A Weekend In The Life Of An Ibadan Street Kid – Friday
This is a tale of how the pursuit of survival led a young boy into the heart of Iwo Road, Ibadan.
One morning three years ago, eight-year-old Ridwan ran away from home wearing his favourite red polo shirt. The previous day, he had lost N500, money from hawking ewedu for his mother. He decided that running away was better than telling her. At five, Ridwan, a new school dropout, had started hawking ewedu from Agodi gate to Iwo road. It was during these three years of waking up at seven and clomping bundle of leaves unto a tray that he discovered Saree – the place he now calls home. The friends he made were homeless (omo oku) and Saree was their home, so it became his too. When he ran away, Saree was the first place he came to. He has been living there ever since.
Located in south-western Nigeria, the ancient city of Ibadan lies 128 km inland northeast of Lagos and is home to over three million people. The city ebbs with people like Ridwan and homeless enclaves like Saree: children who have become their own mothers and fathers, in what is a testament to the growing poverty and societal dysfunction in the state. The kids, formerly tagged as ‘street kids’ or ‘delinquents’, have no accurate statistics on their predominance, but their growing visibility is too enormous to be ignored.
In 1983, Inter-NGOs in Switzerland coined the most common definition of a street child as “any girl or boy who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street (in the broadest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become her or his habitual abode and/or sources of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults.”
According to the United Nations, there are up to 150 million street children worldwide, due to violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of a parent, family breakdown, war, natural disaster or simply socio-economic collapse. As the years wane, and societal dysfunction worsens, the number of street children promises to rise. Currently, Ridwan and many other children in Ibadan are part of the growing statistics.
The Saree beside Evergreen Hotel
In 2003, Lorraine Van Blerk wrote a research paper on the place of street kids in Kampala, Uganda. In her research, she wrote about the marginalisation of street children and how their survival meant ‘negotiating and adapting’ to the alterity assigned to them due to their participation in predominantly adult spaces. According to her, as part of their negotiation process, street kids will carve out untouchable spaces as a form of resistance.
In her research titled, The ‘place’ of street children in Kampala, Uganda, she explained that untouchable spaces, which she describes as ‘sites of marginalisation’, are necessary for street children to ‘continue existing’. According to her, “These sites of marginalisation are mostly located in informal spaces which are visible within the cityscape and located on major streets.”
Next to Evergreen Hotel on a narrow path at Iwo Road is an uncompleted building that matches the description of an untouchable space. The building has been standing for 15 to 20 years, housing boys who have become men. Some now work at the bus park overlooking it because there is no dreaming bigger. On the green-coloured fence is a warning: “TI O BA TO SIBI OGUN TI PA O”. It is Yoruba for “If you urinate here, the god of iron has killed you already.”
Known as Sheol or “Saree” (Yoruba for “Mortuary”), it was given its name because the boys it housed were Omo Oku, children of the dead, for they moved like ghosts unseen during the day while becoming shadows and voices during the night.
At sunset, boys, some as little as seven living in the decrepit building or empty spaces in car seats, converge here. They split into groups, some smoking, drinking or chatting away the night until sleep calls and the sun returns. Here and on the streets, their bodies get attuned to the indignities of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual violence and child trafficking. Unsurprisingly, many regard them with contempt – including Mr Oluwole, a top official at Social Welfare Ministry, Ibadan.
To access this place is simple: be homeless and fearless. There is no form of neutrality – except you were a towering man feared by the kids, like Alfa and a few others. It was their home and, typically, you do not go to people’s homes unless you are invited or a relative. Its inaccessibility is the only way it can be fully colonised and automized as an untouchable space.
An avuncular man with a permanent smile, Alfa has been a vulcanizer at Iwo road for over a decade, during which he gained acquaintance with the boys in Saree. He has witnessed the boys at different stages: their dead bodies lining the street after an election, their disappearance into thin air without a trace or a word. Alfa is well versed in the complexities of street kids. He knows them by faces, not by names – they are far too many to keep up with.
“You should go there in the night,” he says. “More than 200 of them gather there. Some have parents, some are orphans. Some are on the streets as a result of their greed and covetousness…” While talking, Alfa, crosses the street, his white shirt pressing tightly against his dark skin, and pulls a little boy from the curb where he sits, eating. This boy would turn out to be Ridwan.
“They smoke, they steal, most are drug addicts, and they are quite dangerous,” he said while holding Ridwan, who looks nothing like his description.
*This story is one of a three-part series. Stay in touch with Guardian Life for the remaining two parts.