Poverty Stops with Us…
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Some weeks ago, I took a walk through a community about 20 kilometres from my university campus. A partner of a non-profit organisation, ‘Poverty Stops Here’, who works with another international non-profit organisation called ‘Hands at Work’, invited me and some of my colleagues to come along on a visit to the community. It is normal for well-to-do people, the rich, living in the “choice areas” of a poor country like Nigeria, to face the challenge of understanding that they actually live amongst poverty. As we walked past street after street, looking more like waste dump sites, I felt a sense of hopelessness creep over me, not only because of what I was seeing but also because I knew that this community did not even represent the poorest of people in Lagos.
Just as I was about to conclude that the small community in Ilaje area of Bariga must have been forgotten by the local government, I noticed election campaign posters pasted all over the walls and littering the community. It was inconceivable that these people actually voted for and had a local government chairman. Before this begins to read like another piece aimed solely at criticising the government, I would like to shift my focus to my experience at Ilaje.
Most of the residents live in shacks while others live on water, or rather under the famous Third Mainland Bridge. From the reactions of the members of the community, I could decipher that it was habitual for visitors like me to come around. Over the years, individuals with pity-faced expressions like mine must have come to look around, do interviews, take photographs, but nothing ever really changed. Why should they welcome any more visitors? If I had to name the community based solely on its appearance, I would describe it as a garbage dump. There was so much filth and waste accumulated everywhere that I would not be exaggerating if I said that there was more rubbish covering the “roads” than there was sand.
Another thing I could not miss was the elegant churches that dotted the “streets”. I counted at least three very beautiful places of worship. Although I do not also intend to make this about religion, I could not fathom how churches could run in such environs without visibly doing anything to enhance the living conditions of the inhabitants. One can only imagine the kinds of diseases that could be contracted living in such an area, but I’m not sure how the churches help prevent and treat such diseases. I’m not even sure whether the churches are doing anything to address the general physical decay in the community.
This is not about the government or the churches, but it’s about the people I saw doing something about it. An international non-profit organisation called ‘Hands at Work’ makes provision for the children in the community in a bid to alleviate the effects of their living conditions. They provide basic education, home visits and counselling sessions. They presently have two schools, a nursery and a primary section, called Eagle Foundation. The abandoned children in the community are tutored, trained and instructed, providing a comprehensive mis of educational, moral, social and cultural support. When we walked into the primary section, we were greeted with an amazing chorus by the students who sang about how happy they were to see us. My immediate thoughts – young children were being given hope, a future, and a reason to wake up every morning. The schools also provide lunch for the children, providing an assurance of at least one meal every day.
The organisation that invited me and my colleagues to the community, ‘Poverty Stops Here’, sponsors over fifty students in that community, providing much-needed financial support to ‘Hands at Work’. The teachers are volunteers who are paid minuscule stipends. Their glowing and smiling faces made me wonder at their magnanimity and about the largeness of their hearts. Sigh! Why don’t we have more of such large hearts around?
Despite all the filth, I hadn’t noticed any hospitals in the area, so I asked about health care provisions. Guess what? There isn’t a single hospital or health center in the community. However, as part of the provision for the children, there is a volunteer nurse who takes care of their health needs. She administers basic first aid and prescribes medication when the need arises. In today’s world, where parents and guardians are being held criminally responsible for refusing to give adequate hospital care to their children, I can’t understand why there are no hospitals.
The community leader, the Baale, received us graciously and thanked us repeatedly for the good deeds done for the community. He revealed that the community used to be larger than its current size, but the government recently came to dismantle many of the dwelling places, causing many of the residents to return to their villages, while others moved to the water to live under the bridge, leaving the few remaining residents in the community. This confirmed that the government was aware that the community existed and that it was inhabited by actual people, families. The Baale pleaded that we ask the government to come to their aid. Yes! I had the same corny look you have on now.
I wouldn’t pretend to be oblivious to the fact that a significant number of Nigerians are poor, or that some villages in Nigeria live in even worse conditions than Ilaje, with little or no access to electricity and other basic amenities, but still, I was extremely overwhelmed. The reality is that people are in need, and they lack basic needs. Poverty is eating deep into our society, and the government is not doing anything about it, but we are also not doing anything about it. I asked myself why I should bother. There are so many poor people. I really cannot change much, can i?
We actually can change a lot. I watched these kids eat their lunch with so much happiness, and it inspired me. We can do a lot to help the people around us; we can affect our communities, our country, our continent. We can’t wait forever for the government. I am not suggesting that the government should abandon its duties, what I am saying is that we have a role to play. The reality is that people around us are in need, and we can change that. The witty thing about needs is that they are not in any way satiable, everybody wants more. However, we live in a country where most people have nothing, while others have in excess. This is not acceptable, and I feel strongly that we have an important role in changing it.
We accuse the western media of always portraying Africa in a negative light, but we are actually in a worse state and just haven’t realised it. A friend of mine in England saw a picture of my visit and complained bitterly, accusing me of portraying our country in a bad light. She, like many upper and middle class Africans, believes these poor people and areas are so few that they cannot be used as a depiction of living standards in the country. Unfortunately, the reality is actually that these poor people constitute the majority of our population.
This experience awakened a feeling in my soul and changed my thinking. I have resolved to play a part in changing my environment, and it starts with just a step. If we all took such steps, our country would be a better place. Yes, people are already doing it. Why don’t we join them?
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