Short. Unkempt. Lanky and Big Bellied. They roam around markets and streets with small plastic or metal bowls moving from car to car and praying, hurrying sentimental people to drop naira notes into their bowls. Some of them move around with cartons on their heads hawking commodities to people stuck in traffic and passers-by. They go out expecting just tens, the twenties and fifties and hundreds (once in a pink moon) but, even these small notes hardly land in their bowls. When they have gathered a little, they go and buy whatever food they can to gather energy to continue hawking – it’s a daily hustle for them and when its night time, they scamper to under bridges and sleep there under the sun and in the rain.
These young men are called the “Princes of the Street” or the “Kings of the Street” or “Church Rats” but the common name everyone knows is Almajiri. These boys range from ages 4 or 5 to 15 from appearance and live their lives on the street with nowhere to lay their heads at night. They are much more common in the North and North Central parts of Nigeria and are a special class of destitute.
Kaunda based photographer Leo Makokolee Owan (@Leo_Owan) took some photos of these Princes of the Streets who weren’t shy of the shutter and Sarauta mag had an interview with him. Here are the photos and the interview.
Tell us, what inspired you to take these shots?
I didn’t go there to shoot them. I was out for a different shoot with friends and I noticed them coming back with plastic plates and torn kaftans. They caught my attention, especially when they had their bath in the water and then started preparing to retire for the day.
I just had to be part of what they were going through. Maybe it was selfish of me to want to get a moment of these young men to remind me of how blessed I am or, it was just the human that I am reaching out to them to be able to tell their story with the only tool I have; my camera.
From what you have heard and seen, what situations have led young men into their situation?
There are many factors that could lead these young boys into the Almajiri system. The popular ones are poverty, family and negligence from the family and government as well.
I’ve heard about parents/guardians who send these children out to beg due to irresponsibility or lack of money to take care of them. But it mostly revolves around poverty and as these children go further in life, they are likely to be abused, or convinced into finding purpose the wrong way by becoming extremists and terrorists.
What do you think is an effective way to remedy this problem of young kids wandering the street?
I believe the government can play a big role in getting these children off the streets by building schools and awarding scholarships.
They can also create job opportunities for their parents and, even some of the kids who have special talents and gifts can be trained. There are NGOs and programs, I believe – that are created to tackle issues like this one. I know that it will be a difficult task to reach out to every single one of them but at least, it will be worth it to see some of these kids – if not all- live a happy and fruitful life.
Considering the Nigerian President’s recent declaration of most Nigerian Youth being lazy and wanting a free life, what would you like to tell the world about these young men who work on the street and other young Nigerians?
I must say I am not happy with what President Buhari said. Especially because there isn’t an official statistic that indicates so. Nigerian youths are hardworking people. I am a youth, I am a hard worker. My friends are hardworking and a whole lot of people I’ve seen and heard of.
Those young men and women in the photos titled Hawkers of Ungwan Rimi go out every morning to sell popcorn and roasted groundnuts. They walk long distances just to make ends meet and instead of turning to cybercrime or robbery, these young men believe their sweat could earn them something and I believe they do earn something.
We have Nigerian youths doing great things in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, IT and agriculture. Etc.
So, I really don’t believe Nigerian youths, in general, are lazy.
What is your message to the Government of Kaduna State and the Federal Government?
The role of youths (employed and unemployed) and their enormous contributions to nation-building can never be overemphasized, especially with Nigeria’s population and position in Africa. Nigeria, with a total population of approximately 174 million, has youths in the age bracket of 15 to 35 years, amounting to over 116 million of its total population. You can’t tell me if you empower this number of people something great won’t come out of it? No.
Unfortunately, 54% of these youths are not meaningfully engaged for the good of the Nigerian economy, and by implication, if they are not building the nation directly, they might be contributing to the setback the country suffers directly or indirectly because they need to put their strength to use somehow. And that’s why we have cybercrime and street begging.
The government should stop seeing the youths as a problem and build on tremendous growth across the board as seen in some foreign nations like China and Germany.
The government should do all she promised before she was elected.
Empower the youth. Start programs that will help the average Nigerian. Put more emphasis on the importance of Agriculture and technology- education in general, and see how Nigeria will bloom. When these kids get exposed to these kinds of things, the street and begging will be deserted. It might take months or years, but at least, it’s a step.
What is your message to private individuals and what can they do to salvage the situation?
I don’t have much to say.
But, go out there. Be human. Love, get exposed, get busy for a good cause with positive intentions. Do it for posterity first, the rest will come.
Get involved, help these kids in whatever way you can afford and never forget to leave someone or a place better than you met them.
Tell us about your work.
Photography to me is art, and what we select is supposed to be important. I don’t want to show you a mixture of good and bad or a slice of life. Art for me reflects a person’s values.
So, I’d say my “work” is whatever is important at that moment, available for my lens to capture. Regardless of what it is.
You can see most of my work on Instagram @leo_owan
The side effects of street hawking cannot be overemphasized. It leads to possible future nefarious acts like Leo has already said. But another interesting side effect is it leads to child mortality and death. According to the FIA Foundation and the Global Burden of Disease, a child in Sub-Saharan Africa is twice as likely to die in a road crash as a child in any other world region, a lot of these street hawking children die in road motor accidents and are forgotten immediately because nobody really takes responsibility for them. A lot of potential human capital and a significant number of younglings belonging to the next generation is lost to the streets.
In an article on “The Conversation” dated September 19 2016, Nzubechukwu Okeke argues that “there is a pressing need to protect children and other young people from being exploited. Evidence shows about 40% of children that hawk on these streets are victims of adult exploitation” She went on further to quote statistics as evidence from the United Nation Convention of the Rights of the Child and then the gospel truth – “Although Nigeria promulgated the Child Rights Act in 2003, it has not been implemented effectively”. Even Nzubechukwu agreed that these street children are at the risk of being hit by a car and also subjected to sexual abuse and low academic performance!
I have listed a lot of risks and I can go on and on but the question now is what do we do? And what is the purpose of this piece?
The purpose of this piece is to call on the Nigerian government to step in like Leo has called out and do something. Placing a ban on street hawking is not a solution but providing an alternate life for these young misfits is a more amiable solution.
And to private individuals, It doesn’t have to always be this way for these young men, so I join Leo to say to everyone reading this especially in the Northern Part of Nigeria, Get Involved and help these kids in any way you can because if you don’t, they are potential dangers to society.
And here are some works from Leo Makokolee Owan (@Leo_Owan on Instagram and Twitter).
Last modified: April 24, 2021