some big companies around the market. We do the off-loading and at the close of the day, they pay us and I go to where I usually sleep. Sometimes, we sleep inside the vehicles which are no longer in good condition and use them as our house. “There are days too that there is no business at all.
For instance, since Easter, business has not been good because some of these companies that bring in the goods opened not too long ago. So, we just hang around, looking for small businesses to do. Sometimes too, I join vehicles plying Ojuelegba and do the conductor job but not all the time. There are even days I don’t do anything and I sleep throughout the day. “But I want you to know that I don’t do drugs.
I don’t steal. Many Nigerians think that those of us who sleep under the bridges are Igbo (Indian hemp) smokers or that we are all thieves. It is not true. Some people do this, I agree, but it’s not everybody. Some of us are there because we have nobody to support us.” Temitope’s dream is to meet his parents. “My greatest desire is to meet my mother so that she will tell me who my father is. I’d asked my grandmother but she said she doesn’t know. I want to learn a job or start a business but I don’t have the money. Maybe, if I meet my father one day, he will be able to help me.
I am not happy the way I’m living because sometimes, policemen come to arrest us. I don’t want this kind of life.” Emmanuel Inyang hails from Ugep in Cross River State but hawks oranges. “I live with one aunty who is Igbo,” he says. “My cousin brought me to Lagos and handed me to her. I don’t know whether I’m paid any money (salary) because it was my cousin who discussed with her. “Her (the woman’s) kids go to school but I don’t. I don’t like how I am treated. I am always the last to sleep. I don’t eat when they are eating. I’ve told my cousin (that) I want to go home but he says I should wait a little .”
Inyang knows that things would not dramatically change for the better when he returns home. But he prefers to endure whatever deprivations than to be enslaved. “The other day, a bus hit one boy who was selling groundnut and I don’t know whether he died or not. I don’t want that kind of thing to happen to me. “If government makes education free at all levels, it will help many of us from poor families. I am ready to return to school if I see someone who can train me. I am not happy that my madam’s children go to school and I only wash clothes, sell anything they give to me and do all the work in the house.”
However, there are some teenagers who utilise what they get from doing menial jobs to pursue their goals in life. They vow that there is no giving up because there is no fall-back situation. Ayuba Okosage is a secondary school student but works in a car wash company. At the close of school and during weekends, he comes around like some others to make some money with which to support their education. Said Okosage: “I’ve been into this for four years. The owner of this business has another one in Ikotun area.
When he told me he has built another one in Ejigbo (in Lagos State), I moved. Every weekend, I am here from the Ikotun area where I live with my parents. My father has six children and I am the fourth. I come from Agenebode in Edo State.” Asked why he was not in school on this day, he said: “we’ve just resumed but nothing is serious yet. You see, I discovered that the car wash business is very lucrative.
I started it when I found out that my parents could not provide for what all of us needed. They (parents) do their best but I told myself that we needed to help them. “Yes, they always pay our school fees but you don’t expect them to take care of everything. So, the money I make helps a lot. During holidays, I come here as early as 8.30 a.m. and do not go home until 6 p.m. or 6.30 depending on how the customers arrive. “I would love to study engineering if I ever have the opportunity to go to the university. I pray to God everyday to give me the chance. But let me tell you something:
if government makes education free, those of us whose parents are not wealthy, can go to the university. “From the little I make from this job, I also give something to my other brothers and sisters. My appeal is that those in government should make the suffering less for the poor families. It is so painful to see young girls and boys who should be in the classrooms going around selling oranges, apples and pure (satchet) water. “I say so because most of the armed robbers we have in Nigeria are those who did not have the chance to go to school or to learn a trade.
We appeal to President Jonathan to do something now to help the youths.” Emmanuel Omosun from Irrua, Edo State told Saturday Vanguard that he dropped out of school almost at the time he was about to write his junior secondary school examinations. He was, indeed, blunt. “I came to this place (car wash) to help myself. I live with my elder sister who sells petty things. My mother lives at home just as my daddy and it was extremely difficult to make ends meet until my friend introduced me to this place. I have been here for the past four months. “My aunty, poverty is a big sin. My age mates have everything they need while I am here struggling to survive. That is how cruel life is.”
Asked if he would love to go to the university and what course he would love to study, Emmanuel said: “Abeg, make man chop first. I wan save the money before I know wetin to do with am. Poor man dey dream say im wan chop rice? Sola Ladipo is in SSS III and took his destiny into his own hands. “My family is extremely poor. I pay my fees from the return I get from what I do. My family members do not even know what I do. I am the one training myself. I take nothing away from my parents.
The simple truth is that they don’t have and the government doesn’t care. “Since I am in SSS II, it means our school certificate examination is coming soon and I need more money to register for the exam. I would work extra hard to make that amount. After that, I’ll decide what to do next. It’s one thing at a time. But the Federal Government must be ashamed that her youths have to go through all these to be educated. What is the future for the little ones that are not in school and cannot train themselves? It’s a shame.” Fifteen-year old Haruna has spent five years living on the streets of Lagos.
Like hundreds of other children, he spends his days and nights in this sprawling metropolis trying to fend for himself. “It is not easy living on the street but what can I do? I have two sisters that I have not seen in five years. I have smoked Indian hemp like other boys of my age, got beaten by bigger boys, robbed of my money, took my bath in the canal and slept under the bridge. The good thing is that I am alive!” Given the opportunity to go to school, Haruna said he would like to become a lawyer. “I want to be defending people,” he explains.
Some of the children living on the streets are escapees from unhappy homes, while others recall travelling to the city in search of adventure. They end up selling water packaged in plastic bags or washing the windscreens of vehicles in heavy traffic. Haruna works as a ‘bus conductor’. He earns between N350-N500 a day. At the age of 10, Haruna left his home in Ogun State. A friend, who turned out to be a child-labour recruiter, invited him to Lagos along with 11 other boys. “We left home without telling any of our parents.
The man took me to a place I do not know; my duty there was to be a housekeeper.” But Haruna decided to run away. He met other street children who showed him how to survive on his own. “I started to sleep under the bridge or inside any of the buses parked under the bridge,” he said. “If mosquitoes are too many, I sleep inside the boot of the vehicles.” ‘I am a big man now’ Ifeoluwa, 13, said he used to sleep under the bridge in Ikeja, sometimes under a car or a bus or inside a dry gutter. He does not know his parents as he was abandoned when he was three years old.
He started attending a pentecostal Church in Ikeja where they took a particular interest in him because they thought he was well behaved. He worshipped with them every time, especially on Fridays for the night vigils and Sundays for worship. They accomodated him and promised to help him settle down. Eventually, after two years of which he did not run away, a member of the church took him to Ikorodu where he currently resides. Since he is a teenager, he is learning the art of welding . Sule, also 13 years old, said he used to stay with his mother on Lagos Island, but at the age of seven, she decided that she wanted him to go and live with his father at Yaba which he did not like.
He explained that he ran away from his father’s house after about four years and went back to Lagos Island where he started sleeping under the bridge. When there was a big fight on the Island then, he ran back to Yaba where he started hanging around again. Gbemi is 11 years old and Rasheed is 13 years old.
These boys all have one thing in common: they were all found on the street. The phenomenon of street children in Nigeria results mainly from family breakdown which could be as a result of marital problems or instability in the home, poverty, hunger, insecurity, abuse and violence from parents, displacement caused by clashes in the community, insufficient parental care, death of one or both parents, inadequate family income, unemployment of one or both parents, lack of (or limited) opportunities in education, abandonment by parents, housing difficulties, amongst others. In an increasingly individualistic society, such children quickly learn to survive on their own and in the process are exploited through child labour and trafficking.
Many take to the streets for refuge. Indeed, street children are found in large numbers in urban and rural areas. They work as vendors or hawkers, beggars, shoe shiners, car washers, head-loaders, scavengers and bus conductors. The majority are boys but there are a few girls among them. The situation of the street children is indeed pitiable but several non-governmental organisations have shown interest in rescuing, rehabilitating and and giving them a chance for a better life.