It is now a common feature to see a large number of children and teenagers at strategic areas in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State. They are seen at the Ibom Plaza roundabout and major streets like Ikot Ekpene, Oron Road and Abak etc, especially where there is traffic congestion, either hawking sachet water, cleaning vehicle windscreens or begging for money.
Daily Trust learnt that some of these “street kids,’’ as they are popularly known, were forced into the streets after their parents/guardians branded them witches or wizards as revealed in various prophecies by some prophets or pastors, while others ran away from home due to the overbearing attitude of their parents/guardians. A few of them are, however, there with the permission of their parents.
Those who were branded witches/wizards, mistreated or simply ran away from home are mostly indigenes of the state. They are the sachet water hawkers and windscreen cleaners, while those who beg are either non-indigenes or foreigners.
It was observed that those who beg for alms usually come to the streets very early in the morning to besiege motorists and other road users with phrases like, “Find me something, madam and, Oga help me.’’ Others just give drivers imploring looks and gesticulate by repeatedly lifting their hands to their mouths to indicate that they are hungry and want to eat.
These children, whose ages range between three and 18, are not working alone, as their parents, guardians or bosses, mostly women, sit by the roadside or demarcating structures to receive ‘earnings’ from time to time.
Apart from being very persuasive in their demands, some of the children go as far as harassing pedestrians, especially females by clinging to them, just to get alms.
They are easily identified by their very dark skins, while some of them barely speak English. Their predicament notwithstanding, they make brisk income on a daily basis.
One of the women at the traffic lights along Abak Road, who identified herself as Fatima, suspected to be the mother of one of the children, and is probably 20 years old, told our correspondent that she came from Niger Republic to work in Nigeria. Fatima added that she was hungry and needed to eat.
Asked if she found the work she came to look for, she refused to comment and simply walked away.
At Ibom Plaza, where some of the street kids are often found, it was difficult to locate them when our correspondent visited the area, which is often a beehive of commercial activities with a mixed multitude, especially youths.
Ms Dorothy Edet, the chief executive officer of Mind Kitchen Academy, a non-governmental organisation committed to the welfare of street children, confirmed that they were mostly found at the plaza.
Edet, who said she had been working for the welfare of street children in the state for the past six years, told our correspondent that they had created a family for themselves and look out for one another. They even have leaders, according to her.
She said the children could easily congregate in large numbers with an offer of free food and cloths.
“If you carry out a research you would discover that some of the children roam the streets because their parents drove them out of their houses in the name of prophecy, saying they were witches and wizards. So they have no option than to do what they are doing to survive. That is why they are called street children.
“These children are innocent of the accusations against them. Some of them are orphans who stayed with their aunties, while others were brought to Uyo from various villages as house helps. They have been mistreated, to the extent that they now see the streets as home.
“Some of them don’t even know where they came from. When we came to feed the children on February 14, 2020, one of them, a 12-year-old-girl, said she came from Oruk Anam Local Government Area, but she did not know the village. She said she was brought to Uyo as a house help when she was eight years old.
“If you are looking for street children in Akwa Ibom State, just inform one of them that there would be free food and you would see the crowd that would come out. Sometimes we go out with 500 plates of food and it would not even be enough to feed them.
“They don’t have a particular location, but they have leaders among them. When you go to the plaza, check the ones that are bigger and tell them that you are from an organisation and want to feed them and give them cloths on a particular day, and you would be shocked at the crowd you would see.
“You won’t be able to feed all of them. They hold onto the food to make sure that all of them have. They are always willing to share with those who do not have so that all of them can eat. They are like a family and you cannot hurt one of them and go scot free; they will come for you,’’ she said.
She also said some of the children were intelligent and urged the government to relocate them to destitute homes, where they could be trained on skills to make them self-reliant. She added that there was the need to take them off the streets as their number was increasing on a daily basis, a situation that poses security risk for the state.
She continued, “I would advise the government to have a centre for the children. If possible, they should be taken off the streets because they are creating havoc. Some of them are becoming wild.
“Some of them drag your bag or even fight to collect money from you. Some just sit down and appeal to you to buy them food.
“But the Fulani among them drag you and would even want to fight you for not giving them money. So the government should come up with a policy to make them go back to where they came from. Sometimes you would want to board a bus and they would begin to drag your bag with you. But those from Akwa Ibom don’t do that.
‘The situation is getting out of hand; and they are many.
“People say they are very wild because they are trying to survive. What do you expect from people who have been pushed to the wall?
“They can be taken to orphanage homes and made to know that if they are caught in the streets again they would be taken to prison.
“Give them the ability to learn entrepreneurship skills. There is a destitute orphanage along Oron Road, where we can train the children on computer literacy and different skills. They can sew cloths, make ties, facemasks, liquid soap etc.
“If the government can empower these young people, they would be taken off the streets; they are extremely intelligent.’’
Edet also said that some of the children, especially the female ones, were being exploited by some unscrupulous persons in the society.
She said some of the girls had become pregnant, and the unknown men usually take away their children after birth.
Some of the street children along Abak road and their guardians
“Majority of the girls are being exploited by men who are into rituals. If you go to the plaza you would see one that is pregnant; she is dark and very beautiful. If she gives birth, people would take the child away from her, and no one knows where they would take it to. And within three months she is pregnant again. So people are going there to exploit the girls,’’ she said.
Efforts by our correspondent to hear from the commissioner for women affairs and social welfare in the state, Dr Ini Akpadiaha, were not successful as several phone calls and text messages to her phone were not answered.
Our correspondent also visited the ministry to get the response of the director in charge of children, but he was referred to the commissioner, saying she was not authorised to speak on the matter.
Several calls were also put across to the commissioner for information and strategy, Mr Ini Ememobong on the issue, but he did not respond at the time of filing this report.