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Untold story of Ogun Almajiri colony

Taiwo Alimi visits Alimajiri colonies in Ogun State to report the daily struggles of child beggars and their parents to survive against all odds under the jackboot of molestation, abuse and deprivation.

  • Molested and abused child beggars, women relive ugly experiences

  • Experts warn of future security problems in Southwest

ALMAJIRA

Abiba, 6, was born on the street. Her delivery was taken by two elderly women in the colony of beggars. Though not trained midwives, they are considered old enough to offer delivery tips and have become experts at taking delivery of new born babies. In between them, Rukayat and Atikah have cut the umbilical cords of more than a dozen newborns.

Before becoming ‘In-house midwives,’ they had given birth to 17 children of their own.  Rukayat migrated to the Southwest from Jigawa State six years ago while her assistant, Atikah, joined the migration to berth in Ogun State, eight years ago.

Like Abiba, some of their children are among the scores of almajiria or child beggars that have taken over the rugged spaces on and under the bridges of Arepo/Magboro along the fast-growing Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.

Abiba runs riot with two other girls around the dusty and busy highway between Magboro and Arepo on a daily basis. From sunrise to sundown, they scamper after hundreds of motorists, begging for everything from food to money, water and clothing.

To show that she was born in the Southwest, Abiba has picked up some ‘broken English’, more or less the lingua franca spoken by the literates, semi-literates and illiterates in Nigeria.

Abiba thus communicates better than her mother, who sits with a group of women beggars at a vantage point close to the bridge top about half a kilometer away.

This reporter’s chance meeting with Abiba and friends happened on a sunny midday on his way to work. They were busy at work – scavenging whatever they could from motorists connecting the expressway through the dirt road. The group had chosen a vantage point, where vehicles have to queue up to access the main road. At that point they move in for the ‘kill.’

‘Give me money,’ Abiba’s strong voice came from nowhere. In tow came other members of the three-girl group, who quickly echoed Abiba’s words. Abiba came bold and prepared, providing answers to all of this reporter’s queries. When told that there was no loose change, she was not deterred and promptly came up with the line, ‘Give me water,’ pointing at a table water bottle in the car. When this reporter showed her the near empty bottle, thinking that would send her away, adamant Abiba pursued another line: ‘Give me money…. eat…..I never chop …….yesterday’. The others took a cue from her to chorus ‘God bless you’ like a priest would tell his congregation.

Even at age six, Abiba is already streetwise. She is not afraid and has assumed leadership of the team. She runs the show and ensures that they have something to show at the end of their daily struggle. She was willing to talk when I further engaged her on the whereabouts of her parents. “My mama dey there,” she said pointing at a group of beggars by the bridge. “She go use money give food, I beg you in the name of God.”

•Some of the children beggars

The location she pointed out is adjacent to the popular ‘Arepo Under Bridge’ bus stop, where over 100 beggars of Northern Nigeria extraction gather daily to entreat for alms from passersby and motorists. They are mainly women, children and toddlers. Sometimes people go there specifically to donate raw and cooked food, clothing materials, salt and sugar to them.

Abiba was not done. ‘They born me here, I beg here,’ she boasted.

Abiba and friends are micro samples of thousands of almajira or girl beggars littering parts of Ogun and Lagos states.

ALMAJIRI   

In operation, the almajiri (boy beggars) are separated from the girls. Their ages range from five to 10 years and they roam the streets for survival. They are seldom seen in company of girl beggars but flock together in fours and fives.

Sometimes, it is not impossible to find toddlers of not more than two years in their midst. They move in groups, maintaining some distances from each other and are always present in high vehicular traffic, at bus stops to crowd around motorists and passengers. Motorcyclists and their passengers are not spared of their aggressive style of begging too.

With the aid of a Hausa interpreter, this reporter visited their colony some days later and spoke with Abiba’s mother and some of their leaders.

According to Abiba’s mother, Laraba, she has been begging since age two.  She started with a group of older children to learn the rope. As soon as she turned six, she was put in charge of her group, with a brief to scout for money, food, water, clothing and gift items. Nothing is small. Not even a sachet of water.

PROTECTION

There is no form of protection for Abiba and hundreds of other children in the colony. In hot and cold weather alike, they are clad in local buba and iro (top and wrapper) or loose gown and wrapper, which are usually rough and dirty from walking the filthy road day after day. Change of clothing is a luxury they cannot afford because they depend on handouts.

Laraba explained; “We don’t have money to buy cloth. It is from clothes that people give us that we look for fitting ones for the children. We use the little money we get to buy food.”

No wonder the three girls were in different shades of oversize dresses. Abiba’s cloth is worst, leaving a huge gap in the neck area and exposing her whenever she bends to look into any car. In-fact, she has another job of forever scooping the oversize buba and iro behind her.

“Sometimes people give us cooked food which we share and raw ones too which we cook under the bridge where we live, Laraba said.”

Their abode is an improvised shed under Arepo Bridge, where they retire every night after a hard day’s work.

Abubakir Musa, 71, who claimed to be a ‘big man’ from Kebbi State before flood washed away his farm, pointed to nylon covered sheds which were no more than 8 square meters- about the size of a standard room in Nigeria. “We allow our women with babies and toddlers to sleep in the shed while the rest of us find empty spaces under the bridge.”

Mustafa Sanusi, 35, who speaks passable English, is the colony’s spokesman. He put a conservative figure of their population at 300. “We are about 300 in this area. There are more women than men and the number of children is more than a 100.”

•Some of the children beggars

This means that Abiba and friends cannot get into any of the sheds and will have to spend their nights same way they spend their days; in open space.

“Men and teenage boys sleep in the open mosque under the bridge,” Sanusi added.

CORONAVIRUS

In-spite of the havoc and deaths that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrecked on the world, Coronavirus is an alien word to the child beggars and their parents. Not one of them had a nose mask in place despite their daily routine with strangers in their line of duty. Neither do the adult beggars. They do not care about sanitizer or the hand watching culture. “We don’t have money to buy these things. Sometimes, people give us, but it is not enough and since we live in the open we have no means of keeping such items,” Sanusi explained.

ALMAJIRANCI SYSTEM

A system of Almajiranci has been established in the colony, whereby the children, especially the boys, learn the Quran.

A Mallam is available in the mosque to teach the boys Islamic knowledge. The Mallam is seen as the spiritual head of the colony. The colony leaders ensure that he’s well taken care of in return.

Sanusi pointed out that the Mallam is saddled with the responsibility of teaching their children Islamic education. “He teaches them how to pray five times daily and how to recite the Quran.”

Sadly, the Arepo Bridge is home to scores of other society dregs; miscreants known as ‘Area Boys’ in local parlance, petty thieves, drug addicts and motor park thugs. Abiba and friends and scores of other girls in the colony are not immune to sexual molestation and rape from their neighbours.

SEXUAL MOLESTATION

About security measures to keep their children, especially the girls, safe from harassment and abuse, Laraba confessed there is none. “There is nothing we can do. We tell them to be careful. They are not to go beyond a point, so that I can keep an eye on them from this place that I’m sitting. Whenever I cannot see them I send out the older boys to look for them.”

Sanusi said there have been instances when the teenage girls and women in the colony have been molested and abused by miscreants in the area.

“We are at God’s mercy. We send out our children daily and we cannot follow them out. We stay here while they go out to beg. Though we tell them not to go beyond a certain point and try to keep an eye on them, there is no guarantee that they are safe. Some of our women and girls have been attacked by ‘Area Boys.’

Laraba, in between tendering to her baby and talking, reliably informed that the women find solace in the hands of men beggars to ‘buy’ security. “I met Abiba’s father when I came here. He takes care of us and ensures that we are not molested by other men in the colony.”

Equally, it is not out of place for a man in the colony to be husband to two or more women and bear children through them.

Laraba is carrying her second child since arriving in ‘her Lagos’ seven years ago. She does not know about contraceptives and has not used one before. “There are other women here that have three, four children; I have two.”

Laraba has never been to a hospital. The colony’s midwives birth their babies and give them local concoction to get through the rigour of childbirth.

It is not unusual, though, to loss some babies at birth. “The condition here is bad. We don’t have money to go to hospital and some of our children have died during childbirth,” another woman with a skinny baby with brownish hair strapped to her back, said.

Arepo/Magboro Beggars Colony is one of the many that is daily springing up in Ogun State.

OUT-OF-SCHOOL CHILDREN 

In the colony, formal education is a mirage.

For Abiba and other child beggars, going to school is not part of the options available. Laraba has banished any hope of sending any of her children to school. “School?” she asked, unable to complete the sentence.

“There is nothing like that.” Sanusi cut in. “We are at the mercy of kind-hearted people. How can we send our children to school? Maybe someday government will take pity on us and help our children acquire good education. We don’t have money. We have to beg to eat. We cannot afford good shelter or buy good clothes. We make barely enough to eat and send home to our family for their upkeep.”

Musa Sakiru, another male beggar, who hails from Katsina State, intoned that the only form of education they get is from the Mallam who teaches them the Quran in the make shift mosque.

He berated governors of northern states for not doing enough to cater for its citizens. “They are not doing anything for their people. We are suffering. That is why we leave our homes to come here. Our leaders are not taking care of us and our children. They can do better in the area of welfare.”

According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) 2015 survey, Nigeria accounts for one out of the world’s five out-of-school-children. “Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. Only 61 percent of 6-11 years-old regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 percent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.

A review of the 2015 survey as carried out by Demographic Health Survey in conjunction with UNICEF in 2018, however, showed a massive jump of Nigeria out-of-school children from 10.5 million to 13.million.

According to the Executive Secretary of Universal Basic Education (UBEC) Hammid Bobboyi, “If you add the number of children that have been displaced and the increasing number of birth, you find out that our source in DHS conducted by UNICEF published in 2015 reveals the number of out-of-school children increased to 13.2 million. The survey is unpublished.

Former Nigeria president, Olusegun Obasanjo, upwardly reviewed the figure in November 2020 during the virtual 2020 graduation ceremony of Chrisland University Abeokuta. He put the figures of out-of-school children in Nigeria at 14million.

He said. “We have 14 million children that should be in school and are not in school. That’s more than the population of many African countries.”

Though the figure is unconfirmed, the massive job loss, insecurity, staggering inflation statistics and recession that bedeviled the country since 2020 support this assertion.

The Nigerian government through a survey carried out in 2020 by a joint force of Universal Basic Education commission (UBEC), National Education Commission (NPC), National Population Commission (NPC) and National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) place the figure of out-of-school children at 10million.

CIRCLE OF POVERTY

Abiba and friends are products of deprivation and poverty, and with unprotected sex taking place daily in the colony, Abiba may continue to rot in this hell, even having her own babies as soon as she enters puberty. And the circle of poverty continues.

There are other colonies in Warewa, Mowe, Ibafo, Oju Ore, Sango Ota, and other flourishing areas with bridges and quick access to Lagos. Their numbers are daily growing.

For example, Musa said he joined the colony in November of last year after he lost his farmland to flood at home. “I was a big farmer in Kebbi State. I lost everything; my farm, my houses and belongings. I left my family in Kebbi to come here to beg.”

Sanusi came to Magboro on the invitation of a childhood friend and started working as a labourer. “I am from Kano where I left my wife and children to make ends meet in Lagos. I stopped in Magboro and for about a year I was working as a labourer. I made some money and was thinking of going back home when I was struck by stroke.”

The illness affected his left leg and arm and in his search for cure, he used up the savings he intended to use in paying his way back home. “I was in Kano for three months but things got worse for my family and me.”

With Sanusi’s fortune all gone and his medical condition worsened, he hiked a crowded truck back to Magboro. This time around, he could no longer work, so he joined the colony. “It’s tough but I can send little money home now to cater for my family.”

With partial stroke and no form of edifying skill safe a claim to a Primary School Leaving Certificate, Sanusi was condemned to a life of begging. He became a spokesman to the colony and was of help when this reporter visited. “I never knew I could beg for food, but here I am. It is not my wish.”

RISING NUMBER OF ALMAJIRAI

The Nation’s findings showed that migration of Almajirai more than tripled in 2020 and three reasons were advanced for it.

One, in the middle of the widespread Coronavirus pandemic last year, 19 northern states forcefully evacuated thousands of almajirai from their streets as a way of fighting the scourge and also destroying the Almajiranci system.

Child beggars basically became ‘enemies of state.’ Under the lockdown, they became easy targets and were romped into jam-packed trucks back to their non-existing homes.

According to the BBC, “It was probably the biggest ever state organised mass movements of minors in Africa’s most-populous state, whose population of around 200 million, is divided roughly between Muslims and Christians.

From April, 2020, Kaduna and Kano launched the campaign declaring Almajiranci system dead in their states before other northern states joined in.

Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai spearheading the campaign said he took the opportunity to scrap the almajirai-based Quranic schools in his state.

The biggest heist of children totaling 35,000 was carried out by Kaduna State, according to Hajiya Hafsat Baba, Commissioner for Human Services and Social Development on April 22, 2020. The evacuation affected 17 states.

In retaliation, the Kano State government announced the evacuation of 524 almajiri children to neighbouring Jigawa on April 22, 2020. At about the same time, another 419 were moved to Katsina State and 195 to Kaduna. Other states affected carried out their own purgation, flushing out vulnerable children in their hundreds. On arriving at their states, some of them were quarantined and tested for COVID-19. The results were alarming as hundreds of them reportedly tested positive.

When mass testing of returning children commenced, of the 169 tested in Kaduna, 65 came out positive, while 91 confirmed cases came out of the 168 tested in Jigawa.  In Gombe, eight of the 48 children tested had COVID-19 while in Bauchi, the number was seven out of 38.

Unable to match the drive for evacuation with catering and reuniting the children to their parents, the street-wise kids escaped from the camps and returned to the streets for a while. As soon as they made enough to book their passage out of the North, they headed West and that accounted for the mass arrival of almajirai children that has been recorded since May 2020.

•Beggars take-over a bridge

In May 2020, the Ogun State Traffic Compliance and Enforcement Agency (TRACE) said its operatives intercepted a truck loaded with about 30 almajirai at Joju area of Ado Odo Local Government Area of the state. The IVECO truck with Kano registration number was loaded with people, among them 30 children-alleged to be almajirai from Kano State.

That was but one of the many trucks that landed in the West of Nigeria with scores of women and children throughout the lockdown. Most of them came in at night, beating the porous Ogun State borders but unable to cross to Lagos manned by vigilant security officers, decided to stay in the bordering towns between Ogun and Lagos states.

Security expert, Musiliu Ayeni explained that “this accounted for the huge number of child-beggars you see in Magboro, Arepo, Wawa, Mowe, Sango, Ota and other border towns of Lagos and Ogun states.

“When they found that they could not cross to Lagos, they stayed in these towns and made their abode there. In-fact if you ask them, they will tell you they are living in Lagos.”

The other notion for this mass migration was muted by Musa.

The economic downturn eclipsed by the pandemic in 2020 made a pauper of many business people, farmers and breadwinners in Northern Nigeria. “I was doing well in my business until the pandemic came and I lost everything. I sold my houses after losing my farms to flood. I migrated to beg here temporarily. When the condition improves at home I will go back.”

There are many like Musa who made the long journey to make ends meet. And some came with their wives and children.

Insecurity occasioned by Boko Haram insurgency activities in Northwest Nigeria also forced many of them to join the bandwagon to drift down west. Laraba falls into that category. She said she was forced to relocate to the West when Boko Haram sacked her village in Izghe-Borno State in 2014. “I ran for my life.”

The reality is that there are millions of child beggars living on the streets and under bridges in Nigeria’s metropolitans, cities and towns all over the Southwest region.

Residents and experts warn that the consequences are many and terrifying.

TIME BOMB

Ope Feyitimi, a Magboro resident, decried the social malaise and general condition of child beggars in the environment. “They are so many now. They are dirty and unkempt. They are nuisance to motorists and passersby. There is no where you go to in Magboro that you don’t see them. I’m scared of what bad elements can use them to perpetrate in the community. Most of them will grow up to be criminals and ‘Area Boys.’”

Late Balarabe Musa, second republic governor of Kaduna State, called it a time-bomb. “You would recall that the Boko Haram started this way, most were young except for their commanders who were above 25 years.

“Let the government institute free and compulsory education from primary to secondary level, and the Almajiri system would end.”

Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), said addressing the social and security problems associated with Almajiri system requires a holistic approach. “We need a long-term plan and not our fire brigade approach to doing things.”

Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, Primate of All Nigeria (Anglican Communion), however, said, “What people are asking is for the government to improve the lives of these boys, send them to school, and integrate them into the society. As they are now they are not helpful to the society.”

Until that happens, Abiba and other child beggars will continue to live under a harsh reality on the streets, vulnerable to molestation and deprived.

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Source: The Nation

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