Betty Abah has many feathers to her cap: a journalist, writer, feminist, child rights activist, charity worker and champion for the empowerment of the underprivileged. In this revealing interview, the founder of the Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE) provides the answer to what could possibly be a slum’s best gift.
You started in journalism and have had a varied career. What made you decide to start Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE Nigeria) and how did you decide to focus on children’s rights and welfare?
I’ve always worked with children. At the age of 14, I started a Bible Club for my neighbourhood back home in Benue State. In university, I started a university chapter with women journalists and even in secondary school, I started a young girls’ club for prayers, motivation and such like. I have always mobilized young people. When I got into journalism, I wrote about children’s issues. When I left journalism after returning from the US, I wanted to be a part of the activities rather than just writing about the issues. I wanted to take a stand.
I was heading the women’s desk at Environmental Rights Action, coordinating the women affected by violence in the Niger Delta and also regions in Ghana and Togo, among others. I realized that women were not visible. I discovered that although children are always adversely affected in areas of violence or conflict and, sometimes, even more so, not much is being said about them. I became very bothered. I found myself always talking to the children when I went into these communities, taking pictures and relating with them. I’ve always been drawn to children. Maybe God saw all that because my starting CEE-HOPE was not deliberate. Working with children was on the side along with my main job with women.
But on a trip to Ghana in 2010, I had a strong and direct revelation from God to work with children, to reach out to children that were traumatized, desolate and neglected. When I came home, I thought it was one of those things and that I would continue engaging with children as before, but the burden of that revelation never left. By this time also, Boko Haram had started impacting on children in the north. Girls were being abducted, boys were being forced to be Boko Haram foot soldiers. I believe these are the things that God saw and wanted me to take a more proactive step.
In December 2013, I started CEE-HOPE officially. We had a very big party for about 700 children from seven slums across Lagos, those from the abandoned or marginalized communities. The party was huge and even organizing it almost overwhelmed us. From that point, we started working with these communities, starting with mentoring classes and offering scholarships.
For a long time, I could not articulate my vision, just that God wanted me to work with children. Then the programmes started to take shape.
Getting into the slums, I was stunned at the levels of poverty and the fact that government had little or no presence. Any references made about these communities was mostly negative. They were called criminals or drug dealers, said to have high levels of teenage pregnancies and mainly painted in a very dark light from the rest of society. These children grow up to be criminalized because they have seen that the world doesn’t care about them. Why bother? They are conditioned to stray very early and not encouraged to be educated. We talk about Universal Basic Education, but no one is enforcing it. These children grow up with no sense of responsibility and these things are quite preventable. They are not born to stray and be a menace to society. It is because society has ignored them. Government has abandoned its role of caring for young people.
We had a number of scholarships because, from advice, we realized that it was not only about talking to the children, we have to empower them educationally. So we started a scholarship and also a girls’ club. We got some support from a US group that has enabled us to empower the girls in various ways. Just two years down the line, many of them are standing on their own.
You are based in Lagos, do you reach out in any other regions?
Yes, we mostly have a presence in Lagos but we have a skeletal but growing presence in Plateau State for education, Ogun State with a focus on empowerment, and recently Benue.
How did you raise the initial funding to start?
When I started, funding was from my salary as I was still working. Other funding was mostly from individuals. I was really encouraged. The support from so many spurred me on: Nigerians in Spain and in the US. We have a particular Nigerian in Canada who sends us funds every month to support programmes for the children. Courtesy of him, we have increased the number of children in Jos that we support to 15 this year. Most of them are orphans of Boko Haram or the crisis in Jos. They are from what we call ultra-poor families. It is really, really fulfilling to see the growth. However, because we are limited by scant resources, we are almost overwhelmed by the issues on ground and by the needs. I wish we had more resources to do more work because there is just so much.
Children normally should be entitled to some sort of welfare but some of these children are in dire straits. They have nowhere to turn. In other countries, government is there as a fallback but our government doesn’t care. To make matters worse, many of these slum dwellers live in constant fear of eviction. Just like what happened recently in a Lagos slum. They sent riot police there. I’m still not recovered from the shock. We have some young women who we had empowered who lived there, so I was called when it happened. I went there and I was depressed for days after: gunshots at 1am and police manhandling them and telling them to leave, etc.
There are so many of these communities. Government doesn’t care that the children need to go to school and be fed so that they can grow up normally. They just don’t care. Not only are the people in these communities struggling to survive, they are also living with the axe of demolition over their heads. I’m asking, is shelter no longer a basic human right? Is the government not mandated to provide shelter for its people? If you cannot provide, why can’t you leave them alone? If you believe the slums are an eyesore, you have a constitutional responsibility to improve it because Nigeria is signatory to the UN policies and procedures governing all of this. If there are slums, you upgrade the slums. Where the land is needed, you compensate the communities. Because of the large population, Lagos State gets a large federal allocation for this. What is the state’s responsibility to those on whose behalf they get it?
One of the things we are trying to do is to mentor these children so they don’t grow up with anger. See what is happening in the Niger Delta region; what we have with Boko Haram. When youths become angry, they take out their frustration on the rest of society. They then sometimes end up as collateral damage, for example, those youths being killed for belonging to Boko Haram. This was quite preventable if government had provided education to those in the north; not just announce but enforce it. Because many are not educated, the Boko Haram leaders exploit their ignorance. These youths have no alternative news and end up losing their lives. It is the same in the Niger Delta. They are vandalizing because they are angry. You see young people getting up and rising against the system, and it is very preventable. The so-called militants are killed off because they are seen as enemies of the state. It is the same in the slums. There are so many people. As long as you do not mentor them, nurture them or show them a sense of love, there is foundation for problems. It won’t be a huge cost to Lagos State to start some youth programmes in the slums. We have over 500 slums in Lagos and we are only working in seven.
Is part of your work at CEE-HOPE Nigeria to advise and engage with government?
For now, we engage with the young people and try to fill the gap where government, in our view, has failed. We put them in schools, provide them with skills and when there are issues, we raise them with government. We put up press releases, like when there was the demolition and it affected so many of the children. They were out of school. In fact, Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children, and these are the issues that we raise. Just as with the rape cases in Ikorodu, government response was not encouraging. We raise these issues from time to time but we are focused on vulnerable children. Part of our mission statement is to engage the children and, where necessary, the system on their behalf. You can’t but talk to government because the biggest resources are there and the actual overriding responsibility to take care. Ours is a supporting role to fill in the gap where they have failed. For instance, in the last couple of years, Lagos State has given us cause for concern. Part of the reason why we are so active is that government has failed to take care of the urban people. Rather than take care of them, they are persecuting them and making it more difficult for them by their policies. You ban street traders but do not provide an alternative. Rather than use force, use intelligence. In my view, government has been guilty of crass insensitivity in handling these communities. They generalize and criminalize everyone.
What are your views on the whole issue of the abduction of the Chibok girls and government’s response?
It is just incredible. Over two hundred girls abducted just like that. The reaction of government was also unbelievable. The crisis was badly handled. I think their focus was more on the politics and re-election than the Chibok girls. It is just scandalous. It opened up another vista of advocacy for us. It is still one of the things that we do. This year, we made a short documentary to mark the second anniversary of their abduction. Thank God that the rest of the world got to hear and we have heard of the release of some of the girls. Government didn’t react in the best way. If they had, we would have had the girls back long ago and had fewer casualties. It was a bad case in the history of Nigeria.
How many workers do you employ?
Presently, there are three permanent members of staff but close to 50 volunteers. Our work is mostly volunteer-driven because of the enormity of the work and limited resources.
You must have envisaged some challenges upon starting out but have they been as expected?
Yes there are a lot of challenges. Even in Makoko, we face them because, despite everyone’s efforts, some people will still view us with suspicion. But I sleep every night knowing that God is happy with what I am doing; that because of our work, children in four states wake up every morning and where before they had no hope, now they see hope and their future is more certain. It is fulfilling in that sense, so when I see challenges, I decide consciously to focus on the success stories rather than the challenges.
Apart from trying to gain people’s trust and deal with their suspicion which, as I said, I don’t waste energy on because it is just a small fraction of people and I focus on the positive, there is the fact that sometimes those that we work so hard to assist do not really appreciate it or the plans to improve their lives. This year, two cases got me really depressed. We have a teenage club part of which focus is rehabilitation. There was a pregnant teenager whose life we felt was at risk and we placed her in a rehabilitation centre, only for her to run away. Apparently, some of her family members were saying that we couldn’t really just want to help her, that perhaps we wanted her baby for a reason. They felt that we had collected funds from government on her behalf. That is the unfortunate ignorance. The other case was also a pregnant teenager who was not even aware that she was pregnant. She had been left with hardly any money and dumped at the motor park. After much resources and time were spent on her, she also ran away. I sincerely hope all is well with her wherever she is. It can be discouraging when things like this happen because that time could have been spent on another needy individual. But then we see cases where God has really helped us to transform lives and that is good news.
Are you generally well received within the communities or treated with suspicion?
My first visit to Makoko was in 2012. I had not formally started CEE-HOPE. I was carrying out my postgraduate studies at UNILAG and heard that Makoko was to be demolished by the
Fashola government. It was a terrible sight. I started a media advocacy campaign. It wasn’t only me; I just added my voice to that of many other organizations which were also engaging government and I am happy to say that the demolition was halted. So after that, there was a particular time that I addressed the community and educated them on what the law says about demolition. Government has a responsibility to provide an alternative. We really engaged and that built confidence and trust. We have gone in there and put children on scholarship and I believe their families are happy because they can see that these things do not come with any strings attached.
We have a foundation called the Nnimmo Bassey Educational Trust Fund named after the Nigerian environmentalist activist. He attended our recent conference on children and climate change and it was a huge privilege to have him come to Makoko. He met the chiefs and gave out scholarships. The chiefs told him that they were happy with the work that we are doing in their community. These chiefs are very powerful within their communities and it is always good to gain their backing and trust. They have been very supportive.
Makoko is the biggest slum in Nigeria, West Africa. A lot of NGOs work there and some get a lot of funding for this. Over time, some of the dwellers have become weary of NGOs. When you initially go there, they tend to think it’s one of those many saying the same thing so I made up my mind that we wouldn’t just concentrate on advocacy, but on the overriding need in these communities, and that is education. You can talk and talk and fight government forever but what permanent change can you bring about in the community? I always tell young people that in life, after God it is education. It is not about your family background or how beautiful you look. Once you are educated, you can go anywhere in the world. I am a living example. My father was a farmer but I have lived and worked in the US, visited numerous countries and had the privilege of interviewing former US president, Jimmy Carter. It is not because of anything else but the fact that God has kept me alive and that I am educated. With education comes a lot of opportunities. A lot of doors open before you. One of the most useful things that can be done in any slum in Nigeria is to get the children educated. When they are educated, nothing says that they should stay in the slum forever. They also have the gain the ability to improve their communities.
Would you say that the work you do is fulfilling? Where do you get your motivation?
It is very fulfilling but sometimes depressing. The long term effects on society – where these people are ignored – is huge. Also look at the pool of talent lying fallow and unexplored in these communities. We’ve just shot a documentary with over 80% of the cast drawn from Makoko community where we have most of our programmes. There were so many talented young people: singers, dancers, writers and dramatists. I am happy that we have a number of support, especially from individuals. Nigerians both here and abroad have lent their support. It hasn’t always been easy but I believe God is really listening. When I think of the children who, in a few years’ time, will look forward to a life of hope and we have been able to empower them, I’m not sure there is anything more fulfilling than that; nothing, absolutely nothing. Even if it is just one person, that counts for me. My motivation is from God.
Do you see a positive change since you have been actively involved in fighting for the rights and welfare of vulnerable Nigerian children?
Yes, yes. There are more success stories than not. There are just a few instances of discouragement. At the conference that I mentioned, we had about 180 children, most of whom were from the slums. It was really fulfilling to see the children sitting with a global icon like Nnimmo Bassey. That’s a big endorsement of our work. Earlier this year, Wikipedia listed us as one of the Nigerian NGOs that they would like to promote. They have uploaded a lot of our material. That is a big investment in us, at just over two years old. Some of these positive outcomes really overshadow every discouragement or occasional setback. Wikipedia has about 50 million daily views, so imagine the potential reach. When they came on board, it was like a miracle. They heard about us from a radio programme and out of the five times that I had been on the programme, the only time I was asked to give my number on air was the day they were listening in. I always say that it is better to engage the young people and spread acts of love around them than to leave them to be radicalized and then roll armoured tanks into their communities. That’s medicine after death – it is so damaging. These children are so open to love and so impressionable. I remember so well the people that visited my schools then and even university all those years ago and I still sit down and recollect their comments. These things shape our lives.
Tell us briefly about your new documentary film, RUN.
RUN is my first attempt at film making actually, and I am amazed at the reception we have received so far. It is a 25-minute, low-budget docu-drama dealing with the issue of child marriage in Nigeria, and virtually every area in Nigeria faces that to certain extents, and not just the North. About 98 per cent of the cast is drawn from Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest slum community where we have our largest programmes and also our biggest girls’ club, the Girls-Go-for-Greatness (Triple G). The story is woven around a girl forced into marriage by her father at 13, her inability to cope with the complexities of marriage and family life at such a young age, she runs away, has her baby , and re-joins her mates in school. Then the next part deals with expert interviews and statistical evidence on how early marriage hampers a girl, a family and indeed, a society’s progress. The viewership on YouTube is encouraging and we are also delighted that Wikipedia (which has chosen CEE-HOPE as one of the NGOs to promote in Nigeria as part of it ‘Wiki Loves Women’ project) has uploaded it online. It’s a great privilege for us as it has encouraged us to look at the possibility of working more on utilising various creative media to pass our messages around, beyond conferences and seminars. RUN has been a great experience for us.
Who are the people that you admire or that inspire you?
My father used to treat people and, many times, for free. I admire him for the activism that he practised. He always stood by people. I grew up hearing about my father fighting for people’s rights and that really inspired me. Maybe it is a natural thing. Even as a child, I was always thinking of solving challenges on behalf of others. He did so much for the community and not for any financial gain or award. He was a selfless man, yet he was always so happy.
My mother was someone who was very quiet, very unassuming but highly principled. She imbued in us the spirit of honesty. She always told us never to take what was not ours and that stayed with my siblings and me. Once she made up her mind about something, she would go for it but was never flamboyant. So my parents had a very great influence on me.
My paternal grandmother was also an inspiration. She was a very radical, unconventional and determined woman; very outspoken and articulate. I always say that I am sad that she didn’t live in our age. She would have been the most successful comedian in Nigeria because she had such a rich sense of humour. She had a way of creating humour out of ordinary things. Twenty years after her passing, we still remember that and we laugh.
I’ve mentored under many people. Nnimmo Bassey is a very strong character and there are so many others who helped me along the way and encouraged my writing. Professor Ebele Eko who has just retired as a professor of English. She has been amazing in our over 17-year relationship. She really is a mother of multitudes.
Of course, you also write and that is the title of one of your books, A Biography of Professor Ebele Eko. Do you still have time to write?
Oh yes. I have five books. I have three manuscripts that I’m working on and also another biography. I have been very busy but I will finish them.
Are you looking to get international funding or grants?
Mostly, for now, funding comes from individuals who believe in the work that we do. In the last year, we have had an elderly man from the US supporting our work. He wants to remain anonymous. We have some institutional funding but mostly small grants. The thing with institutional funding is that when they give funds, they sometimes want to reshape your vision.
What are some of the plans you have for the future of CEE-HOPE?
We are planning to extend the organization. For now, we are CEE-HOPE Nigeria but that means there could be CEE-HOPE Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa, etc. When a vision is articulated and you run with it, I believe God will provide the people that will fuel that vision. We have been very lucky with the reception that we have had and lots of publicity. There are people that buy into our ideas. If you empower people and build their capacity, then they can start to enforce their own rights and that is what we will continue to do.
If we don’t invest in the children today, we cannot look to any future. Even if you feel that your children have gone to the best schools and that you are fine, as long as we have to interact together, there is potential for the consequences of the negligence to affect everyone. If you assist these children, nurture them, develop them and are responsible towards them, it is good for them and for us because we will all be safer. It will be a good deal for everyone.