She sat clutching four-year-old Miracle to her bosom. With that hand six months ago, Comfort, 25, almost buried her first child, Godin, now six.
Godin had been down on Typhoid fever but all Comfort and her husband could do to manage the situation was feed him with paracetamol – what they could afford. Godin survived but the ailment kept reoccurring.
The setting is a room apartment in Debojo, Ibeju Lekki Local Government Area of Lagos State. Outside the apartment, the chants of other children, excited by the goodies of Eid-al-Fitr, could be heard blaring; but Godin and Miracle, Comfort’s divine gifts now almost turning into her curse, dare not join in the merriment.
Before the arrival of this reporter, they were lying on a bug-infested bed; sick, looking skinny, weak and hungry.
“Please help me, my children need food,” Comfort pleaded teary-eyed. “If I cook for them in the morning, before they will see another food, it’s till the next morning. Just as they are now, I have fed them twice today. They ate tuwo (local delicacy) in the morning and tuwo again in the afternoon. That’s it for the day, they won’t eat anything again.”
Two meals for the family do not come frequently; and only days of celebrations such as when Muslim neighbours mark the end of the Ramadan fast could they access such, as gifts.
Flash back to three years ago. Comfort and her two children fed well and enjoyed the bounty of a peaceful agrarian community of Auno, a village some 24 km east of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
The villagers had been warned of an imminent attack by the Boko Haram, but they paid little heed; until one night when horror struck.
When the dust settled the next day, Comfort, her two children and a few others who were lucky to escape the onslaught found themselves in the bush. For the next three days, none would taste food, she said.
“We ran into the bush when they came. We didn’t know where we were going but just wanted to escape from the terrorists. We didn’t eat anything throughout, but God kept us,” she said recalling the experience.
That incident kick-started her journey to Lagos where her husband, Moses, has been working as a commercial motorcyclist since running away from village, to escape capture by terrorists, early 2015.
But this move turned out for the worse. Since her arrival, the family could only afford to feed on one meal per day, rarely two and never three. Their meals are either rice, beans or garri.
Malnutrition is carving an indelible mark in the lives of her children as they have become susceptible to illnesses and diseases. On this day, both of them had high temperature and coughed at intervals while the interview with their mum lasted.
They are obviously sick but Comfort believes the sickness would not be cured by paracetamol she miraculously used in reviving Godin months ago.
“There is no money to feed these children. It is when his brothers (referring to his husband) come that they use to give us small money. Sometimes, they bring garri for us.
“My children are sick because of this condition. Sometimes after eating they will tell me mummy, I’m not satisfied. Both have been sick for a month. There is no money to take them to hospital.”
Her predicament could be understood, her husband has been unemployed for up to five months.
Debojo, a beach town few kilometres to the all-important Lekki Free Trade Zone was bubbling with life on Friday, June 15, when this reporter visited. It was Sallah Day. The community is one of those harbouring thousands of Boko Haram evictees.
Soon, the first private free trade zone in Nigeria and the biggest in West Africa, is expected to spring up at the zone with facilities such as airport, land and sea ports, largest oil refinery in Africa, a fertiliser plant, petrochemical plant, a sub-sea gas pipeline project among others.
The free trade zone would turn out to be a picture perfect of what Lagos State Governor, Akinwumi Ambode, and his predecessors conceived, for the state, whose internal revenue dwarfs that of all other Nigerian states.
Blighting this picture however, is a community of the wretched, sick and hungry. Debojo is just a stone-throw from the Lekki Free Trade Zone.
The community houses about 800 families, many of who were forced to relocate from either Borno, Adamawa or Yobe – three states most affected by the activities of Boko Haram in the North-eastern part of the country.
Over two million people have been displaced from their homes since the Boko Haram insurgency started in 2009.
A few took residence in established camps, most of which are in and around Maiduguri. Others sought refuge in neighbouring states and Abuja. Some in neighbouring countries like Niger Republic and Cameroon. Others preferred to go far away, to places like Lagos, to start a new life.
Debojo hosts one of the largest concentration of IDPs in Lagos.
Rhoda Ibrahim is one of those who ‘escaped’ to Lagos in search of survival. She resides in a room apartment on number 27 Debojo Street, Ibeju Lekki.
Chibok is mostly known for an attack launched by the Boko Haram sect on the night of 14 to 15 April, 2014, where 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town. About 100 of the girls are still believed to be with their abductors.
One month after settling down in Lagos, her husband, involved in illegal oil bunkering, died in mysterious circumstance which she safely chooses to tag accident.
Since her husband died in April 2015, a month after he set up a provision shop for her, she has been living on the goodwill of good Samaritans.
“If you are talking about food, then these children are no longer my children. It is people that are helping me to feed them. They eat once or twice in a day. Rice in the morning and garri in the afternoon. I love my children but I don’t know any possible way to cater for them. I want people to help me before hunger kills them,” she said pointing to the hopelessness of an empty shop.
The situation has forced Rhoda to part with her first child, Hannatu, 15, who is currently under the care of a church. Also heeding the advice of relatives, Rhoda in January enrolled her second child, Jacob, 13, in a vulcaniser’s shop.
She is left with Ruth, 10, Ladi, 4 and Joy, 4, all whom are out of school, to cater for. Rhoda was afraid her woes may be compounded soon as Joy is currently sick and has not been taking enough food.
“This one, she’s not well as you see her (pointing to Joy).” Asked if the child was taken for medication, Rhoda replied in the negative. “With this condition? How will I take her to hospital when they haven’t eaten?” she snapped.
Beyond a medical diagnosis, frequent and timely plates of good food, coupled with vitamins intake could change the narrative of the family for the better. “Our problem is food. My children are suffering. I don’t want them to die. There is land for us to farm back home but we dare not go back now.”
In 2017, the United Nations Children Funds (UNICEF) declared that about 11 million children in Nigeria are suffering from acute malnutrition, with the North-east and North-west regions among the worst hit.
This data was corroborated by Countrymeters.info which raised the alarm that 13 per cent of these 11 million risk becoming mentally deformed in adulthood, due to nutrient deprivation, particularly lack of iodine in the diet.
This situation seems not to have changed, especially with the continuation of the insurgency in the region, displacement due to farmers/herders clashes in the north central, natural disasters and other internal struggles.
Nigeria is home to the highest number of stunted children in the continent and ranks third globally with about 11 million stunted children. Nigeria is also one of six countries that accounts for half of all child deaths worldwide, with one million children under five dying every year. Malnutrition contributes to over one-third (35 per cent) of those deaths.
In medical terms, malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t get enough nutrients. Causes include a poor diet, digestive conditions or another disease.
Malnutrition in Nigeria is a long standing problem which has persisted since the 1960s and whose magnitude is on the increase.
This is because food consumption, both in quality and quantity, has decreased appreciably. But the menace grew more wings in recent times, no thanks to displacement of Nigerians from their original homes, prompted by insurgency, natural disasters and sometimes, government policies.
About two kilometres to the Kirikiri Prison lies a Hausa-community bubbling with life – the Happy Home Avenue, an IDPs camp. The camp is home to hundreds of victims of Boko Haram who fled from the insurgency. Their stories are similar to that of Debojo IDPs, but they live in more precarious situation.
The camp was established in 2012 through the intervention of one of the Serikis (chiefs) of Arewa Chief Council, Sarki Gambo of Amuwo Odofin. The Nigerian Navy, which owns the land, put it in care of Mr Gambo who in turn allowed his kinsmen from Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states to settle on the expanse. The camp had about 500 houses. And even though most of the women were jobless, their husbands, who either drove bikes or worked as security guards, provided for the families.
The number of IDPs grew beyond control forcing the Nigerian Navy to force them out of the land. “We used to have about 500 shelters in the camp but when Navy came to ‘scatter’ them, most of them have scattered. What happened was that many people started coming to the camp whether they were from Boko Haram zones or not. This led to over-population to the discomfort of the Navy,” Bamaiyi Papka, the Baale (head) of Happy Home, an indigene of Madagali Local Government, Adamawa State, said.
After the dispersion, some of the IDPs sought accommodation in far areas but majority still remain, inside the land expanse, at the entrance and nearby communities. As life became tougher for many parents, the children were forced to seek food from any means possible. Sometimes, they scavenge on rubbish piles and in easiest of cases, they spend the whole day at Mr Papka’s Indomie shop.
On this day, the children, numbering seven, sat waiting for customers. They feed on remnants of noodles consumed at Mr Papka’s shop. “We have many of them here. When a customer is through with the meal, the remnant is their own source of livelihood. Like this morning now, if you buy food and it remains, they will wait for you with the intent of helping you pack the plate. After eating, they will clean the plate with their mouth.”
Mr Papka said there are many vulnerable families in the area, most of who need urgent assistance to feed. One of such is Titi Joshua, a mother of two, who feeds herself and children on ‘N200 or N300 per day.’
Mrs Titi left Madagali in 2016 when her village almost became empty after others left due to repeated Boko Haram attacks. Now in Lagos, she feeds her family on the proceeds of Kunu (local drink) and chin-chin. Breakfast is constant as the family feeds on pap but lunch comes at different times, with different conditions or never come.
“In the morning I used to give him pap. In the afternoon, if, I sell, I will buy him N50 rice. If there’s no money, then no food. “Our feeding depends on what I get from sales. But generally, I spend like N200 or N300 on food for the three of us in a day,” she said.