Africa and its children
Bidemi lost her mother and fled her father; Today she leads a pack of girls, orphans and runaways, scrounging life out of a Nigerian slum
Second of three parts
URAMO BEACH, Nigeria -- It was just a shack made of cardboard and bamboo.
To 12-year-old Bidemi Ademibo, it meant the world. The shack had been home for more than two months to her and eight other young girls. Some of them, like Bidemi, were runaways. Others were orphans. One had escaped slavery. All lived entirely on their own.
One morning a year ago in this beach slum at the southern edge of Lagos, the nine girls sat listlessly around the remains of the shack, blackened poles and smoking piles of ash. The night before, a gang of young men had poured gasoline over it and set it ablaze. The girls awoke to heat and smoke, scrambled over one another, and pushed their way out the door. They screamed in fear, only to be silenced by blows from the men waiting outside. Later, the girls learned the gang was battling the shack owner for control of Kuramo Beach, and they were simply in the way.
"That's the mentality here," Bidemi said, as she picked foam from a burnt pillow. "Everyone is looking after themselves, and no one else."
Under a deep blue sky, with the surf roaring in their ears, Bidemi and her friends dug their toes into the warm sand. They had no idea where they would go.
The reason for the fight didn't matter to them. Their home was gone, and they were adrift. Again.
Children like Bidemi are an unavoidable sight in Africa, from Senegal to Somalia, from Egypt to South Africa.
Deepening poverty is pushing many families to cast off their children to earn pennies a day on the streets. War and disease -- AIDS in particular -- have nearly doubled the number of orphans on the continent, from 3.5 million in 1990 to nearly 6 million in 2001, and millions more today. Where once these orphans, castoffs, and runaways would have been taken in by extended families, tribes, and villages, the sheer numbers have overwhelmed this caring tradition.
And so they must fend for themselves.
Over the past year, a Globe reporter and photographer have traveled among these child survivors and gathered their stories: Girls who give little thought to the dangers of selling their bodies in order to buy a meal, and girls who risk all by refusing to do so. One polite boy who admitted killing other children in order to save his own life, and who now wonders whether God will forgive him. And one girl who lost her mother and father, only to become a mother to her younger siblings and a caretaker for her great-grandmother -- at age 12, a matriarch.
Some of these children pray that adults will help them. Others embrace their freedom.
Bidemi craves both.
A wisp of a child with just one good eye, her left, she is always on alert, scanning her surroundings for the next hazard, the next chance.
Her hair cropped close, Bidemi's favored look runs to off-the-shoulder T-shirts and baggy shorts or loose-fitting skirts; and unlike many of her girlfriends, she rarely wears earrings. She shows the first signs of becoming a woman, and seems to comfortably straddle the gulf between child and adult. She is as popular with girls of 10 as with young women of 18.
There is an aura about her, something young and fragile but also strangely indestructible. She has attracted a following with her maturity, self-confidence, and especially her street smarts -- her ability to read people at a glance.
But as much as she hates to admit it, Bidemi is vulnerable. She gives it away sometimes when she pouts, or when someone mocks her as the ''one-eyed girl" and she cannot help but cry.
Kuramo Beach, her world, is a narrow strip of sand, only 400 feet wide, packed with people looking for any advantage, however slight. Here, Bidemi, with her magnetic smile, stands out. The other girls, especially those her age, see her as their confidante, their money-handler, their Artful Dodger. They have watched her talk her way out of almost anything. And when she fails, she has an uncanny knack of slipping the grasp of adults who have caught her in a lie, or worse.
This squatter village is less a community than a collection of people who encountered trouble elsewhere and came looking for fresh opportunity in Lagos, a roiling, chaotic city of millions of residents that is Nigeria's economic engine. The beach slum on the otherwise exclusive Victoria Island, five miles from the city center, is really five connected villages with a total population of about 15,000. It has been an illegal settlement for more than a generation, but authorities have not cracked down, partially out of fear that to do so would spark riots.
There is no running water here; vendors truck it in from the mainland and sell it at high prices. There is no proper sanitation; a bay that separates the strip of beach from Victoria Island is the people's toilet. And there is no electrical service, although some people have illegally tapped into the city grid, running wires into their homes.
Some in Kuramo get by selling fish, which they catch in the nearby polluted canal or the ocean. Others operate small businesses out of their shacks. But most women here sell their bodies to survive.
The good life is maddeningly close, so close they can see it and hear it -- just not live it. Across the bay are some of the most expensive hotels in Africa, where a standard room can cost $320 a night, more than a year's wage for almost all who live on Kuramo.
A young girl flees her home
Bidemi, now 13, was born in a hospital just off the beach on Jan. 17, 1991. Her father said she weighed a healthy 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
Her mother ran away when Bidemi was just 4 years old; she was never told exactly why or where her mother went, only that it was somewhere in Lagos. Her father, Ademibo Ogunyamoju, 46, won't speak of his wife, except to say he considers her evil.
Ogunyamoju remarried soon after, and he and his second wife and their three children live in a rambling shack on stilts in Kuramo Beach. It is one of the largest structures in the village. After Bidemi turned 6, her father put her to work when she wasn't at school. He noticed she was quick in math and trained her to run his multiple businesses. She expertly handled the cash from selling fish, water, and alcohol, and from recharging engine batteries. During his absences, it was not unusual for her to hold more than $50.
''I tried my best to bring her up," the father said as he repaired a fishing net one afternoon. ''She used to be in possession of all my money, from a very early age. She never suffered with me. I gave her a room, I gave her food, I sent her to school."
The father, several village residents said, would often severely discipline Bidemi and her older brother, Sunday, now 21. People here have a high threshold for violence; it is not unusual in the beach village for fights to spill out into the sand pathways. But Ogunyamoju's beatings, when witnessed by neighbors, were said to be especially cruel.
''He has such a hot temper," said Ade Alongo, 50, one of the community's elders. ''Anything he could find to beat them, he would use it."
Sometimes, Bidemi said, her father beat her for the smallest of infractions. Other times, she admitted, she stole money to buy clothing and food. During one beating in 2001, she said, the buckle from his belt hit her in the right eye, causing it to bulge grotesquely. When she could finally open her eye, she could no longer see with it, she said.
''I was 10 and my father and stepmother were looking for something belonging to one of their babies, and couldn't find it," she said, speaking Yoruba, the dominant language in this part of Nigeria. ''They accused me of taking it, and my father started hitting me with his belt. After a few days, [my eye] was very swollen, and he took me to a hospital. They wanted to do an operation, but my father said no."
In September 2003, after she had completed fifth grade in a primary school near the beach, Bidemi ran away from home after spending about 1000 naira, or $7.25, of her father's money on two blouses. She feared she would be beaten.
But she didn't run far. She ended up just 150 yards from her father's house, living in a hideout with a clutch of other young girls. The father said that in the first few weeks he looked for her every day, but then gave up.
He denied ever beating his children and said Bidemi lost her vision when a motorcyclist hit her.
''She's a liar!" he shouted. ''I have never accosted her, never threatened her in any manner."
Ogunyamoju turned surly. ''I think that freedom I gave her, that is how she went astray. She developed an evil character. If I allow her to stay with me, she will kill me. She's a bad girl from the day she was born. That rat goes against her own father."
He won't allow her back in his house, though he said he would pay for school fees, which cost the equivalent of $120 a year. Bidemi wouldn't come home if she could, he said; she savors her newfound independence too much.
''At her age, a girl like that who is not hungry, who does not lack anything, what does she do for a living? At her age? Ask her."
He turned back to his fishing net.
With a band of runaways
At Kuramo, Bidemi's gang was constantly in flux.
Six months after the shack was lost in the fire, one girl had moved back in with her family and three others left without saying where they were headed. But several new girls had turned up.
They still traveled in a pack on the beach, often walking to a collection of outdoor fish restaurants with names like De Genius and Black Ebony Spot. But Bidemi missed her old circle.
''We were so happy playing together," she said. ''People left us alone. No one would beat us."
Bidemi and Sarah Olatunde, 12, were now sleeping in what passed for a video shop. It had a sand floor, a broken-down television set, and 60 videos, many of them Nigerian-made ''Nollywood" films. The owner, Lati Ganiu, 25, one of the local toughs in Kuramo, allowed several of the child wanderers to stay in his shop at night. Sometimes more than a dozen children slept there.
Ganiu, whose wife and two children lived in another part of Lagos, had an 18-year-old girlfriend on the beach named Amuda Idris. The husky-voiced young woman said she had escaped eight months earlier from a family that had bought her from her father and then forced her to sell their goods on the street. Idris said she dreamed that Ganiu would someday marry her. She had taken Bidemi under her care, at Ganiu's suggestion.
Ganiu said Bidemi impressed him from the start. ''She is very, very obedient and hard-working" and could calculate math problems in her head, he said. ''She is brilliant, really."
But he said she is also humble, without the bravado of many girls on the beach.
Bidemi often stayed in Ganiu's hut because she worried that the shop wasn't safe. On several occasions, boys had entered in the darkness, she said, and tried to pull off her clothes.
Ganiu sometimes fed her, but Bidemi said she mostly begged money from foreigners and wealthy Nigerians at a nearby shopping center and around the restaurants on the beach. Unlike many of the other girls, she said, she would not perform ''the act," or sex, for money. ''Never," she said.
She said she still dreamed of going back to school, and staying there for years. ''I want to be a doctor," she said.
For a time, Bidemi's gang, whose members ranged in age from 11 to 16, attended a school on the beach run by a local church. But the church had closed the school, and no one knew whether it would reopen.
Without school, the girls led aimless lives. There were no jobs for them, on or off the beach. So they scrounged for tiny amounts of cash, mostly from men or boys they knew, or in rare cases, from family members who lived nearby. Any money they got would be spent immediately to buy crackers or soda from one of the numerous tiny food shops in Kuramo. Food for one meant food for all. One unspoken ethic among the girls was that food was shared.
When they satisfied their hunger, and sometimes when they hadn't, the ocean often brought out the child in them.
Late one afternoon, Bidemi and Idris led a group of 14 girls and young boys near the break of the ocean surf. The beach was littered with human waste and magnificent orange shells. They played hopscotch, danced, sang, and on a cue from Bidemi, ran at full speed into the ocean. At first they turned around when their knees got wet, but one of them lay down and a huge wave crashed over her. They squealed in laughter and soon they were all in the surf, their bodies pounded by the foamy water.
''It feels so good," said Bidemi as she came out, an hour later, dripping wet.
But, in as little time as it takes the girls to dry off, the mood can turn from joy to menace in the hot, sandy passageways of Kuramo, just 100 feet away. Women, the girls said, often accosted them and threatened to beat them up unless they washed their clothes and gave them money. Fistfights were common. So were men demanding sex. And thieves.
One day Kuramo boiled over. In one alley, in a period of just 15 minutes, an 8-year-old tomato seller attacked a boy twice her age after he swiped a tomato from her tray, and she didn't stop clawing him until she had ripped off his white muscle shirt. A few feet away two men shoved, punched, kicked, and scratched each other, falling onto a shack and nearly causing it to collapse. On one stoop, blood streamed from a large gash on the right hand of one of Bidemi's friends, a 16-year-old named Tawa Zubair, who said a barber had accidentally slashed her.
But what got the attention of residents inured to such mayhem was the sight of Ganiu, stripped to the waist, preparing to whip two girls with a long piece of white electrical cord.
''Stop him, stop him!" screamed Sarah Olatunde, one of Bidemi's best friends, cowering on her knees under his raised whip.
Bidemi peered out at the scene from the video shop.
Several dozen people formed a circle around Ganiu and Sarah like spectators at a gladiator sport.
''Whack!" the cord cracked over Sarah's back. Ganiu reared back again. ''Whack!"
Sweat flew off his torso.
''Never," he shouted over the murmuring crowd, whipping her again. ''Never do that again!"
Sarah crawled into the crowd and hid behind legs as a beaten dog would.
Ganiu grabbed a second girl, another friend of Bidemi's, and whipped her with equal ferocity. She ran off weeping.
Ganiu said the two had led other girls to a shack the night before, where they had sex with men for money.
''I saw them do it, and I will not allow it," he said, breathing heavily. ''What these girls need is to get to school, or get a job. Or just get out of here."
He threw the electric cord into his video shop.
A doctor tries to help
Ganiu's anger did not extend to Bidemi. And he was not the only one to see promise in her.
Dr. Job Ailuogwemhe, 35, a medical doctor and researcher affiliated with Harvard's School of Public Health, also became intrigued. He met her one day while checking on the construction of a health clinic in Kuramo, where Harvard wants to work on preventing the spread of HIV.
Ailuogwemhe, a Nigerian, looked closely at her eye, and said he knew a doctor at Lagos Central Hospital who could see her. He set an appointment for the next day.
Bidemi, accompanied by her friend Idris, sat quietly as the doctor's car pulled into the hospital, a 10-minute ride from the beach. Only once before had she ventured so far from Kuramo, and that was to sell secondhand clothes at a market in Lagos, a 25-minute bus ride away.
''Dr. Job," as he is known among his friends, guided her through a room stuffed with records from floor to ceiling and introduced her to Anthony O. Anyameluna, an optometrist. The eye doctor turned to Bidemi and opened her right eye for a look. He saw that the lens over her eye had been severely damaged.
''If we extract that lens, and replace it, there is a chance she will see again," he said. ''But we need to take a closer look."
He took Bidemi into his office. She became case No. 11421.
''Why didn't you come with your parents?" he asked her. She said nothing.
Dr. Job spoke up. ''This was caused by her daddy."
''Beaten? You know there are always two sides to a story," the eye doctor said, shining a light into her right eye and covering her left eye with a piece of paper. ''I think you are a stubborn girl. You know, this isn't like it is in America. We beat children here. It's discipline."
He turned off the office light.
''What can you see now?" he asked, training his flashlight on her right eye. ''Touch the light."
Bidemi flailed her right arm in the air. But she never came close. He turned the lights on, and sighed.
''The prognosis is very, very poor," the doctor said. ''The retina is affected. She can't see the light at all. There is a slight drift of the eye to the right. One eye is doing the work of both eyes."
But he said an operation would serve a cosmetic purpose; if he removed her discolored blue-and-white lens, others may not detect she was blind in her right eye. The cost of an operation would be the equivalent of $360.
Bidemi wept as she left.
''I want to see," she whispered.
'I'm ready to be obedient'
A day after her public whipping, Sarah Olatunde sat inside a room in the unfinished health clinic, a popular gathering spot for the girls because it was private and refreshingly cool. Sarah was agitated.
The 12-year-old often wore a scowl on her face, as if that would scare off trouble. She often felt wronged in life, too, and Ganiu's beating constituted the most recent example. She said that none of the girls had sex that night.
And yet she freely admitted that it was not unusual for her, or the other girls, to prostitute themselves. She said she hustled in nearby poor villages, earning 200 naira for sex with a condom, 400 naira for sex without -- the equivalent of $1.44 and $2.88 respectively. She preferred the 400-naira work ''because I need the money."
''We're all commercial sex workers," she said, shrugging her shoulders. That includes Bidemi, she said.
Sarah, wearing a black skin-tight dress and earrings the shape of crosses, described a recent night when Bidemi, herself, and a third girl had met a man near the beach. Bidemi had agreed to have sex with him, but when the man saw Sarah and her friend watching from a window, he sent Bidemi away with 60 naira, or about 40 cents.
As she finished her story, Bidemi walked into the room. She smiled at Sarah, but Sarah frowned.
Told what Sarah had said, Bidemi said flatly, ''I don't do sex work."
Sarah laughed and fell in mock disbelief against a plywood wall.
''Well," Bidemi said, looking angrily at Sarah, ''I don't want to do it anymore. That's why I said I didn't do it. I want to go back to school. That's what I want to do. But how can I? How can I do that?"
She ran out of the clinic and out onto a sand path. Sarah followed and the two yelled at each other until another disturbance silenced them. Dozens of people were running into the village, passing in front of the health center. It was unclear where they were headed or why. Bidemi grabbed a friend in the pack.
''They are taking Ibrahim," the friend screamed.
''No!" Bidemi shouted as she dashed into the pack.
A few minutes later the crowd moved past again, led by a group of young men who had their arms around a teenage boy. The boy sobbed.
Ganiu appeared and stood in their path. Bidemi pleaded that he stop them and free the boy, Ibrahim, who lived on the beach. Bidemi and her girlfriends mingled frequently with the boys; Bidemi felt particularly close to him.
Ganiu motioned for the group of men to follow him for a talk. They told him that 14-year-old Ibrahim was their relative, that he had run away, and that they had come to take him home. A family was reclaiming a child.
Brushing away her tears, Bidemi said, ''He's so nice, I don't want him to leave."
''He has to go," said Nekan Bolade, 20, one of Ibrahim's brothers, sweat running down his face and back.
Ganiu stepped aside. Bidemi said nothing as Ibrahim passed from her family to his. This is nothing new for Kuramo. It is a village of everyday drama and constant change.
Ganiu dreams of leaving. He said he hopes soon to follow a friend to the Ivory Coast, where he planned to find work repairing electronic equipment.
But he has been thinking about what would happen to Bidemi and the other girls if he left. ''It's quite terrible for them to be alone," he said. ''But I need to start thinking of me."
Dr. Job stopped by the beach slum and found Bidemi one day. She was wearing a black T-shirt with the words, ''Love Cat," and bell-bottom jeans that dragged in the sand.
''I don't want to force you into anything," he said in his deep baritone voice. ''But are you going to go to school? Are you serious about it?"
She looked up at the imposing form of the doctor, her right eye closed tight. ''I'm ready to be serious about academics," she said. ''I'm ready to be obedient. I prefer leaving here. I think I must."
She seemed so sad and alone. Her body shook.
''What's wrong?" the doctor asked.
''I'm hungry," she said. ''I got some food and shared it with my friends, but everyone ate it. I had none."
Dr. Job shook his head. He started to say something.
But then from an alley, one of Bidemi's friends called out in Yoruba. In a flash, Bidemi was gone, running down a sand path, disappearing from sight.
Next: One girl's choice
John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com