The problem of street children in several cities in Nigeria, especially, Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of the country, appears to have defied every solution. However, a private initiative, geared towards empowering their parents and enrolling the street kids in schools may resolve the age-long practice, if supported by the citizenry. Godwin Haruna writes:
They roam the streets from dawn to dusk searching for what to eat. In street alleys, some of their parents, who sent them out in the first place, wait for the returns. Some others are hedged in small huts where they secure the lives and properties of their masters as security guards. All around Lagos and indeed, prominent towns in Nigeria, this is the face of some children born to Shuwa Arabs.
To them, there is nothing like school. Some do not even have the benefit of attending the Koranic Islamic schools, which is so prevalent in most societies in the northern states. From day to day, week to week, months running into years, the routine is the same: Begging along highways despite the inherent risks and hazards. The Lagos scenario presents a more frightening dimension to the risks involved in this ‘trade’ essentially because of the ubiquitous ‘danfo’ driver, who has scant regard for highway ethics. In their madness to get all the money in one day, the Lagos commercial driver does not brook any hindrance on his path. It is this attitude that makes the job of the beggars more difficult as they are seldom knocked down.
It appears there is a silver lining on the wall for these otherwise forgotten children through a private initiative of some Nigerians spear-headed by Mrs. Doris Yaro. A presidential award winner after her national service in Kaduna State, Yaro refused to be enticed with an offer of employment in the federal civil service in order to have enough time to work for the poor.
With the balance of the house keeping allowance she gets from her husband monthly and support of some public-spirited Nigerians, this humanist from Borno State caters to the needs of these neglected children and women so that they can have a future. For this objective, she told Thisday in an interview recently that the Gabasawa Women and Children Initiative (GWCI) was set up.
She said the GWCI is a non-governmental organisation dedicated to bringing marginalised and fringe families into the mainstream of society with a view to giving them hope.
"We are active in providing educational opportunities for children, mental and financial empowerment for their mothers. We also provide greater access to medicine and reproductive health. We spread the message of cross-religious tribal harmony through love", Yaro said in an interview.
According to her, the objectives of the non-governmental organisation is to give access to education to the children of fringe and marginalised families; train their women in economically viable skills as well as assisting them financially to start small businesses; and empowering them mentally to accept that God created them with equal opportunities to succeed just like other human beings.
Others, Yaro stated, are providing them access to healthcare, reproductive health education, and HIV/AIDS awareness and to bridge the dangerous gulf dividing the peoples of Nigeria along tribal and religious lines through the administration of love services without discrimination.
She said she has introduced soap making to the women in order to productively engage them and make them self-reliant. "Basically, we teach them how to improve on their lives. How to take care of their children. We also teach them pomade-making and sowing. We add adult education and nutrition to the training because their children are mal-nourished", she said.
She said the women are also being organised into groups where they contribute a pittance, which is given to needy members as a revolving loan.
"My passion is to touch women. I’m from the north and I’m not happy to see how women are suffering. They depend on their husbands, who earn meagre pay or nothing at all, a situation which creates disharmony among families. I grew up with some hardship personally and I don’t want these children and women to suffer similar deprivation. That’s why I decided on this course because I thought over it and reached a conclusion that one person can touch lives and make a difference", she said.
She had started the project during her national service in Kaduna State. She said when she moved to Lagos four years ago, she noticed in her neighbourhood in Ogudu G.R.A. that scores of the children of the night guards do not attend school. She said on enquiry, she was told that the parents are night guards, who usually live in the uncompleted buildings in the area. She said further that it pricked her conscience that somebody on a salary of N6000.00 per month has up to six or more children to cater for. Soon, Yaro started inviting them to her house and offering food and playing video films for the young lads. Having got used to them, they disclosed to him that they were not attending school because their parents could not afford the bills.
"Coming from the north, I was worried that such children of school age should be going to the dustbin looking for God knows what. I was not happy seeing my people do that and even people around me too felt bad about the sordid practice. So, I gathered them and asked if they would like their children to go to school and they said yes, but they don’t have the means. I decided to bring a lesson teacher and on the first day we got 25 children. As the number increased, we were able to categorise the children from age four to 14, they had never seen the four walls of a primary school. They go around picking from the dustbin and begging, which is a source of embarrassment. We later took them to school and they are up to 60 now", Yaro said.
She said they are so happy attending school and most of them are doing well. When asked if they want to do the job their parents are doing, their response is usually no. She said the idea of the various professions is gradually building up in them.
Yaro affirmed that her dream is not restricted to the Lagos area alone, she plans to touch all marginalised peoples across the country.
"We want to touch families all over Nigeria. We don’t care what tribe you belong to, we don’t care about your religion, we only care about needy and marginalised people wherever they may be. Ogudu is just the starting point. Our vision is broad and wide as long as resources can carry us", she said.
However, Yaro stated that she could not do all these alone since she does not earn extra income apart from the balance of her house keeping and wardrobe allowance, which her magnanimous husband offers. She said she will rather go about in Nigerian wax dresses than buy the expensive wrappers and see many more people suffer.
She said her biological children were in Chrisland School, but they were withdrawn to a less fee-paying school so that, the balance from there could augment her pet project. She also stated that her good neighbours like Mrs. Priscilia Eneji, have been assisting with paying the school fees of the less privileged kids she enrolled in school. She said the support she receives from these people have always boosted her morale to continue. She looks at Mother Theresa of the Catholic Church, who devoted her life to the poor, as her role model.
"I pray every day of my life, God make me like Mother Theresa. It took Mother Theresa years before people came to her aid and even today, people are still helping the project she started", she said.
Also speaking at the interview, Mrs. Esther Otuya, a member of the board of Trustees of GWCI said she was attracted to the project because of the determination of Mrs. Yaro to the idea. Otuya said she felt duty bound to see the success of the project because of her own past, which was not rosy.
She commended Yaro for being a special breed for coming out of her comfort zone to assist the poor and marginalised. She said they would attract support to the project once their deeds started speaking for them in the society.
Yaro added her voice that she was not out to make money, but primarily to assist the poor. "I want my work to speak for me. By the grace of God, I’m comfortable, I have food to eat and I have shelter. We want people to know that we are not like others seeking for money for ulterior motives, but we need money to expand the scope of our project. We want to touch lives", she added.
She said because of stigmitisation, the children are sent to private school where there is close monitoring of the kids. She commended the proprietress of the school she sends the children for slashing their fees by half.
Yaro said her projection is that in the next few years, she will be able to establish a colony for the Shuwa Arabs in Lagos, where they will be schools and a vocational centre to teach the various trades."