by Uche Briggs
So I’m seated at Angel’s Place, my favorite bar, with my friend, Damilare, a hunk of a guy with a fun personality and a real connection with kids. My perfectly brewed bottle of Star, chilled to mortuary standards before me. A young voice calls out his name. I instinctively turn to see who it is. A little girl, not more than 6 years of age. She is pretty, her face marred by tribal marks. I look closely, but having never been an expert, I give up trying to identify what tribe she is from. She carries a bowl in a black nylon bag and jogs with the gait of one with no care in the entire world.
She finds a chair besides us at the bar and for the next 6 minutes, she manages to drill us with over 20 questions. At the point of realization that I am being interrogated by a child, I turn to her and ask: “Come first, how old are you sef?”. She giggles and runs off in the direction of her errand. I shake my head in amazement.
Smiling, I turn back to my bottle of beer and in that moment, Damilare makes the one statement that would alter my thought process for a long time: “Shebi you know she can’t go to school”. My eyes light up for the briefest of moments, as I try to understand his words. “What do you mean?” I quizzed. “She can’t”.
Damilare then goes on to explain how the girl’s handlers who bring her from the village, or wherever she comes from, have issued a caveat to her ‘madam’ in Lagos that she must never go to school. According to him, there is a ‘supervisor’ who comes to visit her at regular intervals. If during one of the visits, they find out that she is soundly remotely intelligent, they withdraw her from her ‘madam’. In his words: “an intelligent person is bad for business”.
At this point, I am in shock. The beer loses its effect as my mind weeps at the enormity of the mind that has gone to waste. In an era where we all glamorize civilization, freedom and the rights of the child, many are still bargaining and trading children. The way we treat our children is a reflection of the character of our society. We have failed.
This practice, in plain English, is slavery. The sad part is that it isn’t the exception; it is the rule. While we moan bitterly about the aristocratic oppression of the proletariat, it is evident that the middle class has constituted themselves into a different kind of lords.
Yemisi Ogbe brilliantly captures this in her piece, A Culture of Disrespect. But unlike how she espouses that our forefathers dealt in slave trade back in the day, we are dealing in slave trade now! My story is not unique. Many people know a child who has been deprived of these basic rights. We can scream for eternity about how undemocratic the government is but again remember, as brilliantly captured by George Bernard Shaw, “Democracy is the device that ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”
I was working on a project sometime back, and I stumbled upon some numbers that terrified me. The Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) report of 2008 estimates that one in every three Nigerian children under the age of five is stunted and suffering from chronic malnutrition. 53% of child mortality in Nigeria is caused by malnutrition. Between 2000 and 2008, the reduction in the amount of children who died due to malaria has exceeded that caused due to hunger with the reduction for death due to hunger reducing by only 0.3%.
Children are actually getting hungry to the point that they die. I know what hunger feels like. Its taste is bitter and its embrace cold. What cruel torture. With no recourse to what these children may become in future.
The natural reaction will be to be mad at the government for not being responsive to the fate of these kids, and it will be understandable. But for how long can this persist? We are guilty of the same crime. For everyone who has seen a child malnourished, every one who has had course to negotiate the value of a child like second hand goods, for everyone who has looked at the child and sized up the amount of work she may be able to carry out, and for people like me, who returned to their bottle of beer like they heard nothing, we need to give our humanity a rethink.