By Yusuph Olaniyonu
If that incident had happened in Nigeria of 2016, then nobody would have been privileged to read my account. I probably would have ended up being an item in some ritual rite or a slave boy trafficked far away from my present home. Let me also warn that this aspect of the story of my life happened so long ago that I cannot remember the exact year of its occurrence and what age I was. As a result of the circumstances, i really did not cross-check to ascertain the facts. Now, that I took interest in documenting it, I found most of the dramatic personae have gone to be with their maker.
I guessed I must be just about six years old or a little younger. That means, it should be about 1971 or 1972. The practice for many Abeokuta men who lived in Lagos then was to send one or two of the children back home to live with their aged or aging parents. The children not only helped the grand-parents back home, they provided the link for the man and his wife to constantly go home or send money for the upkeep of those in the hometown. I was the first of my father’s children to be taken back home to live with my old aunt (his eldest sister) who was like my grand mum. More importantly, the education system in Abeokuta, then in Western State, was better than that of Lagos State. And that was another reason for this backward integration system to thrive.
During our long holidays, I had the opportunity to reunite with my siblings in Lagos. We were living in a house in Mushin Olosa which is just about a kilometer to Idi Araba, the present location of the University of Lagos. Then, Idi Araba was a village by Yoruba categorization of its settlements. It had a Baale or a village head.
During this particular holiday for students in the Western State, the schools were still in session in Lagos. On a sunny afternoon, I remember vividly, my siblings were going for a private tutorial session which in local lingo was termed ‘lesson’. I decided to follow them. I had with me the seat and writing plank called ‘slate’, the one that we used a white chalk to write upon. The seat was adapted from an empty can of a big size of the Quaker Oat cereal.
On our way, in my innocence, some scene somewhere must have caught my attention. That was how my sisters left me behind. By the time I realized I was all alone, there was no trace of those who knew the way. All that was left for me was childish guess. Thus, I saw this open space in front of a house where some children gathered. Some of them were just playing. I calculated that that might be the venue of the ‘lesson’ being attended by my sisters. I decided to mount sentry and watch. I was there until, it was getting dark and gradually, the children dispersed one by one.
I was now left to my fate. Lost and afraid. No chance of tracing my way home. No real information about our address. If it was Abeokuta, I could describe our compound and my aunt’s name. In Lagos, I was a stranger and visitor, even though I was born there. I can’t remember now how some good Samaritans took me there, but i ended up that night in the house of the Baale, the Village head. I ended up sleeping there after having my dinner. I remembered that when the wife of the Baale spread a mat for me to lay on for the night, I still requested that she should spread clothes on it like what I was used to in my aunt’s place.
The following morning, they treated me to the normal ritual of a clean bath and good meal. I noticed there was no children of my age in that house. I could not remember if I saw some other occupants of the household. However, later that morning, the Baale’s wife left the house for the market, where she had a stall. She was still kind enough to leave for me a pack that would be my lunch.
Before lunch time, another elderly man visited the Baale. I noticed they had a discussion and after sometime I was told to carry the ‘seat and slate’ which formed my luggage and followed the man. We boarded a ‘molue’ bus at a bus stop which I later realized must be Mushin, just one bus stop before the closest one to our house. That is Mushin Olosa bus stop. My guess now is that we were heading to Alakara area which had and still has a police station with a famous juvenile section. Meanwhile, back in our house, search-parties paraded and combed the nooks and crannies of the entire area throughout the night. People kept vigil as confusion reigned in they would storey building and the neighbourhood.
However, in God’s way of performing miracles, when we got to our bus stop, in the process of giving way to some passengers to disembark from the Molue bus, the ‘slate and seat’, my luggage, fell down and I jumped down to quickly pick them. At that point, I just heard shouts from some people around the bus stop and a woman grabbed me. A member of one of the search parties which happened to be moving along the bus stop area had sighted me. The old man I was going with had to discontinue the journey. In the euphoria that enveloped the atmosphere, I could not recollect how the handover ceremony went. All I knew was that I returned home to the warm and enthusiastic embrace of my mother, the rest of the family and our neighbours. That was at a time when there was no Child Rights Act. Yet, I benefitted from the pervasive fear of God where people voluntarily protect children against all forms of danger.
Imagine if the incident had happened in Nigeria of today, particularly in Mushin area. Will the person or persons who took me to the Baale’s house border to take the trouble? Will they not have concluded that I was a perfect ‘item’ for money ritual or something to sell to those who may need me for other purposes? If I made it to the Baale’s house, will I get out in one piece or as an independent, bubbling young boy as I did? Will the Baale not have his own design about this boy whose parents were not known at that time?
Even if the Baale wanted to help, will the present way the police react to and handle such cases encourage the man? Out of the fear to avoid any trouble with the police, will the Baale not have rejected to have anything to do with a boy whose parents he did not know? Will the man even take the risk of accommodating a boy who looked innocent but could have been an agent or spy for some robbers or evil doers? Today, will it be difficult to find somebody who will know one or two persons willing to pay some cash to take custody of the boy and ‘use’ him for their own purpose – most likely an evil one? So many questions!
I thank God that incident happened well over 40 years ago. I pray for God’s mercy on the Baale, his good wife, those who took me to his house, the members of the search parties, my parents, aunt and my school girl-sisters. Incidentally, a very good majority of them, I am sure are dead now. Like two of my three sisters. May God bless our country and return her to that era when kindness reign among the citizenry and when we all live like a large community peopled by good neighbors, the time children enjoy protection from all and sundry. These are my birthday wishes.
–– Olaniyonu is Special Adviser to Senate President.