It was Philomena Aya’s hands that conceived and birthed Daniel. It was the same hands that buried him 25 years later after a bullet pierced his throat, sniffing life out of him, putting him in past tense without ceremony.
When Aya speaks of her son’s death, it is easy to see that the pain is still raw, aching and throbbing. Her words are few, thrown out sparingly and her face bore a stubborn, empty expression.
Daniel Aya was the first of her seven children. He was shot when the officials of the Lagos state taskforce besieged the waterfront community of Otodo Gbame, spraying bullets into the cold morning air, torching structures and forcing the poor residents of the slums to flee from their homes – their ancestral homes. Life, history and decades of memories became ashes in one night.
“I can never forget it,” Aya says, her eyes, staring everywhere but at the person addressing her, narrowed into tiny slants. Probably anywhere from mid-thirties upward, Aya doesn’t know how old she is, neither does she remember how long she’s been married to her elderly husband. She doesn’t understand English either so we communicate through a translator fluent in Egun and English.
She is sitting on a wooden bench. Her daughter, lying supine on the same bench, had her legs crossed behind Aya. The room apartment we are in at Sogunro, Makoko, is shared by Aya, her husband and six surviving children. The room smells damp, mats are strewn carelessly on the floor, outdated calendars hang on the crowded wall and heaps of clothes are everywhere.
Aya’s youngest child – she looks two or younger – is playing at her mother’s feet with a younger child who let out incomprehensible stream of words and laughter every now and then.
On the morning of the attack, Aya and her family were asleep when they heard shouts of other slum residents. They rushed outside to discover the source of the commotion, when they saw chaos everywhere.
“We don’t have a choice but to pack our things,” and in the process her son was shot. Aya tells this story in a flat, matter of fact as if it is what it is and nothing more.
“There is nothing to do. We are not doing anything,” she says. The eviction robbed them of their livelihood and so now they are basically jobless. “This place belongs to another person and someone has to give us something before we eat.”
Her husband, I am told, is an older man – much older than Aya and he too is jobless.
Since the unfortunate death of her son, Aya says she hasn’t been contacted by the government to say nothing of getting any form of recompense for her terrible loss. In the flurry of her quick-paced Egun language, I hear her call the governor’s name “Ambode”, her face becomes a tight ball and she turns up her nose, raising her jaw and looking away.
“When we were still in Otodo Gbame, two of my children were going to school but when we got evicted from there only one of them has resumed school again,” she says.
Like Aya, there are several other displaced, slum community-dwelling mothers forced to separate from their children as means of survival or just because their life was cut short. Children forced to leave school in mid-term without hope of ever going back because their homes and parents’ livelihood was destroyed in a wink, putting their future in dilemma.
To be poor and live on a waterfront or slum community in Lagos is equivalent to making yourself an enemy to the state government and the elites of Lagos. Not because any law was broken but because you occupy a space that will probably earn much more if commercialised. That your existence and life’s work can be done and taken away in an instance.
I am told that there are no government-owned schools or health centres in Sogunro. That the only time the residents feel the presence of government is during an election when political aspirants come to woo them with a few gifts and promises of a better future.
For nearly four years now, Bimbo Osobe has been forced to live separately from three of her children after her home at Badia east was demolished. Now she holds tight to her youngest, an eight-year-old who she nearly lost too – this time to pneumonia which developed from a cold caught from weeks of sleeping in the open air, without shelter or heat.
“Anywhere I’m going to, he’s with me,” Osobe says of her last child. She holds him close as if hoping to live every moment with him, to hold onto him as much as possible.
“I was an evictee in 2013 – February 23 to be precise,” she says, affirming that the story of how her home and community was demolished was a really sad story.
Osobe, a dark-skinned lady with gray at the centre and edges of her hair, had no idea that that environmental Saturday morning was the day she’d become homeless and the coming days will lead to her being separated from her children.
They weren’t given any notice. And the home, which she says they were never tenants in, was bulldozed to the ground alongside all their properties.
“When the house was demolished there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that was left for us. So it brought a separation of the family. I had to pair my children up with members of the family and my husband went with two of the children,” she says. “It was more than three years before my children could go back to school.”
Osobe says that before the demolition she sold soft drinks. “I was a dealer with 7UP. After the demolition, I have not been doing anything, there is no means of livelihood. My husband had to go back to the north because he wasn’t doing anything and he is an engineer by profession.”
Her husband dusted his certificate and went off to search for greener pastures and a means to survive with two of his children.
“I am here with the little one – the last born. And my mother-in-law has the third child.”
Asked if she has received any form of compensation from the state government, Osobe says that “if you ask government they will tell you that we were compensated but I won’t call it compensation.”
According to her N309,580 was paid to them a year after the demolition. By this time, Osobe and her husband had incurred so much debt that the so-called compensation money was sucked whole and clean without making any much difference in their lives.
“The money wasn’t even sufficient to rent a better home outside. We had our home before the demolition. The money wasn’t sufficient to rent even a room after the demolition.”
In the years since 2013, Osobe and her son have bounced from one slum community to another, living on the goodwill of others and clawing their way through life as much as they could.
Before the demolition, Osobe tells me, her children were enrolled in a private school. “I cannot take him to private school anymore. He’s in public school and even at that school which they say is free, we still paid some amount before they took him.”
At only 21 years old, Tina Edukpo’s story bears many similarities to Osobe’s.
“I was born in Otodo Gbame and brought up in Otodo Gbame,” Edukpo says. “I was with my family on the day Otodo Gbame was finally demolished.”
Her family is now spread across Lagos different waterfront communities, forced to live separately in a desperate move to survive and rebuild their lives.
Edukpo recalls that another demolition had taken place in Otodo Gbame on November 2016 when parts of the slum community was levelled to the ground. Tina says that after the first demolition “People haven’t rebuilt their houses. They were just sleeping on the land because they didn’t have anything to build their structures again.”
The house that Edukpo lived in with her family was also destroyed in the November attack too. “Our house was burnt with everything. So we tried to rebuild it. and when we completed it – let me say three days after we completed it was when they came again and bring it down again. This time around they used a bulldozer to knock it down.”
Her father was a fisherman while her mother had a provision store where she also sold fish. But since the demolition, they have become jobless, without a means to practice their trade.
With the recent demolition of Otodo Gbame waterfront community, Lekki, the number of broken families has increased: mothers forced to live away from children, to mourn their loss and children left uneducated. Children evicted from Otodo Gbame have been left without education since April.
Three schools were demolished in Otodo Gbame, and like every other thing, there are no hopes to rebuild them.
Betty Abah, child rights activists and founder of CEE-Hope, categorically states that it is a scandal that “In Lagos, which is the largest metropolitan city in Nigeria and Africa, that we would have an indigenous set of people, an indigenous community that is completely cut out from civilisation.”
Abah says that there are thousands of children who are out of school and are unable to access education – and even when they do, the quality is so low. “Majority of the children here can’t speak English and some go to French schools. And so they are disadvantaged even before they even step into the outside world.”
Read the previous instalment in this series: