Zuleha has managed to stay at school by some miracle over the last three years and has got into 10th grade (3e). It continues to be a daily struggle, though. Her father died about four years ago and her young mother with Zuleha and a little sister, eventually remarried. Zuleha is small for her age, with a slight limp. She must be around 17 yrs and she is clinging to school, trying to sit for her junior secondary exam next year. Her eyes are clear and direct; her voice is strong. She sounds as if she has won a few battles and is ready for the next one.
Zuleha’s stepfather shouts at her daily. When she came with her little sister to live in the stepfather’s house he would say roughly: ‘What! are you still eating my food and bringing nothing into this house?’ After some weeks of this Zuleha decided to run from the house before dawn, to avoid him, and to find food somewhere, anywhere.... First, friends shared the little food they had with her. Then she realised she would have to earn some money. She couldn’t rely on her friends who were needy themselves. She started selling pills in the streets. Up and down she would walk in the scorching tropical sun, as soon as classes stopped at noon for three hours, then again after six o’clock at night, in the darkening streets. This money kept her alive and paid school fees. No one, not even her mother, paid her school fees. Perhaps her mother has nothing.
This was all right, even if difficult for some years. But something went wrong with her hip this year. She was in hospital for weeks. Now she can’t walk the streets and is wondering how she can make money again. Meanwhile, she is back to asking friends for food, here and there. We all know what awaits Zuleha while she walks the streets, while she asks for money or food here or there. For our friends outside Africa we shall spell it out: what awaits her is prostitution, imminently. It is really urgent to help this child. An retired teacher hearing of her case was outraged: ‘What kind of monster can accuse this child of eating his food, in the house in which he shelters her mother!’ he exclaimed. Indeed, this goes against all the norms of traditional protection of children, of generosity and of hospitality in Benin. All adults in the town who have heard this case have just shaken their heads in wonder and shame. When I told APEED about the situation of this child (who was a beneficiary of the APEED programme last year) and asked if she would continue to get help next year from the organisation I was told: ‘She may not be among the 100 most needy children. We shall have to see.’ Of course, APEED is right. They have to prioritise. They have to give help to the most needy. Zuleha may not be amongst the most needy. After all, APEED should know. APEED’s members are all children in want. They know about want and about degrees of want and deprivation.
I am relating this story to highlight the degree of support that is needed in Parakou, and the numbers of children in need. If Zuleha does not spring immediately to mind as one of the most needy one hundred (currently in secondary school), who on earth are they? where are they? and how are they living? Even the townspeople wondered at this reaction of APEED: ‘she may not be among the 100 most needy... ’ . Need is hidden. Want is silent. Even children in want are very quiet and almost invisible. The level of poverty is extreme and yet most of the town is truly unaware of the depth of need in their very street. I am not saying the townspeople are uncaring. On the contrary, I am saying that the children of Parakou go to extremes to hide their deprivation and that they have to be sought out.... APEED is doing just this. And it is finding these children for the rest of us to support, following the example of the children of APEED who started the whole initiative.