Monday, 8 December 2008

Children - The Day of Change

The Sunday afternoon game of ‘stick ball’ outside the Pink House has now become an established event with up to 30 children flocking to the street to wait in line for their turn to hit a cork covered in duct tape with a broken broom handle. This response would be typical for young, mostly healthy minds starved of entertainment or indeed any other form of activity, when a mere football is a luxury beyond most families' means. That and playing with the locally famous 'batuari'!

Dori is the pitcher whilst Laurie plays dual roles of catcher and queue organiser. Nigerians have not quite got the hang of orderly British queuing, however with Laurie and Dori's incredible memory for faces (far better than mine) they know who’s hit and who hasn’t and who’s jumped the queue. So whether it’s Damian, Benedict, Blessing, one of the two Ruths, Bernard, Henrietta, George , Ignatius, Jethro, Javed, Emmanuel, Joel, Favour, Mercy ... well you get the picture... they know whose turn it is.

However not having the sporting facilities of a YMCA are the least of South Kaduna’s children’s worries. In recent months Fantsuam Foundation has rescued two children from the fate of being identified as responsible for the woes of a local community and branded as witches. The third, a young vivacious girl called Lois was less lucky. She ‘fell’ down a well, after having a face put onto fire. These are the more extreme examples of child abuse that are not uncommon in the area and Fantsuam, working with the Canadian National Development Agency (CIDA) and Save the Children has set up the first Children’s Parliament in Kafanchan which was inaugurated at a grand ceremony - the Day of Change - that took place on Saturday in Bayan Loco at the Foundation.

The event was an activity of the Fantsuam Advocacy Centre for Children (FACC) that is co-funded by CIDA and VSO. As well as providing Saturday activities including the Children’s Computer Club, football and drama clubs and weekly donation of nutritious yoghurt currently from Jos, (but we hope soon from our own Friesian cow - see previous blog), FACC has set up the first Children’s Parliament with the help of experts from Save the Children UK in Kaduna, and similar parliaments across the country. Former VSO Glenn (the Canuck Amuck) was responsible for submitting the original proposal for FACC to CIDA. He devoted a blog to it when the funding was approved. Read it by clicking here.

Whilst preparations had been underway for weeks, the dress rehearsal on Friday was cancelled due to an extremely unseasonal downpour that continued for hours. However by early the next morning the children and helpers were back and the scene was set.
The first batch of corn drink and jollof rice for the guests and children

Next began the universally nail-biting wait for the guests and dignitaries including the key note speaker, Mr Joseph Gumbari, the local member of the Federal House of Representatives in Abuja, and other honoured guests from the local constituencies of Jema’a and Kaura, as well as the deputy governor of Kaduna State. Flags were handed out to children who were to line the ‘roads’ of Bayan Loco to welcome the visitors and soon enough, only about 15 minutes late, a variety of vehicles started picking their way towards Fantsuam Foundation’s fish farm as the diverse crowd began to assemble.

Flag wavers
The guests, dignitaries and interested bystanders start congregating at the fish farm

Our chairman John Dada paced around nervously waiting for the keynote speaker. Confirmation of attendance is by no means a guarantee of actual attendance in Nigeria however only shortly after he was due, the Honourable Joseph Gambari arrived with his surprisingly small entourage, and Fantsuam’s friend and, we have since discovered, political influence, Jacob, our neighbour in Kagoro.

The Honourable and the other local Assembly members were immediately seated alongside Josephone Obinyan representing the Canadian High Commission, whose government had provided most of the funding for the event.

Immediately the MC Mrs Hannatu Koboh, borrowed from the local radio station, took centre stage first introducing John Dada before awaiting instructions on the correct protocols for the assembled dignitaries. John spoke with his usual eloquence and passion about the plight of children and the need for both children and their communities to understand the fundamental rights of the Child as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. FACC was already achieving much in terms of engaging with the community but it had a long way to go. This event however marked a milestone in that journey.
John Dada, the MC Mrs Hannatu Koboh and Jacob

The next part was the play excellently enacted by the Fantsuam’s children’s drama club under the tutelage of Sheyi and Bala. The story was of a distraught mother weeping to a friend, devastated by the news that her daughter Blessing had tested positive for HIV and indeed had been diagnosed with full blown AIDS. Her friend immediately pointed the finger at the local child Mercy, who the parish minister had already identified as a witch and responsible for a whole host of illnesses and disasters within the community. The next scene showed an educated member of the community who, on hearing the news, decreed that not only should the child be punished by being burnt with an iron, but she should be killed to save the community from further ills.

Blessing's distraught mother is pacified by a neighbour who identifies local child Mercy as the source of Blessing's illness

The unfortunate Mercy was brought in front of the grieving mother who blamed her for causing all the problems. The mother and educated man then fetched an iron and, having tied Mercy up with the cord, proceeded to ‘iron’ her skin. The child’s screaming draws the attention of other members of the community who demand that the torture be stopped and the matter referred to the appropriate authorities. Young Mercy is released and the group leave, with hope in their hearts that Mercy will be saved.

Local community members insist that the matter is handled by the appropriate authorities

All guests were silent during the presentation and none took any notice of me as I snapped away. For me the faces in the audience tell the story: this is not some sort of rural myth. This is the reality right here, right now. Only some communities have not had the advocacy to understand that this isn’t, and could never be, the child’s fault.

After rapturous applause from the crowd, the proceedings moved on to the keynote speech from the Honourable Joseph Gumbari who praised the work of the Foundation, and highlighted the importance of introducing young people to their rights and the proper process of redress.

Following his speech it was time for the opening of the Children’s Parliament – a formal affair with all the correct protocols observed. This institution not only helps children to understand and ensure their own rights, but also provides a valuable insight into the workings of government, with a hope that some of these children will become the future leaders of Nigeria.
The child Parliamentarians - drawn from all walks of life in Bayan Loco and Kafanchan

Whilst the Parliament was sitting at the fish farm, I helped my colleagues Bala and Mwrmwr attend to the crowds of children that had gathered at the back of the compound and that needed to be ferried back to the main Fantsuam site for feeding and watering. As the children milled about me I felt spookily like the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Here are some of the 100s of local Bayan Loco children that Fantsuam supports every week, and that it hopes will henceforth have a better life through the Children’s Parliament.

We arrived at Fantsuam, squeezing through the narrow gate, and Mwrmwr and Matthias the guard then tried, not always successfully, to get the children into an orderly queue so that they could receive their rice and cabin biscuits (like Marie biscuits, but rectangular). Unlike the British tradition of queuing behind the person in front, Nigerian queueing involves getting in front of the last person in the queue so that the queue invariably starts several metres forward of where it was originally positioned.

Mwrmwr cajoles order from chaos

As we attempted to manage the children, things were wrapping up at the fish farm and soon the dignitaries arrived for their tour around the main Fantsuam compound and their own lunch of jollof rice and stew. This visit, though logistically a touch challenging, was vital in cementing Fantsuam’s reputation as an effective development organisation. Having heard the kind words of the Honourable, of John Dada and others, this visit showed how ICT teaching, health care, child care and other activities are carried out, side by side, every day of the year in this small, poverty-stricken corner of Kaduna State.

Children, adults, staff and dignitaries mix happily in the Fantsuam compound

However this story would not be complete without the people that made it happen: the people that John Dada thanked at Attachab for their contribution to getting Fantsuam where it is today, the same people who will take Fantsuam forward. I didn’t manage to get pictures of everyone but for those that I did and those that evaded my snapping – thanks to all, and not forgetting Glenn whose original proposal to CIDA made this all possible.
L-R: Shinggu and Mwrmwr, the sound crew, Affiniki, Bala and me
L-R: Mwrmwr this time with Gabriel, Patience, Yakubu, Monday and Bala
The guards at the fish farm and the usually glamourous Mercy with a heavy wheelbarrow full of rice who, with colleagues Deborah and Doris, went to the market for provisions in the pouring rain, cooked the food up on Saturday morning and (with me) washed up the hundreds of plates for the guests and children.. amongst their other chores.
L-R: School administrator Nicholas and the film crew managed by Kelechi


Anonymous said...

Hey Cicely,
Jared here!! What a fantastic way to entertain the children...old fashioned stick ball. I like the ingeneous way in which the locals and you three have come up with a way to entertain the troop of kids every week. It is great that you all regularly get involved with the kids etc.
You blog was a really good read this week - I thought it was very insighful. I hope the plight of the children in the communities is recognised at a much higher level!!
Take care.
Jared xx

Anonymous said...

All very helpful for understanding what VSO actually does. What a challenge on all of your hands.

Nikki said...

Hi Cicely,
Once again a beautifully written piece..I think you missed your vocation as a journalist! Your blog really brings to life all the problems facing a rural community like Fantsuam but also captures all the amazing work- and people- who come together to bring about change.
I look forward to up with all the latest news at tomorrow's e-meeting.

Glenn said...

Hey, Cicely,

Thanks for the pictures and the story! Very happy to see that things turned out so well. Please pass along my congratulations to everyone involved. Hopefully, this will be the first step in a long and successful campaign by FACC. Hope all's well otherwise. Need any Marmite yet?



Anonymous said...

Dear Cicely,
Finallly cought up with your blog and what a skilled writer you are and to learn about the fantastic work you are doing there!!
Missed you at our very succesful curry lunch at the end of November, where there were about 42 people present, with a wonderful range of food.
take care and I look forward to the next read.