AKOWONJO, LAGOS: Esther Nnamdi and her twin sister, Ruth, were just a few weeks old when their mother abandoned them in the care of their then 70-year-old grandfather in April 1992 in Nigeria’s commercial city of Lagos.
A secret romantic relationship between their mother, who was then 18, and another teenage boy had resulted in the unwanted pregnancy.
With the support of her father and stepmother, with whom she was living, she delivered the two babies. But few weeks after delivery, she disappeared without dropping a hint as to why she left and where she was going. She had not returned ever since.
Meanwhile, her father and stepmother managed to cater for the twins for a little over two years. When their financial situation no longer permitted them to take good care of the twins, in 1994, they sent the girls to Little Saints, a home for abandoned and orphaned children that had newly opened in Akowonjo community in Agege Local Government Area of Lagos. The orphanage describes itself as the first government-approved orphanage in Lagos.
A new beginning
About seven million babies are born each year in Nigeria. Some of them join Nigeria's 17.5 million orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) due to situations like parents' death, conflict, poverty, abandonment, and gender inequality. It is estimated that 95% of OVC have no access to emotional, medical, material, and school-related support in Nigeria.
At the orphanage, the twin sisters were handed over to a nanny in one of the several units of the charity's two-storey dormitory in Akowonjo after a file was opened for them. They were called “little saints”, just like every child in the facility. From then on, life took on a beautiful twist for them.
The orphanage has a three-step process of rehabilitation, reformation, and re-integration for providing succour to OVC. The rehabilitation means all of Esther and Ruth’s daily needs, including clothing, feeding, and shelter were adequately provided. Under reformation, once they were of school age, the twins were enrolled into a private nursery school near the orphanage and they were guaranteed sponsored education up to the university level.
Well, they never experienced the last step - re-integration - which involves the orphanage either uniting a child with their families or giving them out to adopters or to foster parents before they turn 18. Esther and Ruth’s grandfather died shortly after they came to the orphanage. No relative had come to ask about them and they were never adopted.
But 27 years later, Esther and Ruth have grown into promising and happy young women and university graduates whose education and upkeep were all sponsored by Little Saints.
'Every child needs shelter'
Christiana Bamidele George, Little Saints' founder, knows firsthand the pain of a child abandoned by her mother. When George was five, her mother left her with her father, Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who was a soldier and later became the military governor of the defunct Mid-west State, to marry another man. Military duties did not permit her father to be with her like she wanted, so George spent much of her childhood with her aunty.
As she grew, from listening to and reading stories about abandoned children in the newspapers, radio and television, George realised she was not alone. She then vowed to do something to support abandoned and vulnerable children.
“Deep down in my heart, I felt I could do something about it... because every child needs shelter. [So] I began to nourish the dream of helping abandoned children,” said the 65-year-old, who resigned from her banking duties to start Little Saints in June 1994.
Today, Little Saints has grown into one of the biggest orphanages in Nigeria, with centres in four states: Lagos, Delta, Oyo, and Ogun. In Lagos alone, it has three centres: the two-storey dormitory (200-bed capacity now for boys) in Akowonjo, another 70-bed dormitory for under-18 girls in the neighbourhood of Abule Egba, and a 40-bed dormitory for above-18 girls in Ogudu community.
“I never felt abandoned. I was brought to a place I called home. I found a family [in the orphanage],” Esther, who studied international business at Bells University of Technology in Ogun State, said smiling. “Most of my friends did not believe I grew up in an orphanage. This is because we were treated well like normal children, and we were not made to feel bad about our background.”
Little Saints, with its 30 staff, works with the police and social welfare ministries in the states to pick abandoned and vulnerable children, including from the streets. Since 1994, the organisation has helped 1,000 children, including 85 currently in its Lagos facilities, 22 in Oyo, 17 in Delta, and 11 in Ogun.
Little Saints has given out about 350 children to adopting families and foster parents, often working with the state ministry of youth and social development to screen families seeking to adopt the children. It relies on local patrons, visitors and religious donations to sustain its operations across its centres.
“I have since accepted that this is why I came into the world, to help orphans and vulnerable children,” George said. “The joy and fulfilment I get from this service to society are indescribable. I feel blessed and privileged to be called by God to do what I am doing.”
However, Little Saints does not have a structured internal arrangement for monitoring the condition of children it gives out for adoption to ensure they are well treated in their new homes by their adopters. George said that is because social workers from the state ministry of youths and social development (in the case of Lagos) does the monitoring and bars orphanages from doing it to avoid possible cases of child trafficking.
“The ministry supervises our organisation. They give us the license to operate, so you cannot disobey any of their rules," George said. "They explain that they cannot really trust all orphanages to do the monitoring because there is a lot of child trafficking. [So] they give a blanket rule that nobody should visit the families of the adopted children except social workers of the ministry.”
But in a country where absconding from work and lack of commitment to official duties are common among civil servants, George said she would have loved to have an internal monitoring system to help the orphanage know when adopters are not treating adopted children well.
She said while the rule makes it difficult for the orphanage to keep track of the condition of all its adoptees, Little Saints relies on families of some adoptees and neighbours of adopters for feedback and to report maltreatment to the police and the ministry.
Meanwhile, years before Esther and Ruth went to the university, they decided that after their tertiary education, they would return and work at Little Saints as a way of giving back. And they have been doing that since their graduation in 2015.
“I was in secondary school when I made the decision to work at the orphanage,” Esther said. “To me, coming back is a way of giving back because the orphanage has done well for me.”