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The PUNCH Newspaper: Our Story As Featured.

On Thursday, the 20th of August, our story was published in one of the most read national newspapers -2 FULL pages! wow! Copied below herewith is the story as published, alternatively, you could read it up on pages 28-29. Or here: The PUNCH
SOLAADE AYO-ADERELE relates the untold stories of neglected children in the backwaters of Lagos State
Although they come from different parts of the country, their story is not exactly unique. They are bound by the same sense of abandonment, hopelessness and utter frustrations that are rather unexpected among persons of their age group.


The oldest of them is just 13 years old. They all look wasted for young persons that they are, lacking proper foods required for children of their age to grow into healthy adults.
Their hungry looks are explained by the proprietor of the ramshackle school they are fortunate to attend. According to the founder of the non-governmental organisation, Street2School Initiative, Mrs. Tosin Taiwo, mother of two and computer science graduate of the University of Lagos, the children’s guardians are so impoverished that they can’t afford to give them a breakfast on any school day. As such, the children come to school on empty stomachs, forcing the cash-strapped school to also volunteer to feed the teeming kids at least once during the school hours – in addition to giving them free schooling.
The foods are everything but truly nourishing; but the perpetually hungry children are forever grateful to the ‘mummy’ who is kind enough to offer them the education their runaway parents and impoverished guardians have been unable to give them.
A few of them who had attended one school or the other before, stopped abruptly when their various former school owners could no longer tolerate the huge debts hanging on their fragile, young necks. Yet, based on their academic performances, most of them are quite brilliant, while their excitement at sitting within the four walls of a classroom is unmistakable.
Theirs are the stories of child neglect occasioned by abject poverty of their biological parents, absentee fathers and death of both parents in worst case scenarios.
Almost left behind
That was the summary of the still-unfolding story of 11-year-old Esther Popoola. At a time when her peers are already in the second year of junior secondary school, Esther is just too happy to be in Primary Four at the Helper’s Academy, the education arm of the Street2School Initiative, which rescued her from the streets where she was hawking bread.
She says she has been out of school “for long” and lives with her aged grandmother. She was a pupil of the privately-owned Ever-Reign Nursery and Primary School, Ikola, a Lagos suburb, from where she had been sent away when her aged guardian could not afford the school fees.
Hers is a pathetic story, as she grew up without both parents, having lost them at a time she could barely recognise them. She has only been lucky to be in the league of children rescued from the street and from the stifling grips of unscrupulous guardians who use them for child labour.
Frightening statistics
Esther and other unfortunate children in her circle are a part of the estimated 40 per cent of Nigerian children aged six to 11 who do not attend any primary school. Indeed, the UNICEF estimates that about 4.7 million children of primary school age in Nigeria are still not in school.
At a time when her age groups are transiting to junior secondary school, 10-year-old Opemipo Bankole has just been enrolled in Primary Four. She stopped attending school in Primary Five when her parents separated and subsequently committed her to the care of a relation who simply locked her and two other kids up every day whenever she left for her shop.
Opemipo rarely sees her parents, as her mother lives in Sango, Ogun State, while her dad lives in a Lagos suburb. She hardly knows the joy of being a child to someone, as her parents seem to have given up any relationship with her.
She says her mother visits once in a while, but she has no opportunity of seeing her parents whenever she desires, neither does she have their phone numbers. But despite all these vicissitudes, Opemipo is very good in computer and she is currently the best in her school.
Psychologist, Prof. Mopelola Omoegun, says growing up without a father – whether due to divorce, an out-of-wedlock birth, or a father’s death – is associated with a host of negative effects. She notes that children from low-income families are more likely to live apart from their father, a situation that also leads to other factors related to both family structure and, sometimes, untoward child outcomes.
Pictures of neglect

Shakiratu preparing her children for school
Mrs. Shakiratu Kamoru cuts a pitiable picture of neglect and deprivation. An unlettered single mother of four, she has no idea what her age is. Looking gaunt and underfed, she works as itinerary cleaner who moves from house to house, cleaning up compounds and pit toilets that are commonly in use in the overpopulated and forgotten neighbourhood where she lives with her children.
In terms of marriage, Shakiratu has seen it all: she has been widowed, remarried and currently divorced from her second husband when she could no longer take the neglect she claims to have suffered alongside the children she had for him, and the ones she brought from her first marriage.
Absolutely penniless, she relies on her meagre earning from her daily cleaning work. But with four underage kids in tow, Shakiratu has been unable to do much to feed, clothe or educate her children, one of whom is the 13-year-old Adewale, who is in Primary Four – a class meant for the average nine-year-old.
His 16-year-old sibling dropped out of school when their mother could no longer pay the school fees. And though he learnt how to repair tricycles, he has continued to yearn for good education which, he says, is the only thing he desires in life.
Her other two children don’t fare better either.
Omoegun says growing up in poverty can have a lasting impact on a child, as it might possibly shape his social and emotional growth. She adds that mothers with lower household income and lower levels of education, such as Shakiratu, are more likely to be more negative in their play interactions with their children.
Questionable kindness

Titilayo and her guardian’s grandson
On the surface of it, Mrs. Oluwadamilare Ismail is a kind person. In addition to playing self-appointed guardian to the nine-year-old Titilayo Mojibat Bello, Oluwadamilare also houses other kids who, it turns out, she uses as casual labourers.
Asked how she came about the kids under her charge, especially Titilayo, Oluwadamilare says she was a co-tenant with the girl’s mother in the Ketu area of Lagos, and that she decided to come to Ikola-Ilumo with the girl when she relocated from Ketu.
She says Titilayo’s mother has many other children whom she cannot provide for, and that the mother was grateful that she showed interest in the girl. She claims not to know her whereabouts as of the time of speaking with her.
Meanwhile, contrary to her promise to enrol Titilayo in school, on a daily basis, Titilayo and other children are deployed to work in the various houses where Oluwadamilare has taken up cleaning contracts.
But beyond this, there’s a deeper problem to Titilayo’s identity: She does not know her biological father, and her mother does not know her whereabouts. Her guardian claims not to know her father either. As such, Oluwadamilare simply gave the child her grandfather’s name, Bello. In effect, Titilayo may never get to know her authentic identity.
Like other kids in her school, she was rescued from the street and is currently in Primary 2, where she struggles to understand what it means to be a pupil.
Paradise lost
Nine-year-old Mubarak Salisu’s young life has been everything but innocent. Born to a Hausa father who wouldn’t have anything to do with him and his Yoruba mother, he currently lives with his maternal grandparents who can barely make ends meet. His mother is late.
Even though Mathematics is his best subject, he nearly lost out on schooling until Street2 School Initiative picked him up from the street and put him in school. He’s currently in Primary 2 and nurses a huge dream of becoming a physician.
If any of her peers felt the burden of life, nine-year-old Anuoluwapo Kolawole does – and much more. One of six siblings, her jobless electrician father fled the home when her petty trader and family bread winner mother succumbed to stroke.
In her early 30s, before she became helpless with stroke, Ify was up and about, selling potpourri of things ranging from foodstuffs to recharge cards and every other thing that could put food on the family table. She was responsible for the children’s school fees, house rent, clothing, and so many other bills, however small or big. Then she developed stroke and an already dreary life took a turn for the worst.
With no money for medical treatment in the hospital, she resorted to taking traditional medicines which have not solved the problem. At a point, her husband and father of her six children left the home, ostensibly in search of the wherewithal to care for the family.
The neighbours seized the opportunity to turn Ify’s children into errand boys and girls.
“It was such that when we first approached the person we mistook for their mother, she wasn’t ready to release Anuoluwapo, even when we promised that the schooling would be free.
“It was much later that we met their sick mother, who gladly handed her over to us,” Tosin says.
Now back home, the father, Mr. Ezekiel Kolawole, 46, still relies on what his kids generate from street hawking.
Presently, the children are scattered among their various relations, with no idea of how well they’re faring.
Unlike her peers, Anuoluwapo’s academic scores are too low, as the parents have been unable to purchase necessary textbooks to aid her learning.
At 12, Sadiq Olamilekan is lucky to be in Primary Four, even when his mates are already preparing for the junior WAEC. One of two surviving kids, Sadiq lost his dad as a baby and his mother has since remarried. However, her mother could barely cater for him, as her new husband would have nothing to do with Sadiq.
As a fruit hawker who also plaits hair, her son’s education is the least of her worries. Consequently, Sadiq spent his time running errands for neighbours; while he spent most of his time roaming the streets until the Street2School Initiative picked him up.
On the average, children have high hopes about their future. But 10-year-old Temitope Adebayo seems resigned and appears to live for here and now. If any future exists anywhere, it is not part of her thoughts. She’s currently in Primary Two, a class meant for seven-year-olds.
Asked if she’d like to attend a university later in life, she drew a blank. Asked what she’d like to be in future, she simply shrugged. Yet, other children in her school are happy to declare that they want to be doctors, lawyers and engineers, even when they don’t know where the next meal would come from.
Temitope’s forlornness is not without reasons: she has been abandoned to relations by her parents who live in faraway Abeokuta, Ogun State, while her two other siblings are also distributed among relations. Indeed, she has not seen her 15-year-old brother for years, she says, as the young man has left home to fend for himself.
The former pupil of Mary Kiddies Nursery and Primary School, Ikola, Lagos State, she was rescued from the street where she was hawking fish, pap and other things, and now enrolled in Helper’s Academy.
Too numerous to count
The stories of these children – who are too many to mention – are the shame of a nation, Tosin says. Their neglect is unprecedented. Denied parental care, they live in makeshift houses and downright uncompleted structures built under high-voltage power lines.
Back at home, they have no access to basic convenience such as toilet facilities, running water or decent meal. Their guardians and parents – for those who are lucky enough to live with theirs – are simply too impoverished to provide even the most basic comfort.
The parents are just too glad that the non-governmental organisation has relieved them of the burden of caring for their own children, in the absence of which the children would have been left to the elements in a creepy environment where child prostitution and child labour are rife.
Neglected landscape
A walk around some neighbourhoods in Ikola-Ilumo is revealing. There’s hardly anything to suggest government presence, apart from the hurriedly-built road which was washed off after the first rain and is now littered with craters.
The fast-growing town has no public school whatsoever, power supply is erratic, and the only World Bank-sponsored public health facility has remained under construction for as long as residents could remember.
Brothels are located side-by-side residential houses, and there is no police post there.
Chairman of the Community Development Association in one of the communities, Mr. Monsuru Adeleke, expresses surprise that though the agents of the Lagos State Government come to collect tenement rates annually from residents, government has not been rewarding the ancient town with commensurate social amenities, especially good roads, public school and primary health care facilities.
Project borne out of passion
Tosin explains that even though the Helper’s Academy charges each kid N1,000 fee to cover enrolment, after which they attend for free for as long as they are pupils, the parents and guardians still can’t afford to part with such money.
She says, “The kids come to school on empty stomachs, and it has also become our responsibility to feed them while in school, otherwise their concentration will be impaired.
“We practically beg the parents and guardians to release them to us, as they see education as too burdensome and unaffordable.”
Tosin says her passion for the project is borne out of the need to help disadvantaged kids.
She explains, “When you talk about children who are out of school, the tendency is to think about children in the northern states, whereas we have equally large numbers of children roaming the streets in the southwest.
“The best way to assess the situation is to move around the suburbs between 9a.m and 1pm when children should be in school. You’d be surprised at your findings.”
Tosin adds that many Lagos’ backwaters, such as Ikola-Ilumo, lack social amenities such as public schools and health centres, though residents of such places are poor and cannot afford the private schools in their surroundings.
She laments that though the past administration in the state did so much to develop the urban centres and business districts, it conveniently neglected the backwaters, as if they didn’t count in the scheme of things.
“The result of such neglect is the army of poor, abandoned and neglected children who are used for cheap labour and who may end up as street urchins, armed robbers and commercial sex workers – all of which are negative indices for any economy,” Tosin warns.
Not a rosy journey
Tosin confesses that the journey has been everything but rosy for her and her team of mentor-teachers. The main headache is finance.
“So far, 95 per cent of our funding comes from friends and family members who believe in what we are doing. It hasn’t been an easy ride at any point in time, but our friends regularly help us out by offsetting examination costs, donating materials and also donating cash, even if little.
“Our only corporate helper has been the global courier service providers, the United Parcel Service (UPS), which donated money to us last year and for which we are really grateful. We do hope that the gesture will continue, while we also urge other well-meaning corporate entities to also donate towards the education of these unfortunate children,” she pleads.
According to the team leader, the Street2School Initiative started as a nongovernmental organisation that simply enrolled street kids in public schools, while it also paid the examination fees of indigent children who wanted to write the United Tertiary Matriculations Examinations and the West African School Certificate Examinations.
However, as time went on, she says, the need to also mentor these forgotten children became imperative and she was convinced that she needed to found a school where children could learn skills, as well as where their mothers could learn machine knitting.
“It’s all about the empowerment of women and their children; and that was how we birthed our non-fee paying school, the Helper’s Academy,” Tosin volunteers.
She appeals to the government to make education accessible and affordable to the populace by building schools in rural areas, instead of concentrating developmental projects in the urban centres.

SOURCE:  The PUNCH

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