Chibuike Ibe jumped nimbly aboard the large bus that was just rolling to a stop at Oshodi, managing to precariously balance a tray of beef rolls in one hand and hang on for dear life to the doors as passengers struggled to alight from the bus. He is nine years old, and the time was few minutes shy of 10pm.
Reacting to the queries of a couple of incredulous passengers on the Mile 2 bound bus, the youngster retorted, “Even my junior brother dey sell for Cele (bus stop on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway), and proceeded to hawk his wares at the top of his voice while striding the length of the 50-seater bus.
“Look at how such a small boy is selling things by this time of the night that he should be in bed, what kind of parents will send such young children out to the streets to sell? What will he even sell?” asked a Shola Akanbi, a passenger aboard the bus.
Not all passengers, however, shared Ms. Akanbi’s concerns, as the wad of cash that Chibuike clutched in his dirty hands showed sufficient proof that business was good.
As the massive population of Lagos state continues to swell considerably, the activities of child hawkers have continued to increase, despite the efforts made by the Lagos state government’s at curtailing this development.
What the government did
Concerned with the trend, the Lagos state government rolled out series of sensitization programmes last year, and warned that parents whose children were caught in the streets, especially during school hours, would be issue a ‘yellow card’ for first offenders, and a ‘red card’ for repeat offences.
Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, the commissioner for women affairs and poverty alleviation, subsequently instructed law enforcement agents to sweep the streets and apprehend defaulters, specially targeting the arrest and prosecution of parents whose children were caught.
“Education and proper upbringing of our children is the only way to eradicate poverty,” she said. “The law forbids the use of under-aged children for domestic labour, negligence and maltreatment on the part of parents and guardians as it negates the tenets of the Child Rights law.
“The Lagos state government through the various agencies of government will ensure the survival, development and protection of all the children in the state, the laws will be enforced to the letter in order to ensure that all the rights of our children are protected.
Parents, scared of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law reigned in their children, and they subsequently stayed off the streets. However, the child hawkers simply came out at night, when law enforcement officials are scarce. And their numbers have continued to swell considerably.
Spots like Oshodi, Ojuelegba, Obalende, Cele bus stop, and Mile 2 are their favourite haunts due to the high number of commuters that pass through these places, and their bustling night life.
‘We make money to support’
Another child hawker at Oshodi, who gave her name as Toun, said she had to make sure that she sold out her oranges before going home, often as late as midnight. She gave her age as 14, but looked 10.
“Our house no far, so if I finish this one, I will go and take more from my mother who is peeling them there,” she said, while expertly balancing a tray of oranges on her head and darting in between the buses at Oshodi. “Why my mama say make we help am sell na to support am.”
Not all of them, however, are trading to supplement family incomes; some, like 16-year-old immigrant Sherrif Adebisi, have no family to take care of them, and simply have to live off the streets.
“Before I used to beg (for alms), but one Good Samaritan gave me N5000 and I started with pure (sachet) water business before I went into the soft drinks that I am doing (selling) now,” he said.
Oluyemisi Wada, founder of Haven for the Nigerian Child Foundation, an Lagos-based NGO that rehabilitates street children, is not comfortable with the government’s efforts so far, and blames parents for contributing to the increasing population of street children across the metropolis.
“The economy is so bad now even in urban areas, not to talk of rural areas that majority of these children come from, so parents often end up subjecting these children to street hawking,” she said.
“Often, these children run away to the cities in search of better lives. I think parents should pay more attention to children, and strive not to put them in situations were running away from home becomes attractive,” added Mrs. Wada.
For some of these children, like Chibuike, it is simply a question of survival.
“If I finish selling, I go follow big bus go Cele and help my mama pack for where she dey sell before we go begin go house,” he said.
This feature was published in NEXTonSunday.