‘Every day is a struggle, and fear of street urchins, palpable’
The dilemma homeless girls face on a daily basis, are dreadfully pitiable. They are condemned to a life of rejection, trauma, deprivation and poverty. Isioma Madike, who took a tour of the city, visiting some bridges, markets and hot spots, serves a story of lost souls
You don’t have to look too far to see that homelessness is a big problem in Nigeria’s mega city. They are everywhere; under the bridges, big markets, on street corners. Many of them were brought to Lagos by big ‘aunties’ while others fled to the city after being displaced by Boko Haram in the north-east of the country.
The Saturday Telegraph’s team spent a day with Mary, who came to Lagos to look for a better life, but found herself sleeping under a flyover in the city. Mary, from Benue State, lives a semi-nomadic life within the newly built Agege Pen Cinema Bridge vicinity.
She is always looking for a more comfortable abode to live in as she is constantly hunted by hoodlums. Her entire existence consists of surviving through the starkest poverty. She is relentlessly forced to move from one corner to the other, seeking shelter in any available empty or half-roofed shops or markets within the neighbourhood. Before long, dawn breaks and her day begins. Her clothes are usually damp and dirty, smothered with mud, ash and faeces. The stench from her is enough to make one’s stomach churn. A bath, however, makes her feel “brand new” and for a moment she forgets her horrific existence, with conditions that resemble the lives of animals, rather than of human beings. Finally, hunger sets in and gets the best of her.
She hurries to a nearby junction to meet with some area boys where gridlock consistently brings the cars to a slow stop. Sometimes, she would spread out, and wander from car to car, begging for money. Hardly anyone gives her. Most people despise her and call her names or hurriedly close their windows and lock their doors at the mere sight of her.
Mary narrated her sorry story. She said: “Many Nigerians think homeless people always come from a bad family, but that wasn’t the case for me. I was just 15 and I had a good career set up for me, but I was also being bullied at school. “It was affecting my results, but I didn’t get any support from my friends. I began to feel ashamed. I couldn’t tell my family that I was being bullied at school. I felt they would judge me. “When my dad passed away, it shocked and affected me badly. We were very close, and I just couldn’t cope with my emotions anymore. All I really wanted to do was escape, so I got a one-way fare to Lagos. Running away seemed like the easy option.
“As I found my way to Lagos, I thought it was this great place of opportunities, but it wasn’t that at all. The poverty was intense, and I couldn’t get any support because I wasn’t a Yoruba person. “I didn’t know whether to kill myself or not. At that point, it felt like it was survival now. And that was it.” Mary may not have a house or apartment to live in, but she considers under the bridge to be home.
She has been living outside in the area for three years now. “There are a lot of bad people, but good ones are here too. We ask passersby for money, and sometimes people are generous enough to give to us. “At other times they just abuse us and zoom off. A lot of people treat us with contempt simply because we are street people, telling us to get something done as they drive by.
“But for some of us, doing something as simple as getting a menial job is a hard task to accomplish. We have been banned in this environment from several stores and bukas, even when we have the money to pay for food and other items. “Every day is a struggle in this homeless life, though not all homeless people can be pleasant.” The signs of starvation, however, are visible on her and among her likes. Her body is frail, and she looks sickly and malnourished. Her eyes blank, distant, and after a few drags of hemp, her mind would utterly be in excitement. Mary would throw herself down on dirt and fall asleep in a corner available. She seemed to have stories so dark she delivered them to the hands of the streets.
Stories she never ever wants to revisit but which she forever is unable to forget. The early evening is spent rummaging the large garbage piles on the nearby dumps; relentlessly searching for something to fill her aching belly with, before she surrenders to yet another drag of gbana, as hemp is popularly called on the streets. However, Mary is just one of the many homeless girls in the city of Lagos. The mega city nonetheless is as interesting as it is repulsive. While so much goes on in daytime, at nights, the markets and other hot spots turn into something else.
Most of these places are fearsome as rape, prostitution and drugs are served without qualms. The markets in particular, which are abode to many of them, are big but dreadful. In many of them, the environment is dirty, thickly populated and life in the neighbourhoods, rough. Shops are largely wooden shanties interspersed with dilapidated concrete buildings. In their vicinity however, are mounts of surging heaps of refuse and a mass of terribly stinking human waste. Apart from fear of imminent outbreak of epidemic, cases of rape and illicit drugs thrive at an alarming rate in these markets, which are made up of people from different parts of the country.
The markets are, indeed, an assemblage of absurdities. They are a mixture of the homeless, miscreants, ruffians, and fraudsters. For most homeless girls, especially those who reside in the markets, the fear of street urchins called area boys in local parlance is palpable.
Their activities, which most of the time are criminally oriented but often carried out in full public glare, have over the years, convinced the average Lagosian that these boys are, indeed, above the law. Ekiate, from Cross Rivers State, is supposed to be under the protective shield of a caring parent. She cut an innocent but pitiable sight as she sat looking devastated in front of a dingy shop that has somewhat become her abode since she was forced by circumstance to live a life of her own. She had followed a woman she knew only as ‘Auntie’ to Lagos.
She was in search of the proverbial good life. It was a misadventure that has permanently altered the poor girl’s perception of the world. That was five years ago. The ‘Auntie’, who had convinced her mother to allow Ekiate, come with her to Lagos with a promise that within a few weeks, she would be sending money home, ended up introducing her to prostitution in a most cruel way.
Two days after arriving Lagos, Ekiate was told it was time she started earning her pay. The poor little girl, who was barely 13-year-old when she left her native land, was taken to a decrepit brothel in the backwoods of Ketu, where ‘Auntie’ instructed that she must open her legs to men for a fee. “It was a terrible experience for me,” Ekiate narrated her rather sad story in tears, adding: “The first man, who came to me, was hurtful and didn’t give me anything even after he forced his way. “Left with no choice, I had to escape to find another means to survive.
“So, a friend suggested we move to Mile 12 Market where she said we could do some odd jobs and be able to raise some money to start a trade on our own. “That was how I became a member of this infamous homeless family living the life of a destitute at the popular but notorious market. “I did that to escape from the evil woman to fend for myself since I didn’t fancy prostitution as a trade.” But her misery had just started or so it seemed. Mile 12 is a bustling market that transforms into something else at night. According to Ekiate, area boys in the locality often swoop on them and usually force them to have a ‘quickie’ at any available shop or corner.
The nights, she said, are often bitingly cold outside and without clothes or any form of shelter, the cold and dark environment make it seem excruciatingly long. She said: “We usually huddle up on a piece of cardboard and cover ourselves with a sack and a piece of plastic on top of our bodies. Any unfamiliar noise awakens us. “The constant fear of attack, robbery or what might be worse, make us keep constant vigil.
A threat of rape alarmingly lurks at every night-fall.” Indeed, the dilemma these fellows face on a daily basis is dreadfully pitiable. They are condemned to a life of rejection, trauma, deprivation and poverty. For most homeless girls, especially those who reside in the markets, prostitution, drugs and other vices have unwittingly become a pastime for them.