October 17, (THEWILL) – Every morning on the streets of Abuja, an increasing number of women and children rise from their makeshift “beds” to start a daily hustle of mostly begging or for the more fortunate, petty trading. Homelessness is a global social problem caused by a myriad of reasons such as insurgency, bad choices, financial difficulties and breakdown of family structure. The Borgen Project report estimates that 24.4million people are homeless in Nigeria, which means they have no permanent or stable accommodation. They include people living on the streets, in temporary shelters or with friends and family.
Tracing the lives of three mothers currently facing this predicament, this three-part series exposes the underbelly of homelessness in Abuja and looks at some of the causes, outcomes and potential solutions as it affects these vulnerable groups; women and children.
Victoria was born in 1982 in a village in Akwa Ibom State. Scarred from endless skirmishes with men and fellow women, who had fallen into a similar life pattern of violence and survival, she appears to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. She lives in a brutal world in which only the fittest survive.
The streets, her home for the past 12 years, have been unkind, especially at night as danger lurks constantly from strange men seeking their own personal comfort at the expense of such ‘fallen’ women and from co-travellers trying to survive this battle called life. Small achievements attract envy along with a vicious urge to dispossess you of any new acquisitions. It’s a tough world that she has spent the past 19 years trying fruitlessly to navigate while also trying to keep her head above water.
Victoria and her parents relocated to Abuja from their village when she was five years-old. The family lived together in Suleija, but her parents separated a few years later, with her mother leaving her father to raise little Victoria all by himself.
When Victoria was in SS2, she met and fell in love with an older man, Eze, from Abia State whose wife and five children lived in the village in the South-East. Soon enough Victoria’s dalliance with Eze resulted in pregnancy and her angry father promptly threw her out of his home sending her to live with “the man who had impregnated her.”
Eze lived in a rented apartment in Suleija and on a meagre salary, he now had Victoria and her baby to cater for in addition to his family of five children back home. It wasn’t easy financially, but Victoria was in love and lived happily with her ‘man’. In the next few years, they produced three more children. Eze got a job driving a long-distance bus to the East, which meant that he was away for a few days each week.
In his absence, Victoria spent the time looking after the children and looking forward to his return, which was always joyously celebrated. One day, Eze did not come home on the expected day nor the day after. For two weeks Victoria could not contact him and she had no idea what had happened to him until his relative visited to inform her that he had died in a tragic motor accident on his way back to Abuja. Victoria was devastated; he had left her with four children, a rented home and no savings to speak of.
Eze had promised for years to marry her and even though no formal ceremonies had been carried out, she considered herself his second wife and therefore, his family’s responsibility. But with Eze dead and his surviving relatives equally poor and incapable of helping her, Victoria found herself quite alone and unable to pay the rent or feed her four children.
Victoria’s mother had by this time relocated to Akwa Ibom and was farming and selling her produce in the markets in her village. Victoria had no choice but to take the children to Akwa Ibom to live with her mother, who welcomed them all with open arms.
However, Victoria could not imagine a life in the village and decided that her fortune lay in Abuja, the city of opportunities. Young and beautiful, she was convinced that despite not having any qualifications since she dropped out of school in SS2, she could make her way in Abuja and without the encumbrance of four small children, she could even find a new man and remarry. So, she left the children with her mother, promising to send money for their upkeep and indeed to return soon and collect them once she could secure accommodation for them. That was 12 years ago and her eldest child is now 19 years old but Victoria still lives on the streets of Abuja.
When she returned to Abuja, she joined some women who stood daily in front of Wuse Market to advertise their hair plaiting skills. She made a living from plaiting hair during the day and slept on the road near the market at night. Sometimes men would come to her, promising to liberate her, but all they did was use and leave her. Sometimes they were violent, hence her many scars and sometimes they would give her a little money enough for a meal, but none of them took her off the streets.
The Wuse Market task force put an end to the street hair plaiting trade. There was a designated area for hair plaiters inside the market and they were expected to stay there and wait for any customers looking to have their hair plaited. But that space was jealously guarded by the tougher women plaiters. According to Victoria, if you are not well versed in ‘jazz’ (juju), “you no go fit stay there”. She didn’t last two days in that space; she fell out with some of the women and they threw her out and warned her not to return.
After that Victoria met a friend on the streets who took her on rounds of house-to-house begging for food, money and clothes. She was moving further and further away from realising her goal of finding a house, starting a business and relocating her children to live with her. Years passed and Victoria continued to live on the streets. She slept under trees when it was raining and out on the streets during the dry season with just a wrapper to protect her from the cold, mosquitoes and any other animals that came out at night.
She found a regular “space” by Pope John Paul (PJP) Street, Maitama where other beggars also converged and slept on the streets offering a little protection just from their numbers. However, every now and again, arguments would erupt and Victoria and other less protected women like herself would take a beating from one of the stronger women who have grown sons and daughters to help them fight. Staying alive is the name of the game and the only hope of getting out of this hell hole is to find a kind donor who would give you enough money to start a business and get off the streets.
Two things happened to Victoria in this new space, PJP Street. First, she met and was befriended by Aisha Abdullahi, a Sierra Leonian refugee who had married a man from Maidugri and fled when Boko Haram ransacked their village and killed her husband. Aisha had since lived on the streets in Maitama and was one of the leading women who “owned” the space in PJP Street. She had made a lot of money begging for alms with her six children and now lived in Gishiri but still maintained her space and control of PJP Street.
The second thing that happened to Victoria was that she caught the eye of a former minister’s wife who attended the chapel on PJP street and decided to help her. The minister’s wife asked Victoria how much she would need to start a business that would enable her to pick herself up and get off the streets, and having done all her calculations, she asked for forty thousand naira (N40,000). To her delight, her request was granted and she bought kerosene and started her business of selling to neighbours, such as the woman who sold akara nearby and other people who lived in the boys-quarters of the big houses on that street.
Victoria was happy. After so many years, Lady Luck had finally smiled on her. The final icing on the cake was meeting a man who owned a nearby empty fenced compound where she went regularly to take her bath, away from the prying eyes of other street beggars and passers-by.
The man found her in his compound when he visited unexpectedly and asked her who she was and why she was there. It turned out that the man was also from Akwa Ibom and took pity on her. He said she could stay inside the compound, which was safer than being on the street. So, every night Victoria had a secure place to sleep, even though it was still outside. Sometimes when it is raining, the guard lets her into his small room to sleep since she now has Oga’s permission to be on the premises.
In time, Victoria’s savings grew and she had N350,000. Her plan was to grow her business further by buying larger quantities of kerosene and perhaps also diversifying into trading food items. The false sense of security provided by the fenced area she slept in, led her to consider accommodation less of a priority at this point. This turned out to be a huge error in judgement.
One day, while she was out, Aisha came to visit and told the security guard that Victoria had asked her to bring her goods and her all things to Gishiri. Aisha took everything including her money and disappeared. By the time she found Aisha, all the money had been spent and the goods had been sold. She returned some of Victoria’s clothes and other items but could not offer more than an undertaking, which she signed, that she would pay her back in due course.
Victoria, broken and devastated, is back to square one, with no goods to sell and no money with which to secure accommodation. Just when she thought the worst was finally behind her, Aisha had launched a debilitating attack determined to show that she and only she remained the successful ‘Queen’ of the PJP street who managed to escape homelessness.
Victoria’s only hope now is to meet another kind person who will restore her losses and help her to escape the cycle of poverty and homelessness that she now finds herself back in. Staying in the secure compound, whilst better than being on the streets is not a permanent and sustainable solution. I asked her why she didn’t return to Akwa Ibom and assist her mother with the business and raising of her children, she looked at me, totally defeated and in a very small voice asked, “How can I go back empty-handed?”
•To be continued