A Weekend In The Life Of An Ibadan Street Kid (2) – Mariam, Zainab and Isa
This is the second part of a story about how the pursuit of survival led a young boy into the heart of Iwo Road. You can read the first part below.
Mariam, Zainab and Isa
Mariam, Zainab, and Isa were clinging to the hands of pedestrians, as usual, begging for alms and not letting go easily.
They could not remember when they left their country, Niger; it was long ago, but not distant enough for them to have forgotten why they left. “They are fighting there, it is why we left,” Mariam, who had emphatically shut bickering Zainab down for her inexperience, said.
Like Isa, she has been everywhere, from Lagos to Abeokuta, and here, Iwo Road, under the bridge, touring the windows of static cars and the wrists of pedestrians – earning at least 500 naira a day, which she gives to her mother. It was easy to see why she made that much: like the other kids that looked like her, light skin, silky hair, she was assertive. Mariam’s goal was to save enough money to buy a car for her father who had returned to Niger.
Zainab, her sister, could barely speak English. She was 7, like the number of her mother’s children, like the innocence etched on her awkward facial expressions when the camera was drawn to her face. Isah spoke in a hoarse voice, not loud, not a whisper. “Ask around on the street they know me,” he said, trying to convince anyone that could hear, including himself, that his name was actually his name. If what Mr Oluwole (pseudonym) said was true, then they would be sent back to the county they ran away from. This place will become a distant memory – an afterthought.
“Cases of those ones with their colours, we cannot handle them, its immigration. They know how they got here so they must know how they got back. However, if the government were to take responsibility of them, they will be screened and will require an extract from the police to be taken custody of.” According to this tactic, light-skinned children with silky hair would be targeted because they did not look Nigerian. If they have found a new way to decide nationality solely based on one’s appearance, Mr Oluwole did not say.
To schedule an interview at the social welfare office is a near-futile exercise. A letter has to be written, followed by a long wait for a reply and, perhaps, more letters explaining the first one you have written. Oluwole, a man in his early 50s, agreed to speak without a letter – a showmanship of kindness which he will later boast about after minutes of speaking about actions taken by the government to curb the rising number of street children.
According to him, the government had been rescuing kids skeletally, but their current aim was to take giant steps in addressing the problem. This includes setting up a rescue centre for displaced persons, partnering with the Environmental Ministry, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and so on, scaring children with guns in order to be captured, and probing people who dare to feed them. It would not necessarily be done in that order. He used the words “delinquents” and “captured” theatrically like in a stage play when referring to street kids. On one occasion, he describes them as “the un-savable whose salvation only came from Jesus Christ.”
“If we want to do the raiding, we employ NSCDC, so that if there are kids who want to prove stubborn they will instil fear in them by saying, ‘we have some people who are carrying gun o’,” Oluwole says. His ministry is partnered with NGOs they give the children to after such raid. He is unaware of the number of NGOs he is partnered with. All he manages to say during a phone call to clarify the number is, “They are many.” But when he is asked of the number of children rescued in a month, he becomes more accurate, almost sure: “In a month, 30 to 40 boys can be rescued, depending on the number found, the accommodation [and] the facility.”
He retrieved some pictures from a white envelope on his desk, still shiny from fresh print. In one of the pictures, a boy who looked 13 or 15 had his trousers pulled up by the waist in a woman’s grip, like a robbery suspect in a Nollywood scene.
It became evident why Oluwole called it a capture. Early in February, a team spearheaded by Mrs Atinuke Osunkoya, the Commissioner of Women Affairs, had gone to a stream called Dandaru where they ‘captured’ boys who he described as unfortunate. He could not decide upon the number, wavering from three or eleven, and reinstated them to their homes or placed them at a correctional centre in Jokoto, Ibadan. “We went to Dandaru. Inside that river, we found that some of these delinquent children, unless you have law enforcement agents with you who will be carrying guns as if they want to shoot them that is when we can capture all of them because they have their routes. They are like mice.” Oluwole said, explaining the rescue process at Dandaru.
Oluwole, who had previously left the boys in the hands of Jesus, became perplexed when Jesus decided to take up the challenge. “We learnt that there is one church of God that gives them lunch in the afternoon. We are looking into that too. We do not know of any part of the Bible that encourages you to gather such children — delinquents — and give them food. We want to find out what the objective of that church is.” To him, they were not just delinquents, they were rats; subhuman.
There is a bridge above Dandaru River, Agodi Ibadan. From there, you can see a tribe of boys sending bubbles of water mid-air as they plunge into the river, clattering in animated voices, excited.
Ridwan’s dark luminous skin was pressed against a red chair in an eatery where he sat quietly. His eyes darted everywhere recklessly, occasionally resting on the television set above him. He seldom smiled but, when he did, the rarity of the occasion made it precious.
Every day for three years, his routine had been the same. He wakes up, stiff from the bare floor he slept on, brushes his teeth with foam and sets out to the commercial centre of Iwo Road. Bathing is a luxury at Saree, a luxury he can afford only twice a week. At the centre, he helps people transport their load on a wheelbarrow he rents for N50N50. He bills N100-N150 per bag. When he has made little money, he goes to buy breakfast, after which he will begin his search for more load to carry. If he doesn’t find, which is occasional, he takes to begging. Before Alfa had accosted him, he had made N100, which he used to buy a plate of rice. If he were still selling ewedu, and if today were a bad day, he has just made more.
“I can make as much as 200-300 on a good day, and nothing on a bad day” he had said, almost whispering. The lives of street kids are infused with many activities – equally intense and dangerous. They do not stop, and they cannot afford to stop, mostly because survival is their basic instinct.
Ridwan shouldn’t have been here. He should have been in Lagos with his friends, Mathew and Samad, who stowed away on a moving truck going to Lagos. If he had made the trip to Lagos, it would have been his fourth time. The last time he made the journey there, it was in a white truck heaped with tomatoes heading to Oshodi, Lagos.
He had come back to Ibadan because he did not make enough money – one thousand naira was not enough for him to stay, and he had neither a place to sleep nor a tribe of boys to rise with at dawn. Will they come back, your friends? He gives an affirming nod. “Mathew will return. He always does,” he said.
Ridwan doesn’t do drugs yet, but his friends, like many others in Saree, do so and he does not know how long he can abstain. He does not drink either. When asked what he does with his money, his tiny face lit up. “If I make enough money, I rent a bicycle for N100 or N200.” After he recalled this memory, he did not stop smiling. For street children who are adults stuck in tiny bodies, his story is one of “death cannot fully kill”. There will be traces to remind one that, before this, there was someone, or could have been someone, whole and full.
There is a cut on his sleeves, a deliberate one. It is where he slips his money after earning, to keep it safe until he decides upon what to spend it on. He has never gone a day without spending all the money he had made – not keeping money around is the safest money policy in Saree.
Before today, three years ago, he was Ridwan, an eight-year-old boy, surviving not on his terms, but his mother is an ewedu vendor and his father, a conductor. But now, he is Ridwan, who does not remember his surname, what his house in Idi Omo looks like, or his siblings Balikis and Wahis — and he does not want to either. He prefers the freedom he has found, financially, bodily.
What do you want to be when you grow older? “A mechanic,” he says, like the man with the roofless shop right opposite Saree. There was no dreaming bigger.
Friday 6:30 pm, Iwo road
The sky has become grey, Ridwan picks up a naira note that has fallen from a woman’s purse and hands it back to her, she smiles at him but he does not smile back. He is on his way to buy a new shirt, pink, like the flowers on his shirt. On his way back to Saree, he spots a ring of roasted fish on the floor, he picks it up and gives it to the unsuspecting traders, whose tray it had fallen from. She says thank you, and he responds with a shy nod like he was afraid of being noticed. Then he encounters Alfa again.
When Ridwan spoke about what his life had been for three years in the eatery, he recalled an encounter with the police. He had been arrested before and released on the condition that he would go home. No one at the police station saw that he met this condition They believed him or, more likely, did not care. The police had come after that to Saree, this time dressed in white, picking boys as they slept. But, unlike him, they were not let go. He never saw them again. Alfa disagrees with one thing in this story. Those men in white were not policemen.
“They are not policemen. They are ritualists,” he says. His friends, a woman and a man who had come to sit with him, agree. They share a harrowing story of a girl, homeless too, whose body was left decapitated at Mokola roundabout, another hub for beggars. They say it with conviction. It happened and, if you were a Nigerian, it was not hard to believe.
Friday 7:25 pm, Iwo road
Alfa probes Ridwan further to get more information about his parents. It has become clear at this point that the heavily bearded man is not going to pass the opportunity to get another kid off the street of Iwo Road, not necessarily off the street of Ibadan as the kids mostly just change locations. Barely minutes into their discussion, Alfa learns that Ridwan’s parents are alive, confounded by the reason he ran away and without regard, he screams, “Go home!”
In the bus going to Idi Omo, Agodi Gate, Ridwan sits beside a lady who he regards with intensity. It is how he regards anyone speaking a different language from him. She was inquiring about her bus-stop in English. When she mentioned “Gate” he recognises the word and immediately starts combing the street as the bus sped off, watching attentively, looking out for her. When the driver speeds past her bus stop, he starts to yell frantically, “Gate! Gate” with his hands on her shoulder. He only relaxes when she gets down.
*This story is the second of a three-part series. You can read the third part below.