The curse of child slavery

Many busy professional couples in Nigeria find it handy to have a child slave to help around the house. Where are the family values in that?
Chinwuba Iyizoba | Jul 14 2009 | comment  

The World Congress of Families recently held its annual conference in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. One speaker, Don Feder, an American journalist, told his largely African audience “Everything the West asks you to do, please do the opposite”. He praised the rich family values that he had observed here.

I agree. Nigerian families are largely intact; divorce is rare; children live with their parents; intergenerational ties are strong. The other side of the coin is that people without a family are at sea without a lifejacket; they will receive almost nothing from the government.

We have to struggle hard not to become infected with an insatiable desire for a higher standard of living without strong human values. Because in Nigerian society the combination of an educated class with a yuppie lifestyle and the possibility of exploiting a poor underclass leads to terrible abuses.

One of these is curse of child slavery. Traditionally, as in much of Africa, domestic work used to be the duty of a family’s own children. But if a couple was wealthy, poorer relations would sometimes lend a hand. An older cousin from the country would live in and care for the toddlers. This, however, obliged the parents to pay for the schooling of the nanny-relative.

Domestic help is more necessary than ever for educated couples, as often both parents work outside the home in professional jobs -- just as they do in London or New York. But relatives are expensive, so many families prefer to buy children in order to work in their homes. They are cheaper to maintain and there are fewer family complications.

According to the Child Welfare League of Nigeria, Nigeria may have the largest number of child domestic workers in the world, since nearly every household has a child domestic servant – at least the households of every government employee. Most of these children end up being physically, emotionally, and if they are girls, sexually abused.

Modern day slavery

Investigative journalism is weak in Nigeria and it took the New York Times to document what everyone here knows as a brutal fact of life. A State Department official commented that the word “trafficking” failed to convey the brutality of what was happening. “A child does not consent,” he said. “The loss of choice, the deception, the use of frauds, the keeping of someone at work with little or no pay, the threats if they leave — it is slavery.”

Last year, according to a report in the Times, Nigerian police stumbled upon 64 girls aged 14 and younger packed inside a refrigerated truck built to haul frozen fish. They had traveled hundreds of miles from central Nigeria and were destined for work as housemaids in Lagos.

This was scandalous, but not unusual. Dealers buy 5 or 6-year-olds from their parents in poor countries such as Togo and Benin and take them to work at quarry sites where they break stones or they as farmhands until they are about 13. This purges the children’s minds of memories of family and homeland. Without these, they work better as house-help. “The best house-helps are those without father or mother; without a past to which they can return” says one of the slave dealers, since they are entirely dependent on their masters.

According to the Times, in 2003 Nigerian police rescued 194 malnourished children from stone quarries north of Lagos. Police claimed that at least 13 other children had been buried in graves near the pits.

The dealers sell the slaves to busy working mothers in Lagos who remit about 3,500 Niara monthly to the dealer’s bank account. Although women may know that the children have been trafficked, they excuse themselves by saying that if they do not hire these children someone else will. As Naija Pundit wrote last year in

“Even some of our most affluent and educated ‘leaders’ see nothing wrong with getting some small boy or small girl from the village and using them for nothing but menial labor, sure it can be argued that living in Lagos, Abuja or Port-Harcourt beats living in some hamlet in the middle of Ogun state, but do economics trump a person’s inherent right to dignity?”

Child-slaves from other countries are preferred in Lagos because they are completely docile. A local house-help might have relations and could be unruly and demand rights such as schooling. Generally dealers insist that the children should not be enrolled at school.

Inspection before purchase

Busy professional women usually demand tests for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and pregnancy before purchasing a child to ensure that they have made a good bargain and to protect their own kids from infections.

Back at home, the busy mothers often act as if their homes were too good for their help. I remember while living in Lagos that one of the slave children used to take her bath hurriedly in the public taps hoping that no one was looking. The neighborhood boys enjoyed peeping at her. “My master would not allow me to take my bath in the bathrooms. I am too dirty to wash myself in the same place where his children bathe,” she told me between sobs.

Family convenience trumps everything. One of my friends remembers a woman who fell pregnant and yanked her child-slave out of school just before final-year exams. The slave had to wait nine months before resuming her education.

A doctor friend, Ambrose Anegbe, told me about his encounter with a child-slave in the teaching hospital in the city of Ibadan:

“The child-slave was 13 years old and was owned by a busy mom with two daughters. The slave was withdrawn, spoke in a low voice, and shied away from me. The woman brought the child-slave to hospital because she suspected her of transmitting flu to her daughters. The slave had been coughing for three weeks but she took no notice until her daughters began to cough. In my presence, the woman accused this child-slave of deliberately infecting her daughters. The child-slave smiled, in a lovely way. I tried to imagine how much torture she must have undergone to react this way. I also watched as the daughters of the woman used the child-slave for sport. They would hit her hard and in response she would smile.”

“Many of them are treated like animals,” a United Nations official told the Times. “They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a little and they clean your house for nothing.”

Why would a mother treat a child like this? Perhaps the adults vent their frustrations from a day at the office on these children who have no formal training in home management and are often very clumsy. Besides, a child-slave is still a child. Every child can tell when it is not accepted and treated like the other children, and thus becomes emotional and gives in into sulking and other anti-social behavior, which further irritates their employers.

The rising numbers of nannies in Nigeria are the result of parent’s misplaced priorities caused by ambition to earn more, to climb up corporate ladder and to give their own children everything, including freedom from household chores.

What the Nigerian experience shows is that it is naive to think that modernisation and a rising standard of living will eliminate exploitation and abuse. It can even spread it further and make it worse. That’s why we Africans have to be alert to keep our spiritual values from being eroded by Western secularisation. They are our only firm protection against the defects in our own societies.

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria 

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