What is it like to be a child without a childhood? Sent away from home to beg, pulled out of school to support family or too hungry to play – what does it mean to lose your childhood?
‘After work if I’m not too tired I like to play babysitting with my friends. We’ll wrap up a flip flop and pretend it is a baby,’ says 14-year-old Fati.
These words should never be said by a school-aged girl, exhausted after a hard day of labour.
But they are.
Fati has never been to school. Forced to move to the hot and dusty mining town Tillabery, her family have been struggling ever since the last food crisis when their animals died. She now spends her days working at the mine. Under the scorching sun she painstakingly sifts through the silt in search of flecks of gold.
This is a decommissioned mine – the wealth of its gold has been taken long ago. Fati, her grandmother and other mothers and children are searching for leftovers. Scraps.
Nearby teenage boys plunge into the depths of a mineshaft to dig for quartz. Fifteen-year-old Gado is one of them. He left his village to earn money to help his family survive.
Sinking down the 125ft mine shaft where there is very little oxygen, he chips away at the rock with his tools before winching buckets to the surface. Then Gado and the other boys go through the arduous process of granulising the rocks: smashing, washing, sieving, washing, sieving, washing, sieving. It is hazardous and exhausting work.
Many mines have collapsed, crushing the boys inside.
“When I finish work every evening at seven, all I do is go to bed. I am too tired to do anything else. I just want to sleep,” Gado says.
The long walk
Parents are forced to make desperate decisions, like sending their sons to Niamey, the capital of Niger, for food. These boys walk more than 100 miles – an arduous ten day trek. Aged between ten and 14 they walk in the searing heat with only the clothes on their back. When they reach the city, they live in makeshift housing or on the streets, making them increasingly vulnerable to abuse and weakened from lack of food and clean water.
“We’ll beg,” was all they said, when asked what they would do when they got to Niamey.
What choice does a parent have when there is nothing to eat at home?
A generation of children in West Africa is losing their lives or childhood to the food crisis. An entire generation of children who have already lived through up to four food crises in their short lifetime.
This is all they’ve ever known.
Rather than having the opportunity to learn in school, play games with their friends and dream of their future they experience another bitter reality.
A food crisis robs a childhood in a number of ways:
Hunger. Millions of children across West Africa are currently malnourished with not enough food for their tiny bodies to properly grow. This can cause them to be permanently stunted making it difficult to reach their full potential. They grow up to be malnourished adults, and then malnourished women give birth to malnourished babies and the cycle continues.
Work. Childhoods are robbed when children engage in dangerous or exploitative work that deprives them of their potential and dignity. There are many more children like Fati and Gado who work far from their villages in exhausting jobs and on empty bellies.
Education. Thousands of children are being forced out of school to find work. Far away from their friends and a stable environment, it can be a traumatic transition for a child.
Give a childhood back
Through #ShareNiger World Vision is looking to give children in West Africa their childhood back. We want you to join us in that journey.
We want to create an explosion of noise online, filled with voices of mothers, children and families. We want to shine a light on what childhood should be for every child – everywhere.
As British children look to their summer holidays, over the next two weeks we want to get parents and their children talking about what childhood means to them. Perhaps it’s a cherished toy, climbing trees or fun with your childhood best friend.
Send us a photo and a short explanation of what childhood means to you and your children. Please post this on our facebook page or tweet this using the hashtag #lostchildhood. We will feature all of the photos on our Lost Childhood pinterest wall and will publish the best 50 answers on our website.
The British Government are currently doubling donations to our West Africa Food Crisis Appeal – pound for pound, helping our funds to go even further. So we want to double our impact. Tag two people to your photo on facebook or twitter and invite them to add their voice.
Join us to give children their childhood back.