Bashir Mohammed is not your run-of-the-mill 12-year-old. He is small for his age. He walks several kilometres daily with a sack slung over his frail shoulders rummaging through piles of refuse and rubbish looking for anything that can be resold; aluminium, copper wires, iron filings, old vehicle spare parts, plastic and glass bottles, tins of beverage drinks, etc.
Mohammed is a scavenger.
But he is not alone. Thousands of children like him crawl designated dump sites, river banks, road sides, incinerators and other places in cities and small towns where waste and disused apparatuses and objects are left by their owners. The mission of these kid scavengers is to turn some of these cast-offs to cash.
Many of these kid scavengers can be seen at Igando, Isolo, Ojota, Agege, and other dump sites in Lagos and other states.
All for education
While the majority of their colleagues in business engage in the act for survival, Mohammed and his friend, Musa, engage in scavenging to get themselves educated. The two are pupils of NUDS Primary School, Agbado. Musa claimed he was a Primary Three pupil, while Mohammed was in Primary Four.
They said they scavenge to fend for themselves and to support their parents in sending them to school.
Mohammed, who had more wares in his dirty sack, said he would sell his treasure for between N250 and N300, depending on his buyers. But what would he use the proceeds for? Mohammed lowered his gaze and said in almost a whisper, “I will give the money to my parents. I use the money to feed and help my parents” Why? Our correspondent sought to know. The boy looked up and down and continued in his barely audible voice, “They would keep it and use it to pay for any item I may need at school or at home.”
His mate Musa who also said he would give the proceeds to his parents to help pay for his schooling said he would like to be a teacher.
The parents of the two boys, like many of the street children, are street beggars.
Scavenging, according to an older 15-year-old Semiu Adamu is mostly left for the boys, while the girls join their parents/guardians in begging.
Adamu continued, “I would like to go to school, but my parents can’t send me to school. I’ve been scavenging for three years. I started when I was 12. I started scavenging because my dad and mum are beggars, and I wanted to help them. My parents have seven children. Sometimes, we trek long distances, about five to six hours, to get good things to sell. I make about N400 a day. I go there five times a week. We go as far as possible to any refuse dump so that we can find something to bring back and sell.”
Agbado Station crossing, a suburb of Ogun State is a potpourri of a sort. A section of the place is populated by petty traders, food sellers, pool betting shops, artisans, and small business owners.
This is where Mohammed and his mates, including Musa, live. Others are eight-year-old Nura Aminu, 14-year-old Balarabe, 11-year-old Musa, 15-year-old Adamu and 11-year-old Adomu. Apart from being male; they share a common vocation: making a living from refuse dumps.
The premises of the school Mohammed and Musa attended was devoid of pupils. The place had been taken over by politicians and their followers who gathered there for a political campaign for the state governor, Ibikunle Amosun.
A Primary Five pupil of the school, 10-year-old Bashir Umar, said the teachers had been on strike for weeks over unpaid salaries. The temporary closure of the school means that the kid scavengers have more time on their hands to do odd jobs.
According to Umar, the school fees, minus books and other needs, is N800 per term. There are three terms in a primary school calendar year.
He continued: “I have three friends; Adamu, Amba, and Gbolagun, who ‘carry load’ (scavenge) with other children after school hours. They said they do the job for money, But, I cannot do such work. My parents pay for my school fees, buy my books and other things I need for school.”
A young man in the community, Shuaib Abubakar, who is in his 30s, said he also scavenged when he was a teenager.
He said in smattering English, “I didn’t finish schooling, but I would have loved to, only that I had no money. It’s not only Hausas that do this job. Members of other ethnic groups also do it.”
The only education many of these less-privileged children often have is Arabic education in Koranic schools.
“I would love my children and the other children here to go to a proper English school, but their parents don’t have the money and are struggling to feed and clothe themselves,” the Seriki of the Hausa community in Agbado, 53-year-old Isa Abubakar, said. Abubakar is from Zamfara State and has lived in Lagos for 30 years. He has eight children.
The daily proceeds of the kid scavengers vary. Aminu and his friends had just returned from their daily trips to the dump sites. The journey, on bare foot, had taken them to Agege, Lagos, where the railway lines run through.
When asked how much he would sell his wares, he said, “N150” (less than a dollar). He said he would like to go to school, but his parents, who beg for a living, could not afford that.
Mohammed Kabiru, 20, who attended an English language-speaking school for only three months in 2002, now combines scavenging with a job as a dustbin collector.
“I have been scavenging since I was 12. I also attended an Islamic school when I was much younger. I used to make between N300 and N500 then. Now, as a scavenger and dustbin collector, I make between N600 to N800 daily,” he said. Another advantage for him is that, unlike most of his peers, he can speak Pidgin English.
“I would like to do another job, any kind of job, if the opportunity comes. I would also like to go back to school,” he added.
‘Catching them young’
Work for the kid scavenger starts at 9:30am and does not end until about 4pm. Without spending the six hours combing the dirt, he may never realise enough for the day.
“We go anywhere, as far as Sango (Ogun State) and Agege and Berger in Lagos. We are about 150 to 200 scavengers in this community,” said Kabiru, who has been scavenging since he was 12.
A similar scenario played out at Igando, a suburb of Lagos State. Sixteen-year-old Audu with his sack slung over his shoulders, had been moving from one dump site to another, searching for ‘gold’ among dirt. Unlike his peers at Agbado, he was a loner.
Although he couldn’t speak the English language, Audu understood the language of money. He noted that he made about N400 or more daily from his work. He, however, couldn’t say where his parents were.
Some officials of the Lagos Waste Management Authority and older scavengers/refuse collectors had nose masks on, but Audu seemed unperturbed as he continued his rummage through a heap of stench.
The Agege scavenger brothers
In the hustle and bustle of life around Agege railway line, are two brothers. They looked tall for their ages. However, 15-year-old Kabir Mohammed and 14-year-old Musa Mohammed have no place to lay their lanky frames, save for a makeshift sleeping corner by a section of Agege railway line. The two brothers have been scavenging for the last eight years. They said they make about N200 or more daily selling their wares to buyers who then sell to companies which recycle used products.
“My father died many years ago and my mother relocated to Kaduna state. Although the job is difficult, I like to earn money for myself and take care of me and my brother,” said the older Mohammed. The younger Mohammed smiled. Both of them have never attended school.
Another scavenger in the area, who simply gave his name as Yesuf, 17, said they had no choice but to scavenge because they didn’t want to be involved in crime. “We would go to jail for many years if we are caught stealing or committing a crime and I don’t want to go to jail. At least, this job gives us a clean way to make money and take care of ourselves,” he said.
Yesuf, who is from the South-West, said he dropped out of school in JSS Three. He had been scavenging for six years.
At another section of the railway line, there were a number of women trading in reusable bottles and other products sold to them by the scavengers. A trader said they could buy about a dozen plastic pet bottles for N200.
Hazards of child labour
In Ogun and Lagos states, like in many other parts of Nigeria, scavenging has become a major part of the informal economy, with suppliers, middle men and end users (recycling companies) across the chain. Sadly, kid scavengers are the most vulnerable of these groups, as they bear the brunt of most of the hard work, as well as the occupational hazards that go with it.
“It’s all business, although they are not registered under us,” noted a LAWMA official at the Olusosun, Ojota dump site.
According to the International Labour Organisation, “child labour” refers to work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. While labour that jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, is known as “hazardous work.”
In its Global Estimates and Trends (2000 – 2012) (ILO-IPEC 2013), The ILO stated that 85 million children are in hazardous work (down from 171 million in 2000) globally, with Asia and the Pacific having the largest numbers (almost 78 million or 9.3 per cent of child population). However, the ILO noted that, with 59 million or over 21 per cent of this figure, Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Nigeria, “continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour.”
The Coordinator of Home of Mercy Children’s Home, a non-governmental organisation, Mrs. Julia Awoyinfa, said kid scavengers are exposed to dangers daily and should be protected by the state and society.
She said, “These children are in need of a home and education. It is a very pathetic situation, that a child has to go to a stinking refuse dump to pick something to be able to eat and take care of himself. Some of them get there at an early age and are there till they are men.
“In the refuse dumps, there can be bottles and syringes used by drug users and HIV patients, so they could be infected with HIV and other diseases like Hepatitis. They can also get serious wounds that if not properly taken care of, can fester. Also, in such environment, they tend to smoke Indian hemp. They are exposed to a lot of social vices.”
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Nigeria has approximately 10.5 million out-of-school children, the world’s highest number.
The reality of child scavengers in the country is an indictment on the country’s government at every level, said the Executive Director, Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection, Betty Abah.
Abah noted that every child driven to scavenge for a living in the cities or villages is due to biting poverty and the struggle for sheer survival.
She said, “Governments worldwide show their might by how they cater for the very vulnerable among them, most particularly children, the very poor and the aged. But, we are witnessing the ‘role-reverser’ in Nigeria; the absolute lack of social welfare is what exactly has driven these children to seek a living atop refuse dumps. It is sad that all our politicians and policy makers think about are only elections, the looting of our treasury and seeking self-aggrandisement.”
The Director, Child Development Department, Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Lagos State, Mrs. Alaba Fadairo, said despite the challenges, the state government was doing a lot to tackle the social malaise of child scavengers.
Depending on the scenario, Fadairo noted that the state government reunites the affected children with their families — if they are based outside the state, or send them to children homes, where they are monitored by government officials who take care of their welfare.
“In 2013, we had about 130 of such children that were reunited (with their families) and are under the care and management of the state government. Once we see them, we take them off the streets. Although it’s always difficult most of the time, as a government, we have made up our mind that no child would be on the streets. In some situation, one finds that the parents are also scavengers. Thus, in our own little way, we empower them by giving them vocational skills training and helping them to establish (small businesses).
“For the children, we ensure they get an education by enrolling them in schools, (the state) government feeds them and monitors them. We also work with the Serikis of the Hausa communities; they’ve been very cooperative with us in that area. Recently, we picked up some children that needed medical treatment which was taken care of by the state government. Where we cannot get their parents, we put them in homes and monitor them; we also work with the ministry of education to have them enrolled in schools.”
When contacted, the public relations officer of the Ogun State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, Kehinde Balogun, did not pick his call or respond to the text message sent to his telephone. The commissioner was said to be on the campaign trail of the state governor.
For Awoyinfa, most of the kid scavengers are products of poor family planning and broken homes.
She said, “It’s not the government that impregnates these people to give birth to children they cannot afford to take care of. I also blame parents who cannot reconcile and see that their children are raised the proper way, I blame fathers who abandon the children and the wife, and then relocate to another place to remarry and leave these children not catered for.”
Thus, Awoyinfa advised that, because of the lack of a functioning social welfare system in the country, Nigerians should look out for such children.
“People drive along in their air conditioned cars, oblivious of these street children. When they see these child scavengers, they wind up their glasses. But, they can rally round to ensure that these children do not scavenge or beg on the streets. Also, a good welfare system in the country would have helped this young generation, so they would not have to harass people in their posh cars in the future.”
Abah sounded a similar warning. She said, “As long as we continue to overlook the parlous state of our children, as long as government perennially pretends not to know, and the rest of the comfortable in the society turn a blind eye, let’s not be deceived — out collective future as a country is in the refuse dumps.”
Source – The Punch