By Tope Templer Olaiya
Somewhere off the Lagos coastline, on the Lekki Peninsula stretch is Marwa, a sprawling shanty settlement and haven to hundreds of homeless children. For many people who work or live in the hinterland of Lekki-Epe Expressway, Marwa probably only resonates as a designated bus stop at the second round-about.
From an outer-shell glance, the Marwa bus stop and the highbrow Lekki are characterized by grandeur, class and luxury. What is least known is that there is, tucked behind the hectares of magnificent real estate, a slum with its squalor, gripping poverty and hundreds of homeless children and families living without a hope for the future.
It is quite an irony that slums are almost an unavoidable feature of mega cities world over. For Lagos, the massive influx of people in search of greener pastures, both from within and outside Nigeria, into the metropolis presents an overflow of opportunities as well as a grave challenge in terms of land space constraint and rising population. This is now being depicted in the number of homeless people and slum settlement with unseemly shelter and sanitary condition.
Marwa is one of the many squatter-areas in Lagos. Home to all sorts, especially street urchins, drug addicts and prostitutes, the residents live in shanties made of nylon twined to wooden poles, stuck in the white sand. This provides only the barest protection from the elements and at first sight; it is needless to say that the standard of living is far below average.
Perhaps more alarming is the large number of out-of-school children that call Marwa home. Children roam the streets of Victoria Island and Lekki, begging and cleaning car windshields in traffic. With Marwa, one wonders if the United Nations did not underestimate the population of Nigeria’s illiterate children when it revealed the country has the world’s largest out-of-school children at over 10 million.
However, as Nigeria celebrated her 54th Independence anniversary, a gleam of hope came to children at Marwa through the initiative of the Destiny Trust, a social intervention providing care, rehabilitation education and empowerment to homeless children and children in disadvantaged communities.
Despite the fact that the Lagos State government provides tuition-free basic education, many children in slums like Marwa still do not attend school for many reasons. Being illegal occupants of land, they live daily in fear of eviction by property owners and enforcement agencies. For this reason, they believe it is fruitless enrolling children in school when they can be taken from the proximity of the school at any time.
Some parents do not even know that the state offers tuition-free basic education. “I know there is a government primary school near Mobolaji Johnson Estate inside Lekki but I can’t afford the cost. They said registration is N7,000 and we will pay N2,500 per term,” a woman, who identified herself as Mama Favour stated. Others told The Guardian that they couldn’t afford the cost of school materials like books, bags and school uniforms.
Some of the children who had started school earlier dropped out. Chika, aged 12, said he quit schooling when his parents got separated, but said he does not mind returning if someone can assist his mother by providing him with learning materials.
Matthew is no different. He has had to serve as apprentice at a mechanic workshop for years now instead of getting an education.
Parents in Marwa have other fears that have kept them from enrolling their children in the nearby primary school, which is just across the road from the slum. Mrs. Mary Ifegbunam said some children have disappeared in mysterious circumstances and there is widespread suspicion that the rich in Lekki use them for money rituals.
They also expressed concerns about children crossing the major highway to attend a school due to the danger posed by movement of vehicles on high speed.
Speaking on the intervention of the Destiny Trust, coordinator of the group, Mr. Abimbola Ojenike, noted: “It is a serious concern to us that Nigeria has the unenviable status of the country with the world’s largest number of uneducated children. We know child illiteracy is depleting the nation’s human capital, increasing crime tendencies and poverty and the worst is yet to come if we don’t act.
“Although this is a broad institutional problem that individuals cannot completely solve, we believe that the combined effort of individuals can have major impact. For us, the starting point is to sensitize parents about the importance of education and the consequences of uneducated children to the nation. We are correcting the wrong assumptions that have misled some parents to keep children away from school despite the opportunity of tuition-free education offered by the state.
“Also, we are providing books, writing materials, uniforms and bags to children so that no one has an excuse for being out of school. Furthermore, we are organizing an after-school assistance programme to help the children cope with learning difficulties that may be due to delayed enrolment in school,” he said.
Matching words with action, the Trust is providing education sponsorship to 100 children with the support of compassionate Nigerians who gave to a social media campaign tagged: #1000HelpingHands. The campaign, which commenced on August 1, 2014 and lasted for a month, was able to raise funds from 1000 people giving at least N1,000 to support the education of 100 out-of-school children in various squatter areas and rural communities.
A few of the indigent children lacking parental care have been resettled into the Trust’s residential learning and rehabilitation centre at Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos. The Trust is supporting 43 children in Marwa and 57 others from Bogije and Okun Solu-Alade communities in Ibeju-Lekki.
According to Ojenike, the journey has only begun. “The Trust has set up a monitoring team to ensure that the children not only stay in school, but that they continue to have all they need to continue their education. The Trust also continues to seek the means to care for the children and empower parents to provide for their development.”
The Destiny Trust volunteers invaded Marwa on Independence Day and by the time they left later in the afternoon, the cheer had gone round the slum and the glee of children told the story of hope restored.