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In Nigeria, Orphans Raise Themselves

By Lane Hartill

The breakfast of champions around this part of Nigeria is moi moi, a bean cake with a peppery kick. And Ene is the chef who delivers it door to door.

Ene with her family

After Ene Joseph, in red, lost both her parents to AIDS, CRS helped her purchase materials for her business. She is now able to support her two siblings and daughter. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

People scuff out of their doorways and meet Ene still in their pajamas, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. Ene delivers the goods, then swishes off. There's no chitchat. It's all business.

This is, unfortunately, Ene's life: all business.

Fast forward to the evening. Ene (pronounced EH-nay) sits outside her house under the mango tree, mechanically washing the tins in which she cooked the moi moi. Her eyes, big and warm and brown, are starting to droop. It's been a long day; she hasn't had a day off since last August.

She woke up at 4 a.m. to stand in line at the water pump for six hours. After that, she traveled her moi moi route, farmed and did assorted chores. When her day ends at 9 p.m., she will retire to the mattress on the floor where she sleeps with her daughter, Christiana, whose back is the texture of a basketball, mottled with heat rash. There is no electricity in the house.

None of this bothers her. This is nothing, she says, smiling, swabbing another slightly rusty container. This is much better than the life she endured a few years ago.

'I Don't Want to Live That Life Again'

When her parents got sick, Ene's life changed. She didn't know they had HIV. She just knew that her mom, who had taught her how to make moi moi, was fading away. She and her sister, Mary, bathed their mother. Her brother, Innocent, cared for their father, carrying him in and out of the house when he couldn't walk anymore.

When they died, things got tougher.

Vulnerable to Exploitation

Monday, Sampson and Adiku

Monday, Sampson and Adiku are part of a CRS project for orphans whose parents died of AIDS. Anna now cares for the three boys in addition to her own eight children. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

When neighbors came around and told Adiku to come to their fields and help farm, he couldn't say no. He spent all day piling dirt into the cone-shaped mounds that are ideal for growing yams. After a full day spent bent over in the sweltering heat, they paid him 15 cents.

He and his brother, Sampson, and a cousin, Monday, who has been abandoned by his parents, live in his father's house, a long single-story concrete structure with many rooms, some occupied by renters. After Adiku's father died in 2003, the five renters stopped paying. They knew they could get away with it.

Adiku knew he was being taken advantage of. But he could do nothing about it.

Not long after his father died, an uncle arrived and took the boys to northern Nigeria. What they thought would be a fresh start turned out to be a hellish debacle. The uncle forced them to deliver soda all day around the city of Bauchi. They slept on cardboard on the ground outside at night. They were fed bland corn dough once a day.

They managed to return home. To survive, Adiku hauled yams and other goods for farmers in his wheelbarrow. The work was grueling and paid little.

No Mother, No Voice

"They were using these children as slaves," says Christiana Oga, the coordinator for programs that serve orphans and vulnerable children for the Diocese of Otukpo, a CRS partner. "They had no voice and nobody to talk on their behalf."

When the boys' case came to her attention, Oga explained it to the village chief. He was sympathetic and gave her his heartfelt promise that he'd look out for them. But he did nothing. The community continued to exploit them.

Thanks to the support of CRS, the Diocese of Otukpo has helped the boys by paying for a new roof for their house. It also pays for their medical expenses and school fees. Oga plans to find money to enroll Sampson in a mechanic class.

Oga knew what the boys needed: A mother figure, someone who would be there for them, someone who would stand up for them. A longtime friend of hers, Anna, lived in the same village. Oga approached her and asked if she could help look after the boys. Anna agreed. It didn't matter that she had eight children of her own and a husband with disabilities.

Now the boys spend most of their time with their new mom. Today they have wandered over for lunch, which consists of dipping pounded yam dough into okoho, a gluey soup made from water and the insides of tree branches. They are part of the family now. They sometimes sleep at Anna's house. They have even started calling her Mother.

Ene, who isn't sure how old she is, gets quiet. She focuses on her washing. She doesn't offer any more information.

She won't talk about it. Things happened that she won't talk about.

"I don't want to live that life again," she says, avoiding eye contact. Back then, they ate once a day. The relatives suddenly disappeared. "The only person who's supposed to replace our father doesn't care about us," she says, referring to an uncle. She became the mother. She got used to ignoring the stares and the gossip from the villagers. And she became an expert at fending off unwanted advances from men.

All of the Responsibility, None of the Respect

Heading a household as a teenager is grueling. Teenagers are caught between an interrupted childhood and an adult world they don't yet know how to navigate. It's hard to find money to meet basic needs like food and school fees. But the hardest part is having community members treat you like a teenager and not give you the respect that the head of the household usually receives.

"The primary line of defense, parents, is gone," says Reverend Father Boniface Onjefu, who heads the health team at the Otukpo diocese, a Catholic Relief Services partner. He says that people take advantage of orphans, forcing them to work for little pay. Young people, desperate for money, often comply.

Christiana Oga works for the Diocese of Otukpo to coordinate services that help orphans and vulnerable children. She says when Ene and her siblings first entered the program, they were desperately poor.

"At times they were eating once [a day] or they would go on an empty stomach before our identification," Oga says.

Mary remembers those times, too. She has been in and out of school since her father died. She says her mother gave her clear instructions just before she died: "Finish your education, stick to yourself, get married," she says. "Ene," her mother told her, "will help you."

'Now We Have Something'

But there were unexpected sources of help: CRS and Oga. Oga got the village chief, who conveniently lives across the street from Ene, involved. He agreed to keep an eye on the kids. Oga recently talked to the principal at St. Monica's girls' school. Mary will start soon.

"I always look at these children as my own," says Oga.

With the support of CRS, the Diocese of Otukpo gave Ene $35 to build up her breakfast business. This helped her buy beans, tins and a pot. There is so much demand, she says, she is looking to expand. A second injection of cash by CRS helped Ene buy another kettle. She now makes enough money to take care of her family.

"Before we had nothing, now we have something," Ene says.

Back under the mango tree, Ene turns philosophical: "I don't know what the future holds for [my siblings] or myself," she says, still swabbing her tins.

She says she would love to get married. But she works all the time. And besides, the men she knows aren't marriage material. They're more into harassing her. She doesn't really have any girlfriends, either.

Yes she does: the woman sitting beside her, Christiana Oga. She's the best kind of friend a girl can have.

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

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