By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children’- Nelson Mandela.
I was going through my Facebook page last week, and I came across the story of a woman in Ado-Ekiti who was living in dire circumstances. Shortly after, one of my staff members sent me a message about the same case. I sent two people to the woman to find out more about what was going on with her and they came back with a long and sad story.
The woman, let me call her Florence, was living in what can be described as a mud house. It was obviously one of these places originally constructed as a barn for storage of farm produce and farming equipment, but ended up being used as accommodation. The ‘house’ had two rooms. Florence lives in one of them with her two boys aged eight and six. The other room is occupied by her elderly parents and her younger sister, Josephine. There is a wide crack that runs through the room where Florence stays, and it is always full of water, so Florence and her children literally sleep next to a gutter. Asking mothers such as Florence, ‘where is their father’ has now become a rhetorical question that is not even worth asking anymore. My team asked anyway and the answer was not a surprise – the father was not in their lives.
Florence has mental health challenges. According to her family members, she needs constant restraining, so my team found her sitting on the floor with her feet bound with heavy chains. Florence used to be married to some fellow in Lagos, who decided to bring her back to Ekiti and dump her with her people. He took their two children away and no one knows where he can be found. Florence has no education. No skills. No partner. Two elderly parents. An incapacitated sister. Dreadful accommodation. And two young children.
When my team came back from this ‘Hammer House of Horror,’ they were badly shaken. The photographs on Facebook had only shown the exterior of the place where Florence was living. The images of this family and where they live are heartbreaking. There are thousands of very poor people on the list of vulnerable households in the state. Florence and her family are not likely to be on that list because their ‘house’ might not even exist in the state records.
We passed on the information to the Ministry of Women Affairs, who were also shocked with our findings. We asked Florence what her priorities were and she told us she wanted somewhere else to live and to be able to engage in petty trading so she can look after herself and her children. We have moved her and the children to a shelter run by the state that I put in place during my husband’s first term in 2013.
We have found a two-bedroom apartment for her to stay and she will move there with her children and parents. Florence has been taken to the state Mental Health Rehabilitation Center. When the family was asked how they came about a diagnosis of ‘madness’ for Florence, they said that is what they were told by the herbalists and pastors they had taken her to. Now that she is in the hands of medical professionals, it is up to them to provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
I decided to pay a visit to the State Shelter, to check on Florence and her children, as well as the other women living there, some with their children. There are fifteen women there at the moment. Most are survivors of Gender Based Violence. Some were found wandering the streets with nowhere to go. They now have a roof over their head, they can acquire skills and some will soon be able to live on their own again. I kept looking at the children, wondering how things would turn out for them.
Thankfully, they are all in school since education is free and compulsory in the state. We also help with additional things that might be needed. If these children do not make it though school, then the cycle of misery and poverty will continue. One of the survivors in the State Shelter has three children, two are in tertiary institutions and one is in senior secondary school. She is a dressmaker and she owns a shop. All she needs is her own accommodation, and I have promised to do that for her right away.
She beamed when I had a conversation with her two older children, they are her pride and joy. We will try our best for Florence. However, all this will amount to nothing if her children do not make it. I hope that one day, she too will be able to smile broadly over her children’s accomplishments.
After the visit, I had a debriefing session with the officials who went with me and we looked at plans to address all the cases we had seen. I could not shake a feeling of gloom and despair. I could not stop thinking about Florence and her children. Perhaps it is because the visit took place on Children’s Day. There are millions of women like Florence. Millions of children with mothers too poor, too sick or too incapacitated to raise them the way they should be. As for the fathers, those who can live up to their responsibilities do so, but if they are not in the picture, the mothers and children learn to live on without them.
For every healthy, clean, fresh-faced, well-fed child or grandchild we cuddle and do homework with, there are thousands of children who live like the Beasts of No Nation that Uzodinma Iweala described in his searing book. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the ‘less fortunate’ children are the children of ‘others’. No, they are OUR children too.
If we refuse to think of them in those terms, one day, they will rise against the children we are cuddling and protecting at the moment. Innocent, carefree children do not turn into feral creatures overnight. Years of hunger, neglect and abuse make that possible. Our governments and leaders cannot afford to fail OUR children. As parents, guardians and teachers we have to hold ourselves and others accountable.
Our children need opportunities. Our children need protection, not being bussed and squabbled over from one state to the other. Our children need safety, and should not have to live in fear of being plucked from their families and turned into sex slaves or terrorists. Our children have to survive. Our children have to thrive. Our children should not just live to see the future, they need to own the future. May all the dreams we have for our children come true. For whatever it is worth, Happy Children’s Day.
*Adeleye-Fayemi, a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer, is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women and the First Lady of Ekiti State, and can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com