[I] want to go back home, but my father has rejected me outright. He told me he does not want me as his son anymore. My mother died in 2009 and my father remarried. I am not happy that I am in the street,” says 14-year-old boy, Victor Okon, who has been roaming the streets of Calabar for the past seven years.
Teenager Okon is one out of the hundreds of abandoned street kids that roam the streets of the Cross River State capital without convenient shelter.
The abandoned kids take shelter in uncompleted houses, abandoned yards, undeveloped plots of land in highbrow areas, unused caravans, unmonitored public facilities such as playgrounds and parks, among others.
They loiter around fast food joints and big restaurants to scamper for food remnants. Most of the kids, who are not happy with their present situation, are victims of child abuse.
At a workshop on violence against children organised by the United States Agency for International Development in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund, specifically for stakeholders in the media industry, a UNICEF official, Mrs. Ijeoma Onuoha-Ogwe, noted that Cross River has been tagged as one of the states with the highest prevalence rate of child’s violation in the country.
Apart from the regular physical and mental assaults on kids by parents and guardians, the increasing cases of rape and female genital mutilation, was among the worrisome developments that should be tackled, according to Onuoha-Ogwe.
In the case of Master Okon, whose mother died in 2009, the father had thrown him out of the house in 2010 after getting married to another woman, on the grounds that he no longer needed him as his son.
Okon was among over 100 abandoned kids that recounted their ordeal of hunger, disease, homelessness and total deprivation during a programme to mark the 2016 International Day for Street Children organised by the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative in Calabar.
In an emotional laden voice, little Okon narrates, “I was in a children centre along Benet Street in Calabar until 2011 when I left. After I was thrown out of the house by my father, I stayed in the street around Bogobiri area for up to one year before I was admitted into the children’s home.
“I had actually broken the rules of the centre; that was why I left. It happened so because I did not have good clothes with me when I went to the centre. I kept recycling the same worn out clothes to church every Sunday.
“I remember I had some good clothes I left with my best friend when I was in the street at Bogobiri. I begged to go and pick up the clothes, but the rule was that the moment you stepped out of the gate, you shouldn’t bother to come back.
“I stepped out because I was fed up with the clothes I was putting on to church. Unfortunately, I had to remain in the streets again because I knew I had broken the rule. “I wish I could go back to my home. I wish my father could accept me back. He rejected me,” he lamented.
Another 11-year-old boy, who simply identified himself as Emmanuel, said he was thrown out of the house by his maternal aunt for failing to turn in the money made from sales of retail water melon that he was asked to hawk along the major roads of Calabar.
Emmanuel said he was caught by government task force officials for failing to pay the levy for hawking perishable products along the busy Marian Road in Calabar.
He said the task force men took the little money he had on him and confiscated the perishable product.
He said when he got home to relate what had happened to his aunt, he was driven out of the house and had been in the streets for some years.
“I was happy staying with my aunt. She normally sent me to sell water melon along major streets of Calabar. One of the days, the tray of water melon was seized by task force men who asked for the levy. I trekked from Marian Road in Calabar Municipal area to the house in Jebbs Street axis of Calabar South to report the case to my aunt, but she did not believe me.
“She rather drove me out of the house. The next day, an elderly man followed me home to plead with my aunt, but she drove us away. That was how I became homeless and I now enjoy staying in the streets because I have friends who are like my brothers,” Emmanuel said. But a lucky 16-year-old boy, Essien Out, said he had remained in the streets, eating from dustbins and gutters for four years before a Good Samaritan came to his rescue.
Otu, who is now a Senior Secondary School II student of Duke Town Secondary School, Calabar said, “No child would, ordinarily, want to be in the streets. Every street child is exposed to kidnapping, epidemic, hunger, deprivation. I used to eat from dustbin just like the insane.”
But the National Secretary of Basic Rights Counsel Initiative, Mr. James Ibor, wondered why government would empower task forces to collect levies from kids who are hawking while their peers are in school.
“Should government agencies collect levies/taxes from a child who is hawking? This is wrong because we had always thought that government was at the forefront of child’s education. Why should a child be punished for hawking instead of the parent/guardian who sent him out? Emmanuel, for instance, has been neglected for hawking. How do we tackle this,” he queried.
Such double standard, according to a former programmes manager of Destiny Child Centre in Calabar, Mr. Williams Arikpo, is an indication that the child’s right law is not being implemented.
Arikpo, who lamented the high rate of children abuse in Cross River State, disclosed that every day, one child is abandoned in Calabar.
“These street kids have become addicted to cheap drugs as the rate of child abuse keeps increasing in Cross River State. I can tell you that every day, one child is neglected in Calabar. The situation is further worsened by the fact that the Child Rights Law is not being implemented,” he added.
He also disclosed that he had at a time tried to reconcile the teenager (Okon) with his father, but the father threw him out after pretending to have accepted his son.
Arikpo, however, could not completely blame privileged members of the society for not accepting to take care of the underprivileged street kids due to what he referred to as wrong insinuations.
According to him, the founder of Destiny Child Centre in Calabar and wife of a former governor, Mrs. Obioma Imoke, was discouraged from sustaining the children home because of rumours that she was selling the kids.
“There were so many false stories making the rounds and because of the allegations, she had to hand over the home which had hundreds of rehabilitated street kids to the state Ministry of Sustainable Development and Social Welfare so that peace will reign. There are so many street kids who could get more but because of criticisms, people might back out,” he said.
While some are lucky to get succour from well-meaning individuals, others do not as investigation showed that some empty caravans in Calabar have become the only choice of accommodation for street kids.
Most appalling is the fact that the kids, who hardly take their bath because of complete absence of any facility, defecate in any nearby space.
A 12-year-old, Charles Johnson, who was the eldest among the kids resident at a caravan beside Zoo Garden along Mary Slessor Avenue in Calabar, said he was driven from his family home in Calabar after the death of his father.
Johnson, who disclosed they sell scraps to survive, said, “We used to get money to feed from the proceeds we get from picking scraps. Some other times we go to the dustbin, especially that of fast food outlets to look for unfinished foods in containers that had been thrown away.
“That is how we survive most times. Other times we also beg for alms to feed ourselves. Some days we get as much as N400 after selling the scraps and that is what we use to feed ourselves. We eat together as a group.
“My father is dead and his relations did not allow me to stay in the compound. So, I had to leave the compound for the street to start my own life.”
The pathetic story of these abandoned street kids has further brought to the fore the non implementation of laws, according to Ibor, who is insisting on the full implementation of the Child Rights Law as passed by the Cross River State Government.
He said, “These children have potentials and great destiny. There is no dump for a stubborn child. The state government has tried but they should put more effort. Parents who abandon their children in the streets should know that those children are potential threats to their families and society.”
On the way forward, Ibor appealed to faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations, government and public spirited individuals to take away “leaders of tomorrow from the streets if Nigeria in particular and the world in general must be better.”
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