By Jude Atupulazi
It was a cold December night around 9 O'clock in the night. I was just through with work at the office and wanted to eat dinner at a popular restaurant in Awka when I beheld this child of about nine years sleeping at the entrance of the restaurant. Beside him was a tray of oranges that he sold. My attention immediately went to him and I stopped to regard him closely. He was sitting with his legs bent in a triangle to support his head as he slept in the shivering harmattan cold. My heart went out to him. I imagined myself in his place, staying late into the night and selling oranges for ''an aunty'' that may never appreciate my efforts. Mind you, I hadn't spoken to him then but my instincts told me he was not staying with his real parents. Which real parents, I thought, would allow their child to stay late into the night?
But first, I decided to go in and eat first. After that, I returned to him and found him still asleep.
It was then that I woke him with a tap on the bowed head. I asked him why he stayed out that late. He said his aunty had ordered him not to return if he did not finish selling all the oranges. He said it was a regular order which he dared not disobey.
I then decided to buy up all the remaining oranges. But I hadn't enough money to pay for them as the remaining money was in my car. I asked him to follow me to the car which I parked inside St Joseph the Worker Catholic Chaplaincy premises. It occurred to me as he followed me that if I was one of those people who kidnapped children for ritual or for trafficking, it would have been easy for me to do so to him.
This revealed to me the danger the boy and others like him faced as they strove to carry out the orders of all the ''Shes who must be obeyed''.
As we got to my car and I had paid him, I learnt that he went to school. I was at least happy that he did so. But still, the dangers he and those of his ilk faced as they operated late into the night niggled at my conscience. I told him if he knew the danger of staying late and he surprisingly said he did. I then advised him to be careful how he followed people, especially to lonely spots.
But even though I bailed him out that night, I knew that I would not be able to do so the next night. This gave me a pain.
Yes, the pain I felt is what many people with good conscience feel each time they read, see or hear about children being maltreated by wicked guardians, popularly known here as aunties. Indeed, these aunties seem to be aunties from hell, the way they maltreat kids under their care.
So many stories have been told about such treatment. Years ago, there was a kid that was thrown down from a three-story building in Enugu by her angry aunty. In Onitsha, an aunty was said to have put her maid inside an empty water tank and locked it. Others have forced their maids to eat their own excreta. This is not forgetting those that bathe their house helps with hot water.
Just a few weeks ago, the social media went viral with the video of a woman beating her maid in a car. People watched the video with horror as she dragged the poor kid from the car, lifted her and threw her on the ground. What could have the child done to deserve such cruel and beastly treatment? Of course when the beast of a woman was arrested later, she burst into the normal tears many like her use to cover up and appeal to sentiments.
In all of this, you ask yourself where those aunties kept their conscience. Mind you, the majority of the culprits are women, being that they mostly stay at home longer and spend more time with the kids and house helps. But it is not as if the men are left out entirely. Stories abound about men who have carnal knowledge of their maids. So it seems there is no way out for the poor kids.
There are, of course, many more horrible stuff that happen without people knowing. Stuff like the day a woman who lived with us in the same yard in Enugu commandeered her maid to go to the market naked just because she came in and found her hiding behind the door to dress up after taking bath. Meanwhile that girl that was told to go to the market naked had reached the age of puberty!
It is common knowledge that hardship causes parents to send their kids out to live with others. If not for this, how would anyone decide to part with their kids? Granted, in the past some parents who were well able to cater for their kids often sent some of their stubborn or playful kids to live with uncles or other relations who had reputations for discipline. Even though they were no more living with them, the parents still paid their kids' tuition while they lived with their uncles or other relations. The watch word was just discipline. It is much the same as today's practice where parents send their wards to the seminary, not to be priests, but to be well moulded.
Such kids, well aware of the motive behind their fate, were and are ready to accept anything and bear it stoically. But even at that, their mentors mostly treated them as they treated their own kids. It is not the same as what we see today, and sadly so.
Now, once you see a family on an outing, you could easily recognize who the house help is. They are usually dressed shabbily and look as if they are reluctant to smile and laugh with the anointed kids of the family. They are the ones that do all the house chores that include cooking, washing plates and clothes of even the grown up children of the household. They go to market and despite doing the cooking, invariably eat last. Sometimes, because of some rules of the house they breach, they can go to bed without food and they are always the last to sleep. They also often miss school.
Yet, these women who treat them this way are the first to go to church on Sundays and sing, clap and dance like they are already in heaven. You see them at many crusades too.
What such viragos go to church to do after treating their maids like animals beats me. Such women can be found in virtually every street but often neighbours keep silent for fear of being accused of unsolicited interference.
But with the way things are going, everybody will do well by exposing such monsters to the appropriate authorities which include the police and welfare departments in local government secretariats. It is no longer sufficient to stand and watch or merely condemn without taking action.
Government, for its part, should throw open lines of communication to members of the public who may like to report such cases. And when such cases are reported, appropriate action must be taken against such mothers of fathers.
Many of the kids selling ''pure water'', oranges and other food items on the roadside fall into the category of the abused. Government or police can randomly pick some of them and interview them on the circumstances in their families. I bet that, this way, a lot of worms will be let out of the can.
There's no reason why in this era of child trafficking, kidnappings and ritual killings, kids should be made to stay late into the night because their madams want them to exhaust what they sell before returning home. We can begin with such kids when we see them at night. It is my bet that once society begins to show more concern to the plights of children like this, the incidence of child abuse will begin to abate.
It is time our people learned to appreciate humanity and treat others like human beings. If not for anything, we should treat those under our watch who are not our biological children well because of God.
We should all help to wipe the tears shed by abused children and make them believe that we still care.