…the story of homeless girls, area boys
Centre of Excellence”, as Lagos State is popularly known, is as interesting as it is repulsive. While so much goes on in daytime, at nights, the markets and other hot spots turn to something else. Rape and drugs are served without qualms. Isioma Madike, who took a tour of the city, visiting some markets and hot spots, returned with a story of lost souls
Pelewura Market on Lagos Island is big but dreadful. Like most markets in the mega city, the environment is dirty, densely populated and life in the neighbourhood is rough. Shops are largely wooden shanties interspersed with dilapidated concrete buildings.
The vicinity, however, is a mount 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 this market, which is made up of people from different parts of the country.
There are also those from the Republic of Benin, Togo and other neighbouring countries. The market is, indeed, an assemblage of absurdity. It is a mixture of the homeless, miscreants, ruffians, and fraudsters. For most homeless girls, especially those who reside in the market, the fear of street urchins called area boys in local parlance is palpable.
Indeed, 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.A buka owner, who gave her name simply as Ganiyat, from Oyo State, has been in the market for four years now. She is one of those who sell food along the pathways of the market. She is about 32-year-old.
But she already looks 40. The vicissitudes of daily living in the market are fast driving her to a dangerous edge. With two kids and a mother to feed, she rarely makes enough to meet her family needs.
When Saturday Telegraph crew approached her, she was suspicious of the team’s mission, and reluctant to speak. But after settling down to eat from her makeshift shop, she became a bit relaxed and opened up in a weird fashion.
Ganiyat was surprised that we did not know much about the market and asked if we were strangers in Lagos. She painted a picture of infamy associated with the market and pleaded not to let out the secret otherwise “I’ll be in soup,” she said.
“Look at that little girl,” she said, pointing to a young teenager who may not be more than 16 years of age. Her name is Basirat. She was raped right in my presence here last night.” Herself, she claimed was first impregnated by the rampaging area boys in the neighbourhood, who, according to her, usually take advantage of “some of us that are homeless. We sleep here as you can see and do everything here. The market has become our home as we have no place to go.
All of us in this market have one story or the other to tell, although, there are those who are here out of their own carelessness.” As Ganiyat was speaking, a young pretty girl walked pass looking dejected.
A quick glance could not reveal that she had garnered such a considerable but dreaded experience in life. She had gone through all the evils associated with homelessness. She is, certainly, a beautiful girl at 15; light complexioned with radiant skin and the right figure. At close range, the smile on her face runs contrary to the life she has led. Yet, the glow on her rosy cheeks confirmed the fact that she was very young.
Dupe, from Benin Republic, is supposed to be under the protective shield of a caring parent. She cuts an innocent look 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 two years ago. The Auntie, who had convinced her mother to allow Dupe 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, Dupe was told it was time she started earning her pay. The poor little girl, who was barely 13-year-old when she left her na-tive land, was taken to a decrepit brothel in the backwoods of Ojuelegba, where Auntie instructed that she must open her legs to men for a fee.
“It was a terrible experience for me,” she told Saturday Telegraph, 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 Lagos Island where she said we could do some odd jobs and be able to raise some money to start a trade on our own,” Dupe narrated her rather sad story in tears. She added: “That was how I became a member of this infamous homeless family living the life of a destitute at the popular but notorious market on the Island. 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. Pelewura is a bustling market that transforms into something else at night. Every night, according to Dupe, area boys in the vicinity often swoop on them and usually force them to have a ‘quickie’ at any available shop or corner. The nights, she said, are often penetratingly cold outside and without clothes or any form of shelter, the cold and dark environment make it seem excruciatingly long.
“We usually huddle up on a piece of carton 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,” she said. The girls, she continued, live a semi-nomadic life within the market vicinity, always looking for a more comfortable abode to hide.
They are constantly haunted by hoodlums with their entire existence consisting of surviving through the starkest poverty, relentlessly forced to move from one corner to the other, seeking shelter in any available empty or half-roof shops in the market.
Before long, dawn breaks and their day begins. Their clothes are damp and dirty, smothered with mud, ash and feaces; the stench from each of the girls is enough to make one’s stomach churn. A bath, however, makes them feel “brand new” and for a moment they forget their horrific existence, with conditions that resemble lives of animals, than of human beings. Finally, hunger sets in and gets the best of them; they hurry to a nearby junction to meet with the same area boys where gridlock consistently bring the cars to a slow stop.
Sometimes, they will spread out, and wander from car to car begging for money. Hardly anyone gives them any; most people despise them and call them names or hurriedly close their windows and lock their doors at the mere sight of them.
“It was so much easier to earn money this way a few years ago” Dupe said. ”Now we are often forced to steal or starve or find scraps of food in the garbage dumps. At night, the gangersmoking area boys would come back to rape us. Whenever we resist, they would remind us how we depend on them for our existence on daily basis.” The signs of starvation, however, are inherent among these girls; the bodies of some of them are frail, sickly and malnourished.
Their eyes, blank and distant and after a few drags of hemp, their minds will utterly be in excitement. They will throw themselves down on dirt and fall asleep in a corner of the market. Most of them have stories so dark they delivered them to the hands of the streets. Stories they never want to revisit but which they forever are unable to forget.
The early evening is spent rummaging the large garbage piles on the nearby dump; relentlessly searching for something to fill their aching bellies with, before they surrender to yet another drag of gbana, as hemp is popular called in the market. For now their biggest worry is how to find a safe place to sleep through yet another dangerous night.
For the “landlords”, they would collect a token, usually about N300 from the girls for a space to sleep. After heavy smoking, the area boys would move around the market, mostly unchallenged.
Though there are market security officials, they are hardly effective, as they equally dread the boys of the area. “When they come to collect the “rent” and you don’t have it to pay, they would just swoop on you and rape you.
Sometimes they could be up to three or more at a time. At another instance, they would force us to smoke with them; little by little most of us have become addicted to illicit drugs too. “But it’s not only gbana that they smoke here; they smoke all manner of things and inhale both cocaine and heroin also.
They break into shops and steal from them when they are out of pocket but the market leaders are always reluctant to speak against that or even report to the police. They would just persuade the shop owners to bear it and take it as part of the challenges they have to endure.
Any attempt to challenge their authority would be met with threats to quit the market,” said Ganiyat. However, Saturday Telegraph’s attempt to get the side of the Babaloja or any member of his cabinet was met with futility.
The Babaloja was said to be away at the time attending meetings elsewhere. Others who were around simply refused to comment on the issue of rape or drugs that are said to be part of the market. Nonetheless, one of the officials, who cornered Saturday Telegraph team outside the gate of the market, confirmed our findings. He, however, refused to give his name, saying: “What is strange in your findings? This is Lagos and almost all the markets in the city are known for all these. Ours is not peculiar; it happens in other markets too. You just go and find out.
“Who does not know that there are homeless girls who sleep in the markets? Or you also want to tell that you are not aware of the activities of the Lagos area boys? If they could wreak havoc in day time, what would you expect at night? By the way, are the girls complaining? I won’t call it rape but subtle prostitution because they demand money from these hooligans before they sleep with them.
That is how they get money to feed most times, otherwise they would go stealing.” Yet, a man, who was identified only as Yusuf in charge of allocating shops, put a lie to the allegations when he said: “What you are saying are rumours and we don’t act on that. If there is such in this market, we will be in a better position to tell you and we would have intimated the police to put a stop to it.
Nothing like that happened and it’s not happening here.” But Pelewura may not be the only market in the Lagos metropolis where the unthinkable happens. At the Ketu fruits market behind the Divisional Police Station, a lot also transpires. To an ordinary person, the market is all about fruits of different kinds, yet to those who know the marketplace inside out, fruits may just be a sort of cover to what goes on there really.
The fact that the market is ever busy even at night is an indication that activities go on after the normal buying and selling in the day time. A lot of girls, who work as alabaru (load carriers), according to Tunde, one of those who frequent the market, says so much about the place.
Tunde said: “Some of these makeshift shops you see now metamorphose into bedrooms at night for these homeless girls and boys. They smoke, steal and sleep with one another at night. That seems to be their way to kill boredom.
I won’t call it rape because the girls don’t complain; they enjoy the show with the area boys, who most times give them money as compensation for the act.” Another woman, who prefers to be called Iya Rueben, corroborated this. She told this reporter that rape, drug and petty stealing are part of the market.
“All these little girls with pregnancy or babies, who do you think are their husbands or their babies’ fathers? Those of us who get to the market early usually meet some of them still doing their thing. For drugs, the boys even smoke in the day time, so to say they smoke at night would be regarded as an understatement.
“Look, police know them, and some of their men sneak into the market at night to sleep with the girls and smoke hemp with the boys. It’s a known secret and everyone that has anything to do with this market knows that. And because it’s been accepted as a norm kind of, we all pretend we are not aware of all these,” she said. Just like in Pelewura, the Ketu market leaders were also evasive, when confronted with these realities.
Some of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied knowledge of rape and drugs in the market but accepted there could be incidents of petty thieves as that, according to them, remains a common feature of modern markets in Nigeria. “Whoever told you people rape girls or smoke hemp in this market are telling lies.
Nothing of such happens here. How do you even think a thing like that would happen when there is a police station right within this environment? I know some people are bad but we haven’t got to that level. Some people just delight themselves with peddling lies. Only God knows what they gain from such. This is bad because it gives the market a bad name and many would want to avoid coming here for fear of non-existent area boys.”
In his reaction, the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Chike Oti, said the command is not aware of the existence of such criminalities such as rape or use of illicit drugs in Lagos markets. According to him, rather than talk about increase, we should actually be talking about decrease in crime rate across the state including the market precints.
He said: “First of all, I don’t know where you got your statistics from but the police have a different statistics of what you are talking about. There is no increase in crime rate, especially as regards rape or sexual offences, drug abuse or any social misbehaviour in the state in recent times. In fact it is on the decline because of the actions being taken by the command under the watch of CP Imohimi Edgal. “You may recall that sometime last year the command raided Akala and confiscated huge caches of drugs. Also, the intelligence section of the command raided other drug cartels in the state and confiscated drugs.
The CP made it clear to the citizens that all these efforts are part of the community policing; it’s all about anything crime in the state. Recall also that this January the command had cause to burn drugs of various types, cocaine, heroin, tramadol and marijuana with a street value of over N400 million somewhere in Ikorodu, and virtually all the media houses were there including the Saturday Telegraph.
“Our sister agencies including the paramilitary agents were equally there, so also the Lagos Commissioner for Special Duties. That is an effort to make the state drug and crime-free. Let also recall that the command raided most criminal hideouts where they may be, either in the market places or under the bridges, we made sure we sanitise all those places to make sure we have a state free of crime so that citizens can go about their duties without fear of molestation of any kind from miscreants and criminals.
“We also have a wonderful gender section within the command that is championing the cause of women, especially vulnerable girls and children. Just last week that section paraded a young man who sodomised another young boy via anal sex. We paraded others this last Monday.
The command equally issued a press statement to the effect that market places are not residential homes, therefore at the close of markets by 6pm, it is expected that the Iyalojas and Babalojas will order the market securities to lock up the markets and everybody should find their way to their individual houses.
“This issue of abuse of privilege was the major reason behind that decision and we directed that henceforth nobody is allowed to sleep in the markets. We felt that if people are allowed to continue to sleep in market places they may use it to commit crimes of any nature so we decided to be proactive to prevent such occurrence. We expect the market masters to intimate us if anything goes wrong in their respective markets or whenever they have issues.
We cannot just go to markets without any invitation, we work with information available to us; we don’t act in a vacuum. We encourage the market leaders to work closely with us to nip whatever crime within their vicinity in the bud.
“We even instructed all area commanders to work in partnership with these market leaders to ensure peace in their domain. This way, the market leaders would be able to tell them areas of intervention; and we also expect the market leaders to give the police useful and credible information we can work with. These people know their markets and the people therein better than us.
So, if they give us information that rape is going on in their markets or that area boys have turned their markets to illicit drugs markets where criminals of any sort converge, we will move to do the needful.
It should be purposeful and intelligence driven. “But we haven’t got any such information from the markets you mentioned to me or any other market in the state for that matter. Whenever we get the information, I promise, we will act. It is not in the nature of the Lagos State Command not to act on useful information that could bring peace to the citizenry.
On the assumption of office as the Lagos CP, the first thing Edgal Imohimi did was to establish the Citizens’ Complain Force Centre with a base in Alausa and we have sent out dedicated lines for citizens to come and complain of anything bothering them.
“In Lagos you don’t need to show us your face for us to do our job, so, nobody would say I gave the police information and they come back to haunt me, never. We have to configure the centre to accommodate everyone no matter the language you speak.
I can tell you that all Lagos market leaders have direct access to us through this centre or the area commanders in their domain.” In spite of the denials by the market leaders and the police, many believe that the issue of rape and illicit drugs within the Lagos markets’ environment has since become a daily pas-time. However, sexual exploitation of children, and area boys smoking hemp occurs in many other parts of the sprawling city.
They are virtually everywhere; at street corners, behind residential homes, inside schools, in bars, shops, restaurants and other public places. The majority of these girls are recruited through the human trafficking industry under the guise of being offered a juicy life opportunity in the cities but forced into unspeakable lifestyles. They are threatened not to tell the truth to their parents or may feel too ashamed to speak up in front of their parents.
There is also the case of child labour, which typically exposes children to rape. The hired female children are sent out to hawk food items on the streets, motor parks, and mechanic garages, thereby exposing them to rapes as well as sexual harassment. Every evening, especially on weekends, they parade the major streets; gather at a particular point pretending to be hawking their wares but in actual fact hobnobbing with any willing buyer.
Most kids are also led into this act by their masters. Some people could be drugged or hynoptised to have fun with them and when eventually the woman of the house gets to know about the act, the girl will be thrown outside to continue the act with other men including their masters. As well, children of broken homes sleep wherever they find the space to do so in the day, and get raped by the lords of the night at will. Investigations have shown that ill treatment of children at homes might also make them to take to the streets in order to find solace. The end result may be the hawking of their bodies to support themselves. But, high patronage by wealthy men has been discovered as a factor that has contributed and sustains child abuse as some kids find it difficult to resist the temptation of huge sums of money they receive from these patrons.
An Abuja-based human/gender rights activist/lawyer, Udofia Akpan, blames the upsurge in child exploitation in Nigeria, especially in big cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt on what he calls diminishing morals as well as lack of parental guidance. “Girls as young as seven have been tricked into the sex trade by traffickers, aunts, uncles and other close relatives.
“Sex trade deals with a commodity. So, firstly, we must target the buyers of this commodity. The child does not intentionally choose the lifestyle; she is lured and or forced into what she may be unable to change. At that point it is a contractual arrangement in which the child is simply the commodity available for sale or hire, depending on the demand. The child thereafter is probably given no more respect than a rental car or worse.
It turns a girl into an object and it’s a denial of that girl’s humanity,” Akpan said. As a counsellor, psychologist and a mother, Celine Njoku, who is the assistant secretary general of the Counselling Association of Nigeria (CASSON), reckons that the prevailing scourge of child mistreatment in the country has, to a great extent, been indirectly encouraged by the failure of the home front and the larger society to make young girls and boys aware of some basic sexuality education and effects of illicit drugs. “The result is what stares us all in the face today. We must either live with it or find a way around it,” Njoku fired.