Today is children’s day and the thought-provoking theme of this year’s celebration is: Our Children, Our future: Our Collective Responsibility.’ I find the theme very instructive as I believe it seeks to cover every Nigerian Child. To my mind, it simply means, if we neglect any child or class of children today, we are denying our nation of a meaningful future and we are failing in our responsibility to our children and dear nation.
It is in the light of the foregoing sober reflection that I find no better day to address the issue of street children phenomenon in Nigeria. I want to examine the approach of Government Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations to solving this seemingly insurmountable problem. Government Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations, who ‘rescue’ children from the street, often say they are involved in rehabilitation. In some cases, they actually incorporate the word, ‘rehabilitation’ into the names of the organisations. The goal they set out to achieve is to rehabilitate the children they have rescued into responsible children or adult as the case may be, depending on when they achieve their goal of rehabilitation. Most of the children they rescue are between ages 8-18.
I have seen that many NGOs in this group do not make too much progress. I have continued to wonder why they do not do too much. I think one of the reasons the fail to make desired progress is that they have a faulty understand of the children they work with. Their faulty understanding of the children they work with is safely deducible from what they claim they want to do with the children, ‘rehabilitation.’
Permit me to at this point examine the meaning of rehabilitation both as a word and concept of intervention and see if it fits into the goal they want to achieve with these children. Rehabilitation means ‘to restore to good health or useful life, as through therapy and education; to restore to good condition, operation, or capacity.’ Rehabilitation is also re-teaching someone to do something.
Now, from this definition, let me analyse what the Government Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations, which wants to rehabilitate children rescued from the street want to do. They want to restore the children to useful lives by re-teaching them basic values of life. This attempt assumes that the children they work with were once living useful lives, having been taught the principles of same, concluding that the children must have lost their useful lives and the principles in which they were established when they took to the street. Still moving in the realm of the assumption, they design programs to restore the children to the normal and useful lives they used to live.
Their conclusions cannot be farther from the truth. It is an attempt to build something on nothing and wondering why it is not standing. The truth about the children they are working with is that most of them have never known or lived normal or useful lives. They were born and bred in abuse. They have never been taught the values and principle of useful living and they do not appreciate same. They do not appreciate it and they have never benefitted from it. Therefore they cannot defend same. They have survived all their lives by living on their toes.
The question those who labour to rehabilitate must ask is what drove the children to the streets in the first instance. Please do not be quick to say the children are stubborn. If they are stubborn they learnt it from their environment, which their custodians are supposed to be in full control of. To take it further, they learn it from their custodians. Please note that no child was born stubborn. In fact every child was born with the potential to be well-behaved. It is the responsibility of the custodian to develop the God-given potentials. Every child, who is tagged stubborn, was made stubborn. When custodians are high-handed in their dealing with their children, they raise what they now call stubborn children, a product of their ignorance and conduct.
Please also note that most of the children on the streets are from poor homes, where the custodians, apart from the fact that they are ignorance are hindered by the state of our economy to access social support services, particularly in the area of education and health to give their children enduring hope and meaningful future.
Let me attempt to answer the question, which I early asked. That is, what drove the children to the streets in the first instance? The children were driven to the street by the abusive lives they lived. They have never known peace. I have said it time and again, that there is no child who will enjoy the comfort of a peaceful home and the love and acceptance of the parents and opt for the streets. The streets became an alternative when the home became unbearable.
I speak today as someone, who ran away from home at the age of 12. I ran away at the peak of abuse at home. I have sat as consultant to UNICEF to reconcile street children to their parents. I have heard the tales of woes of the children we were reconciling to the parents. In one of the occasions, while sitting as a mediator, I burst into tears as I witnessed the ignorance of the parents, who knew next to nothing about raising children. I once met a child on the street, who told me his father cut his penis when he was sleeping after he has been accused of stealing. He showed me his half penis and told me of the excruciating pain he went through as a result of the dehumanisation. Close to tears, he told me how his friends on the street made him the butt of their jokes. As he told me his story I saw a boy whose self-esteem had been completely crushed. The truth is that he is not aware of anything so called.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that the concept of rehabilitation for street children in Nigeria will not work as it is built on assumption. The cooperation we demand from the children is too high for them to give to us. The principle is ever sure that you cannot give what you do not have. In most cases, we demand instant discipline from children, who already have a misconception about discipline. From their experiences with their custodians, they believe that discipline is the means by which a custodian shows his wickedness over a set of people, he has overpowered.
As a matter of fact one of the main reasons they ran away from home is to seek freedom. Unknown to them freedom comes with responsibility. This again is not their fault. The problem is that they have not been taught.
Many of them have now lived in the jungles of the streets free, but yet paying a very high price for their so-called freedom. Yet they did not crave for another kind of life on their own or at least, even if they crave, they did not search for it. The idea that they need to leave the streets is completely the idea of the Government Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisation. It is the Government and NGO at this time that sees the danger and not the children.
Though, you are acting in their interest, they are yet to see it. They are yet to see it because they are yet to trust you. They are yet to trust you because they do not have a culture of trust from their homes and trust is not part of the culture of the streets. The number one creed of the street is survival and survival is powered by suspicion and distrust. They do not believe that it is possible for someone to want to help another. In the jungle, you are on your own. Thus they say, ‘no paddy for jungle.’ Everyone, who claims to help them in the jungle, has always used the so-called help as a bait to suck them dry. In their dictionary, words like love, help, values and many other do not exist. If they exist, they have different meaning to them. You cannot blame them, they have not been loved or helped in their short lives. So as Government Agencies and NGOs approach them, they are full of suspicion.
I think the Government Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations, who are involved in working with children on the streets need to redefine what they seek to do. I think they should focus on habilitation instead of rehabilitation.
Habilitation is teaching the children for the first time. We must first understand that they have never been where we want to take them before and they do not know how to get there or how remain there. We must understand they may not be too interested in going with us because they do not know the benefits. We must accept as an undisputable truth that their willingness to go with us at the end of the day will be spurred by our approach and strategy.
The first thing we must do is to understand their psychology and their process of socialisation and begin to professionally debrief them. For example we must not assume that the children will understand discipline by reeling out the rules in the home and the consequences thereof. We must start by correcting their misconception about discipline. This, we will do by words and deeds.
We must also understand that we cannot teach them love. We can only show them love. When we have deposited enough love inside of them, they will begin to give it out to others. We must understand that at their entrance into the home, they did not have in their mental travelling bags any item called love. They came with loads of hate and bitterness. They must be purged of that before we begin to make a demand for something different.
We must make informed attempt to introduce them to the ‘useful life’ and the benefits thereof. It will require a lot of patience and humility. One fact is that these children are already fully formed. It will require a well-defined vision and a definite sense of mission to help them. It will demand a well crafted program of habilitation, which spells out step by step the process involved and the modus of achieving same. It will require working with sound and out-of-the-box experts in psychosocial counselling and coaching. It will demand a lot of prayer and spiritual counselling. Choosing mentors for the children must not be subjected to sentiments. We must look for people, who can really help them.
I began my own habilitation program on Sunday, February 16, 1997, when I surrendered my life to Christ. I always tell people that I began to live 16 years ago. That was when I began to understand for the first time, there was something called dignity of human person, which I must be conscious of and committed to if I must live a meaningful life.
I charge you today to spare a thought on these children of the streets today as we celebrate children’s day.