SHAPE, Nigeria — Shovel in, sand out and into the circular metal pan. Eleven-year-old Blessing, Rejoice, 15, and Charity, 24, dig methodically on a riverbank as I watch from atop a path leading down to the water. It’s grueling work, but these girls have to do it to get money for school and supplement their families’ finances in this arid and impoverished village (pronounced shap-AY) on the outskirts of Abuja, just past a well-known hub for car spare parts called Apo Mechanic Village. The work is done mainly by women and children who typically get up in the morning to do chores around the home (wash dishes, sweep, cook) before trekking for 30 minutes to the river bank, where they spend close to the entire day packing sand to be sold to truck drivers for use at construction sites. The hard manual labor enables families to survive in addition to paying school fees. But the distressing sight of children sweating and straining as they pack multiple shovel loads of sand into the heavy metal pans to carry on their heads up the steep path to the trailers is more evidence of the continued existence of modern-day child labor.
Packing sand is a monotonous process. Workers fill two sizes of truck trailers: 10-tire trailers and six-tire trailers. Packing a 10-tire trailer earns 5,000 naira ($14), and a six-tire trailer half that amount. All those packing a trailer share the single sum. Filling a six-tire trailer requires packing around 120 pans a day, and a ten-tire trailer, 240 pans. Typically, workers earn a little over 400 naira for a day’s work.
Most Shape residents are farmers, however, in a town where the majority attains only a primary school-level education. While some of the children speak English, the common language is Gbagyi, a dialect and eponymous tribe with origins in Abuja. The Gbagyi people make up the largest ethnic group in Abuja.
“The first time I packed sand, they had to give me two [IV drips for exhaustion].
The village lacks a school and the nearest primary school, Waru Primary School, requires trekking for 30 minutes. It takes two hours to get to the secondary school along a lonely road dotted with bushes. For those who can afford a motorbike ride, the cost per trip to and from the secondary school is 150 naira, the equivalent of 0.4 cents. But most parents don’t provide that for their children, so many have to walk very long miles to get to and from classes every day.
Fifteen-year-old Rejoice Danjuma, a native of Shape, recently enrolled in secondary school with the help of a local non-governmental organization focused on girls’ education. Her parents are farmers. She had previously been sitting at home for months because they could not afford to pay her school fees. I met Rejoice in her family compound on a Sunday evening, a long bungalow of cement and a tin roof, with green doors and windows. She had just had her hair braided for school and was playing with her friend. Rejoice has four sisters and seven brothers from one father and his four wives. Her mother had gone to another village to get herbal remedies for an illness and her father was at another nearby town on an errand.
Rejoice’s parents completed only primary school in their hometown Orozo, in Abuja. Her eldest brother is 26 years old, elder sister, 20, and her younger brother, 12. Both her eldest brother and sister are married with two children each and live far away. Although her brother completed secondary school before getting married, her elder sister finished only primary school. Rejoice’s step-sister and brother also pack sand after having finished primary school with no money to continue.
At age 15, Rejoice should be in the second year of senior secondary school. However, she completed her primary education only early this year. “Her parents were waiting for her to get big enough to walk to school,” an NGO worker told me. Now her parents have asked her to put her education on hold again because they can’t pay for her studies.
Some 15 million children below the age of 14 take part in various forms of unpaid and paid work. Sand packing and collection is an open business. “Any trailer can come if they have been assigned a job,” said Charity Amos, a 24-year old resident of the neighboring Waru community who has been packing sand since she was 11. Typically, sand piles have already been made before a trailer comes. After the trailer is loaded, the driver pays the packers based on the amount collected. “The children make it easier for the trailer drivers,” said Ayo Adegbola, a community advocate living in Waru. “The drivers have young men whom they pay to pack sand. But because the children want money, they also pack sand.” The competition maintains pressure to work harder. “The first time I packed sand, they had to give me two [intravenous] drips because I got sick,” Charity said.
But according to the Child’s Rights Act (CRA) passed in Nigeria in 2003 and adopted in most states (25 of 36) including the capital, exploitative labor—whereby a child is required to carry or move anything heavy—is illegal and punishable by law. There are other regulations, too, such as the National Policy on Child Labor, which aims to eliminate child labor in Nigeria by 2020. Nigeria has also ratified 40 international labor conventions, including the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on Minimum Age and ILO Convention 138 on Elimination of the Worse Forms of Child Labor. But for 15-year-old Rejoice and her step-siblings, who do not know about the CRA, those laws are as good as non-existent. The states yet to adopt the CRA are in northern Nigeria, where the law is deemed to clash with religious and cultural values.
“To pack the sand is not easy. Even if they give me 10,000 naira ($28) for the six-tire, it will not be enough for me because the work is not easy,” Charity said. However, she and her fellow packers can’t demand higher wages because “when you complain, they will go to another place and pack.”
“There’s no way to get money unless we pack the sand,” she added. “We must pack sand to help our parents.” The work is the only feasible alternative especially for girls who want to go to school. “Even when parents have the money, they would not want to send their daughters to school because they believe she will get corrupted there,” Charity, raising another impediment to education in poor areas.
Charity comes from a family of eight: two boys and four girls, plus her parents. She says she started packing sand because her father was unable and in any case unwilling to pay for her education. She saved enough to attend secondary school, trekking an hour and a half each way daily. However, during her last year of secondary school, her father gave her money to take the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) certification exam—a standardized regional exam every high school graduate must take to get an academic qualification certificate. She failed to pass, but remained determined to further her studies beyond secondary school. So she pursued the next alternative and took the National Examinations Council (NECO) exam—a less-recognized national test—which gained her admission to the College of Education in Minna, Niger state, a two-hour road trip from Abuja. To pay her tuition and school expenses, Charity sold water from a borehole at her father’s house in addition to packing sand and selling a local drink called Kunu—a nutty-tasting milky liquid made from maize—and potatoes. “In Waru, I was the only [young girl] doing business,” she told me.
With her college of education certificate, Charity intends to apply to university if she can be admitted without having passed the WAEC exam. She told me that while she waits for admission, she is seeking someone to loan her 5,000 naira ($7) to begin selling sweet potatoes, a lucrative business in Waru. Having lived in the community for 10 years, Charity believes that the lack of a school and the long trek to another community help keep girls from school. “If we had a secondary school in Waru, maybe most of the girls would go,” she said. Girls are simply not willing to walk the long distance to school the way she did.
I asked Rejoice and Charity what they thought about children having to pack sand in order to help their parents earn money. They are not doing enough to take care of their children, the girls answered. “Parents have to help us to ensure that we are satisfied,” Charity said. ”They should feed us, take care of us and take us to school.” However, “our tribe, they don’t know how to train children well,” she added. “If a girl goes out, her parents will not even ask about her whereabouts.”
Besides packing sand, families in Shape and Waru also engage in farming corn, beans and yams, mostly to feed themselves. Charity recently urged her father to start using his land to farm cassava and fish to sell and generate more income. But local leaders, non-governmental organizations and state governments must do far more to help Nigerians make such decisions to engage in enterprise and otherwise earn more for themselves. Clearly, the community also needs a school. If no action is taken to stop children from being forced into exploitative labor, Nigeria will continue to be locked in cycles that deprive children of their rights to “the best attainable state of physical, mental and spiritual health,” as stated in the CRA, and reinforce the economic and social problems that result from an unhealthy and uneducated population.
Rejoice tells me she does not want to be like her parents. “I want to try my best to make sure I achieve my future,” she said, adding that she hopes to become a doctor because the village lacks one. “I like Shape because it’s my village,” she says. “We’re friendly and we’re one family here.”
2. UNICEF. The Child’s Rights Act. https://www.unicef.org/wcaro/WCARO_Nigeria_Factsheets_CRA.pdf. Accessed: 10/31/2017
3. Bureau of International Labor Affairs. Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports: Nigeria. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/nigeria. Accessed: 10/31/2017
4. International Labour Organization. Ratifications for Nigeria. http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:11200:0::NO::P11200_COUNTRY_ID:103259. Accessed: 10/31/2017