BY ISHOLA BALOGUN & EBUN SESSOU
Ajoke, 35 a widow and mother of three young girls sat on her bed, sobbing while packing her belongings away from the flood. Occasionally, when her eyes met that of her three daughters who did not know whether to console their mum or help quickly in removing their belongings from the water to avert further damage.
She adjusted herself, absorbing the condition that befell her and fighting back tears effortlessly even as she tried to make her three daughters happy inspite of all odds. It was the strange few minutes rain on January 14 that wrecked the havoc, blowing off the roof of her rented apartment at Ikorodu and rendering her homeless.
Ajoke who initially refused to speak to Saturday Vanguard narrated her ordeal about trying to get another place to lay their heads. “That day, I felt I should die. I asked God why this is happening to me again, less than a year after I lost my husband. See my kids, they are still young…” she said fighting back tears.
“I moved into that apartment few months after my husband died in order to save money. But unfortunately, after three months in that place and seven months after he died, this happened again.” She disclosed that it was a sympathiser in the neighbourhood who came to her rescue and offered her a place. “Where I am living right now was given to me by a sympathiser after she saw the havoc caused by the rainstorm. This has been the gradual catastrophe that has left us in our current state, burdened by flood that sent us packing from the house,” she stated.
No doubt, some people who are displaced by similar or other conditions might not be as lucky as Ajoke. Some have resorted to sleeping under the bridges while others remained homeless for a period of time.
One begins to wonder whether a displaced person is a victim of politics or ecology; or of bad luck or mental incapacity. They undergo so much stress and agony as they live under a condition foisted on them by circumstances and conditions most of which the wanton neglect in the social infrastructure had caused.
Last year, about 700 people in a small town, Ajegunle, Lagos, were moved to a relief camp due to heavy flooding that plagued the area. Those displaced persons from the town of Ajegunle were temporarily relocated to camps specially built for relief efforts in Agbowa, a suburb of Lagos.
The flooding which is a yearly occurrence was traced to the Ogun River which rose above its banks after the opening of a dam. Now that the rains are here again, we gathered that some of them have returned to the floody area and are prone to be victims anytime the water over-flows its bank. Some of the residents of the area who spoke to us said government has no plans to build homes for them, but only relief camps that will kick-them out few months after. “Government should build houses and make living more affordable, then people will vacate those areas. Tell me what has government done to give house to the people?” he asked.
Besides, there are those who live as beggars, whose future depends solely on whatever they get from the outside world. These people lay their heads in shanties, stalls, rehabilitation camps, under bridges and sheds, which provide shelter from the fiery rays of sunlight and serve as a bedrooms at nights. Some of these people go out on the streets begging for alms, taking their children along.
The situation is more pathetic at the home for destitute, Oko-Baba in Ebute Metta, Lagos. When Saturday Vanguard visited the home recently, it was a story of neglect, squalor, hopelessness and abandonment. They had expected that the more privileged people will show more love in making their situation a lot better.
While in the home, inmates showed appreciation on whatever token that was given to them by a few privileged persons who visited the home, but the fact remains that they expected a lot more at least to change their situation for the better.
The environmentally unfriendly road leading to the home revealed the state and condition of the people in the home. Filth and garbage defined the vicinity which some individuals have turned into a business area displaying various kinds of trades mainly for the large population of inmates.
The call-centre, petty traders, Okada park, suya spot, motor mechanic workshop, school premises for the children of inmates among others were busy carrying out their activities.
The reporter was received by one of the care givers in the home. A-25 year old, Dogaringora Sokoto who welcomed the reporter was sure it was another time to receive another widow’s mite.
Without any further introduction, the description on the planks of the houses was instructive enough to tell the categories of physical disabilities in the home – the blind people or the visually handicapped, the deaf and dumb or those with hearing problem or the physically challenged. Each of the group has its own leader addressed as Serikin.
Just as the reporter began to ask them questions, the general secretary, Mohammed Baba, a leper walked towards the reporter and asked in an unfriendly manner - “can I help you?”
The introduction did not help matters either, as he yelled: “we don’t need your presence here. What have you come to do here? Are you here like your fellow journalists who have been here without bringing any changes to our situation? I have attended to so many journalists and granted so many interviews but I have not seen a single publication.” He was however pacified after some efforts. But just as the reporter had thought she had succeeded, another thunderous voice emerged: “We can’t trust anybody. We don’t know if you have bomb in your bag. You know Nigeria is civilised now and so, everybody is afraid of one another, it is difficult to trust people,” another inmate added. That shows the level of awareness of what goes on in the larger society amongst the inmates.
Asked if he would prefer to check the reporter’s bag to prove her innocence, he said, “that will not be necessary”. He began his story: “We need help and I don’t think people in this part of the world would shy away from the fact that the people here need help.
“We have been here since 16 years ago. We were brought to this home through the intervention of the former Military Governor of Lagos State, Buba Marwa who felt the disabled should not be on the streets. He built this home for us. He took us away from the streets and put us into this home.”
While lamenting many lives that have been lost to street begging, he said, “We have lost so many people to motor accidents on the streets. Some of us have been living under the rain and sun before Governor Buba Marwa decided to shelter us under his Family Support Programme Initiative.”
Recounting series of challenges they have been going through, he said, “despite the fact that we have been here for a long time, people still pretend that they don’t know our problems. The fact that we procreate makes it difficult for our children to go school. We don’t want our youths to be like us. We want our children to grow in a better environment for them to have a better family. We don’t want to go on the streets again.
“Our challenges cut across feeding, shelter, education, health-care, renovation of the home and environmental sanitation. We need to live in a better environment as Nigerians. We should not be condemned to live in a dirty place. We need to take care of our health,” he stated.
Asked how they access health-care services, he said there was no health-care service in place presently in that environment. “But, whenever any inmate becomes ill, we take him or her to a private hospital. We don’t go to the public health-care centres because there is so much discrimination against us. So the little money we have, we spend it on our sick people so that they get healed. But, if we don’t have money, we will leave them in the hand of God for divine intervention,” he stressed.
About the records of death in the home, he said: “so far, so good, God has been good to us. “Anyone who falls sick gets better in due time. With our little money, the private hospitals takes care of us. They even go the extra mile of reducing our bills and they give us the best of treatments. There is a private hospital, it is called Guba, the owner of the place has been helpful to us. He takes care of our people”.
However, he lamented that their children only end their education at the primary level. “Our children attend free primary education and that makes it is easy for us to send them to school. Although, we pay some charges, they are affordable,” he said.
“Our major problem is that we don’t have the capacity to send them to secondary schools. Whenever a child finishes primary, it is always difficult to go to secondary school. So, they end up in primary school. Even the help we get from people is not enough to sustain us. We have our responsibilities. Our children and our aged people are suffering”, he added.
He continued, “Our government are politicians. They make empty promises. They are only after our votes and after voting for them, they will forget the people that voted them into power.
“As disabled people, we vote because we know our rights. But, it is a pity that the same people we voted for have abandoned us. The only people we see on a daily basis are orgainsations including NGOs and some Christian bodies who pay us visit.”
Asked about the government efforts to bring beggars on the street to the home, he said, “we can’t just bring people in. There are bad eggs in the society now and whenever we tell them to come, they refuse. Another challenge is that we don’t have much to give to them, so, anybody who is on the street is on his own because the state dislikes street begging.
“Our concern is also about those who pretend to be having problems. They device different ways of begging on the streets. They are only pretending that they are beggars. We are disabled by blindness, deafness and other physical disabilities. It is defamation of character for anyone to pretend that he or she is a cripple when he or she is not,” he yelled.
While calling on state government to device a better way of using the bridges in the country especially in Lagos, he said, “Lagos bridges are not constructed for disabled, the bridges are meant for able people. It is impossible for the disabled to cross the roads. Those pedestrian bridges are for the able people. At least, government should provide easy passage on the road for the disabled people. No disabled is expected to use the same bridge that the normal people are using.
“In other countries, the disabled are treated in a better way. They have disabled amongst them and there is no discrimination. But for us, we are scattered on the streets. It is a shame to us that we are scattered on the streets, begging. We don’t like begging on the streets but unfortunately, our government is not helping us”. A 13-year old, Saudi Mohammodu, at the home said his condition is peculiar and that nobody seems to come to his aid. Just like every child at the home, he is helplessly calling and begging for people to help him. Narrating the story of his life, Mohammed said, he has been there since he was born. “I grew up to see my parents in this condition but I don’t want to end up like them, that is why I am calling someone to help me”, he said.
For Bello Ibrahim 25, coming to the home has only opened his eyes to the opportunities around. “My parents parted ways and so, it was difficult for my mother to take care of me. She then dropped me with my father. At that time, I had problems with my leg. I couldn’t walk properly. There was a particular woman who was working as a nanny, and so my father dumped me with her to take care of me.
“I was 11 years old when I came into the home. We were twelve young people who came to Lagos at that time. So, I have been living in the home. I finished my JSS3 in 2005 but I couldn’t further my education because of financial constraints. Right now, I am an okada rider. I will like to go to school but I don’t have the where-withal. I learnt to become a shoe cobbler and I use both my okada riding and shoe cobbling to support myself. I want to be a soldier because I am strong and bold. I also do some labouring work. I believe in hard-work and so, I want Nigerians to come to my aid.”
One of the care givers, Dogaringora Sokoto who joined the home as a result of seeking greener pasture narrated how the inmates go about their daily activities saying, “at 5am, inmates are already out for the day to day activities. They have little children so, it is difficult to say when they go to bed. Some of them are still outside till 11 am begging for alms. They have mosques and schools around them.
Even the little children go to school also. My duty is to make sure that the people are orderly especially when there are visitors in the home who came to give their them widow’s mites. Although, not everybody is privileged to get those items, but anyone who doesn’t get at a particular time will have to wait for his or her turn.” For him, whatever he realises from his petty trading in the home is what he uses to put food on his table without resorting to begging.”