If international human rights law is underplayed by governments across the globe, the child rights law suffers a worse fate, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
As minors by law, children do not have autonomy or the right to make decisions on their own for themselves in any known jurisdiction of the world. Instead, their adult custodians, who include parents, teachers, social workers, youth workers and, in the African setting, ‘extended’ relatives, etc, are vested with that authority, depending on the circumstances. Some believe that this state of affairs give children insufficient control over their own lives and makes them vulnerable.
Louis Althusser described this legal machinery as “repressive state apparatuses”. Though parents may not be aware of this international right over their wards, native law and custom across Africa gives absolute right of dominion over their biological children as well as children of deceased parents.
During a visit to a building work site at Orioke in Ejigbo local government area of lagos, Nigeria’s City of Excellence and the commercial capital of Africa’s most populous nation, our correspondent was greeted by child workers, aged between six and eight years, working a church building project one would expect men of their fathers’ age to be doing. Two of the minors were feebly digging the drainage in turns before the gate, while three others were mixing cement and piling up block-work preparatory to the day’s assignment. In a country always in the news for scandalous building collapses, even those under construction, Nigeria is a nation where unlettered builders within and across borders execute projects from foundation to finish upon un-surveyed lands and without building plans. They are their own architects, building contractors and quantity surveyors.
Within their ranks they have ‘experts’ they call iron-benders who do the work of structural engineers, rewire (electrical engineers), formwork and roofing carpenters, welders, bricklayers, painters, etc and each comes with his apprentices as well as women who constitute the unskilled workforce. The country is still smarting from the collapse of a sixstorey building belonging to the Synagogue Church of all Nations where some 115 people, mostly South African nationals lost their lives.
Omolaja (8) Opeoluwa (7), Suru (8), Muyi (7), and Fata (6) are Togolese children who started practical all-round building and construction training as soon as they could walk! According to the children, a man they know only as Baba Carpenter brought them to Lagos under an unwritten agreement with the children’s parents:
the kids work for their master who remits agreed monies to their poor parents at home while the child workers are paid just about enough to feed their little stomachs. The daily tight work-schedule has taken away their right to education (not that their ‘uncle’ or anyone was willing to sponsor them anyhow); thus, the children speak neither English nor French: they can only communicate in the Yoruba dialect which is a trans-border commercial language for traders this end of the Diaspora.
Isaac Opeoluwa, who would pass as madam’s white-haired boy is the sixth and the lucky one among them favoured to go to school; even though he doesn’t have to work on site, Isaac loves to join his mates after school hours, on weekends and public holidays. He’s a second grade junior high school pupil in private school in Ejigbo, a suburb of Lagos. Isaac, whose best subject is mathematics, said he would like to be a chartered accountant when he’s grown up.
Through him, our correspondent learnt that the children as soon as they could walk! “When we work, the contractor who calls us gives us N200 for our pocket, but our money is paid to Baba Carpenter each day we work.” On a good day, Isaac gets the full day’s money, or he gets half for his half-day job. The children had learnt from experience to ask for food while they work because according to Isaac, “if we don’t ask, they will not give us; before, we didn’t use to ask and we would work till evening when we closed before we ate from our money; but now we ask in the afternoon and they will give us N100 per person to eat.”
But Omolaja Ope and Suru don’t have that opportunity because, according the boys, their uncle takes the money from them when they get home. “After we work, Baba Carpenter will say, ‘where’s the money they paid you?’ And he will take it; sometimes he will give us N100 and sometimes he will not, so we eat all we can at the work site.” Under a supervisor, the children do every job adult masons do on building sites; mixing cement and sand/gravels, fetching water for mixers, carring blocks within the site to ‘feed’ bricklayers with mixed cement and blocks have become second nature to these kids.
Our correspondent was startled to see the children struggling with six inches blocks each on both hands from the pickup van to the work site. Atimes, they were asked to carry nine inches blocks to the extreme end of the site for those doing block work. Sometimes the kids help one another carry the block on their heads but when they’re alone they have perfected a way of hoisting the hard concrete on their heads. They even hoist and carry full head-pans of mixed cement.
The man who hired them for this site is a bricklayer-cum-contractor, Kassim Taiwo, from Oyo State. He mobilises labour for every manner of work in building projects and is a go-between for the kids and their masters. He discussed the background of the kids with Daily Times. “They’re Cotonou children brought here from Togo by their brother who is a bricklayer; he works with my team when he has no job of his own. As for the children, they were born into labour from when they started to walk.
“In their home in Cotonou, as soon as their children can walk, so long as the child is a boy, the parents will say, ‘oya, follow daddy go learn work.’” The clergyman who employed the services of Kassim had to intervene when Kassim commanded two of the minors to carry a 50kg bag of cement to the spot where two other kids were waiting to mix. With a wry smile, Kassim went over and carried the cement himself. In this exclusive chat with Daily Times after the day’s work, Kassim waved a hand at the boys washing their little bodies at a corner in the site:
“Don’t look at them as small boys o; as you see them so, they work more than adults; they’re not like Nigerian children, they’re Togolese. They have been growing inside this work and they’re so rugged that they don’t tire; 24 hours they’re on the work, not like us adults who have to rest between work and take long hours of break.
“As their mother born them, once they begin to walk, they’ll be following bricklayers at worksites everywhere; they don’t do any other thing in their lives: this is their school; they grow and marry in this job and their children will continue like them. That’s their life. If you people are not here, they will carry that cement. Ordinary 50 kg bag!”, he spat.
“Even if two of them cannot carry it, another one will joint and they will carry it; next time, two will carry it and after sometimes, one person will carry it: that’s how they learn in this work. They understand teamwork than we adults. “As they started like this, they can work for 15 to 20 years; by that time they’re already experts on this work. After that, they are allowed to do freedom, then they will rent one room and marry.”
On their daily wages, Kassim said each child’s normal wage per full day is N1,200; but being apprentices, they don’t collect the money; “We just give them small money for small things children like, but it’s their oga that collects their money.”
Another shocking side to their story is that these kids, when they become men don’t marry just one or two wives. ‘Togo men don’t marry just one wife; some will marry five, others can marry seven or eight wives. These boys you see so will follow the same pattern. As you see them, one wife can have up to 10 or more children; in fact, Togolese don’t count the number of their children because children are labourers and when the child is a boy, he is a labourer for life.“
Unlike his Togolese kid workforce, Kassim did not start building work from childhood. “I abandoned school when I was in JS.2 in United Secondary School at Udi-Obi in Oyo State because I wanted to face bricklayer work. That was how I matured inside the business. Today, I am a contractor; just show me photo of the house or tell me how many flats or rooms you want and I will build it from foundation to roofing: that is my life.”
Kassim sees a goodly side to the children’s experience:
“These children will grow up to know the value of money; they won’t spend their money buying ice cream or chocolates like Nigerian children. In fact, they don’t even know what ice cream or chocolate tastes like. Before they spend one kobo, they will make sure the need is very important, otherwise they will not part with the money.”
*this was published in the Daily Times newspaper dated Friday, December 26, 2014