BY PEMBI DAVID-STEPHEN
While some children enjoy the right of being in school, there is an army of less fortunate ones across the country who engage in hawking and other survival activities meant for adults. PEMBI DAVID-STEPHEN writes.
A recent UNICEF study shows that about five million Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend primary school, with most of them forced into child labour, and getting into adulthood earlier than their time due to early exposure to the hard world of breadwinners. The study says despite a significant increase in net enrollment rates in recent years, estimated 4.7 million children of primary school age are still not in school.
At about 5:15pm at the ever busy Zuba Junction, along Abuja-Kaduna Road, eight-year-old Zulia (not real name), runs endlessly after cars amidst chaotic traffic not because she wants to board, but to sell sachet water. Sixth in a family of nine, Zulia is among over 40 per cent of Nigerian children who are not in school. The North has the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls.
She works for her family’s survival, many times, risking being knocked down by vehicles.
“I have no one to help me; I was in school but had to stop because my parents have no money. It is from the little money I make that my mother buys foodstuffs for the family,” she told our correspondent. Zulia carries too much responsibility for her age and she is exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments.
“I leave home very early in the morning to fetch water in the well and help my mother to wash plates. After that, I go to buy the water I sell,” she further pointed out, adding that her two elder brothers and her younger brother also have to work for the family so that they can eat.
“My elder brothers push wheelbarrows while my younger brother and I sell pure water, but my other brothers and sisters are in school, they join us to sell pure water and also kolanuts. My father said my brother and I will be going to school next year. But if we don’t go out to work, we will have nothing to eat at home. My mother has a little baby so she cannot go out to sell anything. She sells firewood at home,” Zulia said.
Like a government official who works eight hours every work day, Zulia hawks water for about seven hours each day of the week. “I come here by 7 am and go home by 10 am to do some house work and also eat. I return by 11am and close by 6pm or so. I sell between three to four bags of sachet water every day, “she disclosed.
Zulia’s father, according to her, worked in an office in Abuja and until he lost his job in 2015, she was in primary one and was doing well. Now she sells water to survive. On this particular Thursday, Zulia hadn’t sold much because she could not get iced block from her suppliers to chill her water as many buyers prefer cold water. She would be glad if she is able to sell three bags of sachet water daily.
Whenever Zulia sets out to sell water, she said, people always tell her things like ‘you are too young to sell pure water. Go to school and learn something so that you can have a life.’ She explained that “But I cannot go to school because my parents cannot pay for me.” Truly, she is not in school not because she doesn’t want to but because she cannot afford to.
On a hot Friday evening in Gidan Waya, Kaduna State, Mary, a 12-year-old girl, was busy attending to customers. For three years, she has been hawking roasted maize on the roadside. “I have been on this road since 2009 helping my mother to roast or cook maize. I cannot go to school because there is no one to help my mother with the baby. If I go, the work will be too much for her and she will not be able to sell again. If my mother does not sell maize, we cannot eat food because my father is an old man and cannot work. He stays at home to take care of his sheep,” she explained.
This fateful day, as on most days, Mary, with zeal and desire to sell on and go to the farm to get maize for the next sale, is happily on duty. “I want to go to the farm and get maize for tomorrow. As you know, tomorrow is Saturday and that is the day we make more sales. We go to the farm daily to get fresh maize,” she said.
As you move through Suleja Market, as early as 6:30 am, just opposite Conoil Filling Station, you are sure to notice Musa (not real name). Musa, a 15-year-old boy, is popular because of his ever presence around this area where he helps his mom to sell beans cake. “I attend school but I have to come around and help my mother every day before I go to school,” he says with an air of accomplishment.
Speaking on helping his mother to sell beans cake and still have time for his books, Musa says he tries his best to ensure he is not lagging behind in his class. “It is easy, I usually read at night. I make sure I finish my assignments before sleeping. I am not the best in the class but I am among the first 10”, he explained.
As our correspondent was pondering over the situation, Musa’s mother who was busy frying beans cake, called his attention. “If the children do not help us, who will? We know that they are supposed to be in school but tell me, can they be in school on empty stomachs
The need to contribute her quota in running the family is certainly enough reason to make Safiya, a nine-year-old native of Katsina State to be on the street for more than five hours every day.
“I wake up every day at 5 am to help my mother prepare koko (local pap) which we sell at the bus stop. We go out to sell as early as 6am and depending on the market, by 8am, our koko is usually finished. We go back home and prepare for the evening sale. In the evening, we start by 6:30pm and close by 8 pm or so,” he said.
Though helplessly unhappy, young children like locusts on a farm, are everywhere on the streets selling one item or the other to help their parents whose level of poverty cannot support the children being in school.