Judith was three years old when her mother had a new baby in 1983. Few months later, mummy was dead from complications arising from child birth. Judith and her twin sister became orphans, having lost their father before the birth of the new baby. Life became a sea of movement from one relation to another. It started with the eldest child of the family who was more or less a baby herself at barely 16 years of age. Thereafter, the journey moved on to an uncle in Lagos who accepted responsibility until Typhoid fever struck. The uncle, not being able to cope with the financial implication of managing this dreadful disease in Lagos, returned Judith and her twin sister back to their village somewhere in Eastern Nigeria. Typhoid was quietly taking its relentless course on the ragged body of Judith when a saviour came in the form of an aunt who happened to be a younger sister to her late mother. Aunt Dorothy was on a home visit from the United Kingdom. Somehow, Aunt Dorothy took an interest in Judith and arranged medical care. Judith got better and thereafter could not resist the offer to accompany Aunt Dorothy to the United Kingdom. Aunt promised to take care of Judith and ensure her education and well being. Some few weeks after Aunt Dorothy had returned to the UK, arrangements were made for Judith to join her. Judith recollected that a woman came down from the UK to take her from Nigeria. It was later explained by Aunt Dorothy that Judith’s journey to the UK was arranged and paid for. Unwittingly for Judith, a journey that promised hope, comfort, support and greater things turned out to be the beginning of a long period of servitude, slavery, despair and hopelessness.
I came across Judith in the aftermath of the publication of “A Child Witch in London”, the story of boy Adam who faced the vicissitudes of life borne out of ignorance, Pentecostal mischief and unscrupulous superstition in his native Nigeria. Someone who read the story felt that the tale of Judith should not escape my attention as her situation is critical. Judith came across as a young woman who in other circumstances would have exhibited a zest for life that would have bothered on infectious and amazing. She came across as friendly and serene but in her serenity lies so many complications and, in her own words, “the zeal for life is almost gone”. Beneath the surface lies the struggle of a single, vulnerable and sad soul for answers to life’s many problems. In her simple mind, questions battle for space about the inhumanity of man to man, even when blood connection is present. Judith has recently begun to see suicide as a possible way out of a legion of problems that seem to have no solution in sight. She has accepted her desperate situation and would appreciate the suggestions and assistance of kind hearted Nigerians out there.
Many years after her arrival in the UK, Judith could look back and see a wasted life. On arrival, her immediate task was to look after her aunt’s two children, the younger one barely 3 years old. Her task included ensuring the welfare of these kids and also taking them to and from school. She cooked for the household which included aunty, husband and children. She, in effect, became the de facto mother to the kids in terms of care and also ensured the general well being and cleanliness of the entire household. As to her numerous requests about when she was to start school, the answer from Aunty Dorothy was usually “soon, soon and soon”. She lived a strictly regimented life with restrictions on her association with people. Interactions with neighbours were not sanctioned and neither did she have the freedom to go out at will, at least until lately. She got used to the routine of getting up at four in the morning to make tea for Aunty Dorothy and husband before turning attention to other household chores. Such was the life she lived for the greater part of 14 years.
She got tired of waiting that after a few years, decided to enrol for a correspondence course. It is important to note that Judith left Nigeria at the age of 15 years when she was just in the second year of a secondary school. She got to the UK with scanty education and this reflected in her performance at the correspondence course. The tutor’s comment usually was: “This candidate would benefit from being physically in a classroom or having a teacher present to attend to her many educational deficits and needs.” Coping with correspondence course was difficult and aunty was least supportive and less interested in ensuring formal education for Judith. So, correspondence course stopped after only two years.
Judith continued with her life of servitude at home. The children were well taken care of and there was an addition to the family. In all, Judith took care of three children for her aunt. The eldest is now 21 years of age and in a university. The youngest being 12 years old. With the children growing up, the three bedroom apartment where the family lived gradually became too small. Something had to give way. Judith also had grown into a young woman, albeit an illiterate in the UK. She was asked to move her bed to a little space underneath the stairway. This became her bedroom and she had to make do by keeping her clothes and other stuff in one of the children’s room. She had been occupying this cramped and unhealthy bedroom for over 10 years. Amongst other things, Judith grew up to appreciate her educational deficiencies and also realise the quagmire she faced in the UK without legal status. At the beginning, her concerns centred on acquiring education and skills. She later realised that these were difficult to acquire in the UK without legal status. Aunty showed absolutely no interest in assisting with processing papers for Judith. As she often told Judith, she did more than enough in bringing her over to the United Kingdom. She reminded Judith, time and again, that her intervention saved Judith from a looming death in Nigeria and as such, Judith should be grateful. She made it clear that education was never part of her agenda for Judith in the UK. She was also unconcerned about assisting to legalise her stay. Not deterred, Judith enrolled and completed a catering course. She also tried, amongst others, to enrol for an access to nursing course. Each time, she was reminded of her status as an unwanted guest of Her Majesty. Even getting a job, any job, has been a nightmare. She bakes cake occasionally and with the occasional menial jobs she was able to do, raise the sum of four hundred pounds. This remains her total life savings.
Judith is now 29 years of age, a fully grown woman who has spent 14 years of her chequered life in the service of the family of her mother’s sibling. She came to the UK an illiterate and still remains an illiterate. She grew up within regimented routines and became a young lady totally lacking in self confidence. Not only this, her lack of formal education also constituted a social hindrance. She still exhibits difficulty in social interactions as a result of the experiences she went through. Judith was also constantly reminded of her illegal status in the UK by the many opportunities denied her and by the many doors closed against her face. She spent the crucial years of her life in servitude to an Aunt who simply saw her as a tool to achieve a goal. The goal was to have a trusted family member to entrust her children to while busy working and procreating. Obviously, it was never part of Aunty Dorothy’s intention to support Judith in acquiring formal education and skills. The issue of legalising her stay, which probably would have been easier around the time she arrived in the UK and just before she turned 16 years of age, was never part of Aunty Dorothy’s plan.
It is not forlorn to surmise that Aunt Dorothy had problems juggling childcare with an active working life in the UK, prior to her fateful visit to Nigeria where she saw the ailing Judith. A
theory that readily comes to mind is this. On arrival in Nigeria, Aunty Dorothy seized up the situation as regards Judith and her twin sister – vulnerable orphans with no one willing to accept responsibility for their well being. They were easy targets for exploitation. Somehow, it was the misfortune of Judith to be selected as the one to follow Dorothy to the UK, probably because she was the ill one at that time. The game plan was simply to obtain a trusted “slave” cheaply. Apparently, the game went awry for Dorothy as she never thought that Judith would stay this long in her house. Being female, the assumption was probably that along the line she would find some man and get pregnant. That way, she would be off their neck. As it is, it never worked out this way. The girl they brought turned out to be docile and subservient and hence, functioned effectively and loyally in the role of the “slave” created for her. Inadvertently, she over-stayed and became a torn in the flesh for Dorothy. And for Judith’s failure to utilise the recent freedom of movement and association granted her to get pregnant, the reaction from Aunty Dorothy and family has been hostility and loads of abuses.
Judith’s twin sister had been wondering about the lack of support from Judith after more than a decade of stay in the UK. Aunt Dorothy had been home on a couple of occasions thereafter with fanciful tales of Judith’s progress, educationally and otherwise in UK. She spurned lies and lies to cover up her mistreatment of the little orphan she took from Nigeria. Dorothy also did not forget to warn Judith of the dire consequences of relating the true situation to people at home. The light only shone recently when Judith decided that enough was enough. She compared her situation to that of her twin sister. True, life had not been a bed of roses to the twin sister, but she had managed to complete secondary school. And at 29 years, was just in the first year of a polytechnic education. At least, she is gradually shaking off the shackles of illiteracy.
Child Trafficking is a recognised growing problem in the UK such that legislation has been enacted criminalising this practice. It remains a hidden practice and this has made it difficult to have an accurate figure of the number of victims. The scale of the problem is massive and confounding and estimates have it that over 1 million African children are victims of trafficking and exploitation within Africa itself. Most of the trafficked children are street children or orphans; uncared for children living in abject poverty. The other reality is that trafficking is often done by someone the children know, either in the community or within the family. In Europe, the trafficked children are subjected to either a life of servitude, sexual exploitation, forced labour or benefit fraud. The children go through deprivation, loss of identity, physical punishment, mental and emotional torture. In the words of AFRUCA (a UK-based charity committed to assisting children facing all forms of exploitation in UK), “by our own actions, as Africans, we are helping to create a growing underclass of marginalised and disaffected young Africans whose lives have been blighted by the activities of fellow Africans in the UK. This also means we are helping to propagate suffering and poverty amongst fellow Africans in the country.”
The story of Judith is just the tip of an iceberg in the numerous tales of Nigerian children clandestinely trafficked to the UK. Many end up as maids and slaves to some conscienceless Nigerians. The hope and freedom which the British society offer are usually denied these kids and their lives end up as nothing but miseries and sorrows. For those struggling parents in Nigeria who would readily give up their children to some uncles and aunts, a lesson may be learnt from the Judith story. However, for orphans like Judith, their situation is openly exploited by the society we have created for ourselves. A society where survival is that of the fittest, where not one government has ever contemplated a social system that would take care of the less privileged in our midst. Yet our country is wealthy but stupendous amount of money takes flight on the wings of corruption, graft and sundry vices yearly.
What is the way forward for Judith? How can she put hope and meaning to a life that seems almost ended even at 29 years of age? For those who understand the British society, the import of living as an illegal immigrant is better understood. Could returning home be considered a better option in her case? The situation is as baffling as Judith is as depressed and in despair. Organisations like AFRUCA help trafficked children in the UK, the point is that they help children, would an “adult” like Judith meet the criteria? Really, for a life where hope seems a mirage, could there be a way out? Judith had nothing to return to in Nigeria. Education that could probably be an asset in Nigeria, she is bereft of. What really is the way out?