Day 8: Listening to children…
Off to Basic Rights Counsel this morning to meet with some of the children James and his team have supported.
On the way, we pick up Promise- I'm aware of her horrific background but don't want this to be the focus. We make small talk about her school, favourite subjects and I show her some pictures from home. We start laughing about the weather at home and show her pictures of snowy England.
She's fascinated by a video of my children's nativity play. I'd love to link children at school in the UK with children and schools here, it would be so enriching…one for the future I think.
We do some great workshops with the children; they were really engaged with the activities and have given us plenty to reflect on. I'm struck by their strength: each child has a story that is beyond comprehension.
Multiple rape, sexual violence, violent abuse, burnt, beaten, accused of witchcraft and abandoned to live on the streets. Later James shows me photos of the injuries one boy sustained during his violent, traumatic abuse. They are deeply, deeply shocking.
I wonder how the children live with the emotional scars long after the physical ones have healed. There are no mental health services here and it's one of the things we want to develop in the SAFEChild centre and are in dialogue with the Minister of Health about how this can happen.
The resilience of the children shines through in everything they do. One of the exercises asks the children what they would change or do if they were the Governor in charge.
Almost all of them describe wanting free education: they recognise the importance of going to school regularly and see this as a way out of poverty and abuse. They are also angry that despite government claims that schooling is free, it isn't.
The fact that state schools don't charge formal fees means nothing: parents and carers are expected to pay informal fees as many teachers are not paid their salaries. Books, uniforms and shoes cost a great deal of money; without them, you can't attend.
Some schools even charge for the use of furniture such as desks and chairs.
We do an exercise later on which turns out to be immensely moving for me: when asked to draw the 'perfect home' and list its contents, nearly all list family or friends amongst their priorities.
It reminds me of my home and how much I miss my own family.
After we've said goodbye to the children and their parents we look through photos of our campaigns with James and Esther from SYDRI. I see the first child rights march we helped organise.
Even after the child rights law was enacted these children felt they needed to demonstrate as they were not being protected from harm and abuse: it's amazing to think we were a part of that happening.
Later on we visit Pandrillus (www.pandrillus.org) who have a 30 year history of working in the local rain forest to protect drill monkeys that only exist here. It's a bleak time- the only other NGO working with endangered primates in the area is in the process of closing. The state environmental committee has been closed down and things are ominous for the very special habitat and communities living in delicate balance with this unique environment.
Suspected illegal logging activity has been reported and farms and communities towards the border with Cameroon are being destroyed.
The founder makes a comment: "Nigeria has great laws- if only someone would enact them…"
It strikes me hard; it's exactly the same issue with the Child Rights law. It's all very well to have it but it's useless in practice and certainly isn't keeping children safe from harm.
As we found out this week, the law is in the library at the Ministry of Justice - the same room we had our meeting in. Nobody has a copy, even our lawyer and partner James can't get a copy and uses photocopies that are becoming more and more difficult to read.
I've been given the link to petitions asking the Nigerian government to intervene: once lost this habitat will never come back: I'd urge you to please look at these and sign them.
We go down to the river later and visit the museum housed in a crumbling colonial building.
This historical part of Calabar has some uncomfortable reminders of our history.
The slave museum is housed next to the river and contains some fascinating artefacts. It tells the story of the brutal slave trade and its impact on this part of West Africa. Calabar was the centre of this trade for many years.
Esther hasn't been here before and later tells us the story of a recent meeting between descendants of slaves in the USA and local Nigerians whose ancestors helped the traders.
The meeting was held to acknowledge their joint histories and put the past to bed. It's an approach I've heard time and Africa, healing instead of recrimination.
It's a poignant end to our time Calabar. We're moving on to Uyo tomorrow morning and won't be coming back this way. It's been a moving and very emotional experience.
I've met inspirational people: our partners and those incredible children. I'm determined to do more and my head is spinning with ideas. I want us to get the SAFEChild centre up and running now: every day I've seen children hawking goods, living on the streets without homes or education, vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and exploitation.
We've got to continue making a difference and with your support we can.
It's time for emotional farewells now at James's office.
At least I make Esther happy as I give her the laptop we've promised. It will save her travelling an hour each way from her home to the centre to answer emails and make reports. It's a small thing but I have seen the difference it will make to her daily life.
I'll miss Calabar but excited by travelling to Uyo tomorrow: another destination and my first road trip through the rural Niger Delta!