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In Nigeria, Helping Orphans Help Themselves

By Lane Hartill

After his father died, Abel knew what he had to do: Hold a meeting.

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"We will join hands," he announced to his siblings, Sunday, Andrew, Blessing and Michael. "Since we don't have parents, we will put ourselves together."

And with that, the Adole kids started life on their own, a band of youngsters determined not to be separated. And Abel, at the age of 15, suddenly became the father of four.

He's a natural leader and a real charmer. He's got the smile, the dimples, and the loose strut of a high school jock. He also has an edge. It emerged recently when an uncle unexpectedly showed up, asking about Blessing. It's common in Africa for relatives to take responsibility for children after a parent's death. The uncle's tone was cordial, but Abel saw right through it. He wasn't clear why he wanted Blessing, but Abel sensed it wasn't good. You're not taking Blessing, he told him. And that's final. Goodbye.

"Anyone who tries to fight against me will not succeed," says Abel.

It wasn't just his uncle. His aunt tried to take away the property on which they lived, saying it didn't belong to Abel. Through the help of Otukpo diocese, Abel defended the home that belonged to him. His aunt has since backed off.

But Abel's mettle can only get him so far.

Looking for a Break

When a factory opened up not far from his house, they started hiring villagers. Abel wanted in. But his baby face and orphan status worked against him. In Nigeria, he says, family and friends often play an important role in securing jobs. A relative who promised to grease the wheels for him disappeared. So did the factory job, and the stable salary it could have brought him.

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His break came when he attended a workshop sponsored by Catholic Relief Services for those who care for orphans and vulnerable children. In between the PowerPoint presentations and the handouts, Abel spoke. This wasn't a case study or an imaginary beneficiary. The crowd was so moved by his story, they took up a collection. The $475 was enough to buy him a motorcycle taxi, known here as an okada.

When he was younger, Abel swore he'd never drive an okada. But now, as he waits in a long line of okada drivers, he's grateful for the job. He makes between $1.35 and $5.50 a day. That's just enough to support his family.

The money, while meager, has helped create the semblance of a normal life. They have electricity and a TV. They even have two dogs, a puppy named Danger and an older female dog whose name exemplifies Abel's struggles: Money Hard.

Abel was so thankful for CRS' help, he did something unprecedented.

"Beside me is Oche Emmanuel," he says, with his arm around the shoulder of a little boy he's taken into his house. "He's an orphan. Because of the help of CRS, I decided to raise him up, to sponsor him in his [school] fees. Because CRS is helping me, I promised them I would help another orphan outside my own family, of which I am doing."

Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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