They say the Area Boys are a law unto themselves. They say they are a pack of illiterate feral kids who’d slit your throat in a heartbeat for a bag of candy.
They are smelly, dirty little boys who lived like sewer rats in colonies underneath the bridge or behind the motorpark. Their homes are ramshackle huts built out of iron corrugated roofing sheets or discarded tarpaulin.
Each colony has a leader: another street urchin, slightly older than the rest. He’s the Fagin, the one who sends his young charges out to steal and hustle. He’s also their big brother who looks out for them and like a mother he would defend his charges when necessary: knife scars littered his torso, trophies from bloody encounters with rival gangs.
I meant it as an act of charity: I had seen this particular boy on my daily commute to work and wanted to help him. He seemed so out of place amongst the older boys.
He couldn’t have been more than ten years old: too young to be on the streets but streetwise enough to be able to survive.
I got talking to him when he approached me for alms one day as I waited for a bus. That was six months ago. They would beg first and if that didn’t work, they’ll proceed to stealing your wallet or phone and leg it. He had tried it on with me but it didn’t work: I was that streetwise enough to know how to keep my valuables safe.
Over time I got to know his name. It was Sunday.
We had a routine: I would arrive at the motorpark a good half hour before my bus was due to leave and he would materialize from seemingly out of nowhere. Together we would have breakfast in one of the many ramshackle cafes that littered the terminus: that way I knew he had at least a meal inside him for the day.
Over our meal I would engage him in conversation. His answers were often monosyllabic: his name was Sunday. He thinks he’s ten years old. He had run away from home. He steals. He begs. He often hustles.
This way I was able to piece together his troubled existence: our every new chat added another new piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was taking shape. Soon, with enough pieces, the picture will be complete.
He was always dressed the same, no matter the season: a pair of khaki shorts that had seen better days with an oversize dirty Chelsea football T-shirt on top. He wore no shoes. Not even slippers, sandals or torn trainers like the rest.
Shortly before I left for work I would leave him some money to buy snacks to starve off hunger throughout the day even though I knew it would probably be spent on cigarettes and illicit gin.
After a while I decided to adopt him. Not formally. I was single after recently being dumped by my girlfriend. He would come and live with me as a houseboy doing chores around the house to earn his keep and hopefully mend his ways in the process.
Plucking a juvenile delinquent Area Boy off the streets of Lagos who’s most likely going to try and cut my throat sounds insane, but I reckon I can hold my own: I had a tough upbringing myself and know how these street kids think. It’ll be a battle of wits no doubt: a lion and a lion tamer trying to outsmart each other even though I see myself more of a lion-whisperer; it’ll be a question of pressing the right buttons to get the right results.
I put the idea to him during one of our early morning sessions and he liked it.
But there was a problem: I would have to ‘steal’ him away from the gang for there was no way they would let him leave willingly. He was terrified of reprisals and made me swear I would never dump him or let him down. Once out his family would never take him back again. He would be ostracized for life.
I swore on the soul of my long departed mother that I would look after him. He in turn swore that he would behave himself and be obedient at all times.
We had a deal.
The day for his abduction was set for a week later. A Friday. I would take the day off and use the long weekend to break him in.
On the appointed day he had turned up with all his worldly possessions: that is to say he had one plastic carrier bag stuffed full of all his belongings; another dirty T-shirt, a couple of dog-eared and fading black and white photographs and a Watchtower picture magazine.
It was the Watchtower magazine that fascinated me: he couldn’t read.
He told me how he had learnt about this man called ‘Jesus’ from the Jehovah Witnesses who regularly preached at the motorpark.’Jesus’ would forgive him for all the bad things he had done and make him a ‘big’ man. He would have a big house, money, a fleet of cars and mistresses and would be able to leave his life as an area boy behind. ‘Jesus’ was the saviour: his Saviour.
Seeing he couldn’t read the Jehovah Witnesses had handed him a picture magazine detailing the life and times of Jesus. He told me that he had thumbed through the magazine, looking at the pictures, trying to imagine who this Jesus was.
At least he had a soul. He wasn’t all that bad: just a wrong kid in with the wrong sort of crew. He could be redeemed. I made a mental note to buy some Biblical DVDs to kickstart his religious renaissance: not forgetting to also enrol him in Sunday school. If I could polish him up religiously I might have a Saint in the making! Nobody seems to understand why Area Boys are vicious little monsters: they are the unfortunate dregs of society who drew Life’s short straw. Many are runaways while others were just kicked out to fend for themselves – and they all find solace in the uncertainty of life on the streets with kindred spirits.
On the streets they have to survive by whatever means possible – stealing, begging, kidnapping – sometimes on their own or as part of a gang. Out on the streets they believe they can face down whatever comes their way. If apprehended for their crimes they can expect to face the full wrath of a lynch mob. As a result they take no prisoners.
I spirited him away in a taxi to my place: I live in an affluent part of town not too far away.
As we drove along I could see his head swivelling around every few seconds, his eyes doing a dance taking in everything he saw. This was a new experience for him. The tarred roads, the orderly magnificent houses, the uniformed gatemen, the peace, the quiet, all captivated him as we drove into my estate. If there was ever a place called Heaven, this was it for him.
We got out of the vehicle and I paid off the cabbie.
He was in a trance as the gateman slid the gate open and welcomed me with a ‘ good morring sah’.
When I opened the door to my flat and he stepped inside you could see his eyes popping out of their sockets as he took in everything: the flat screen TV, the leather sofa, the lush carpet, everything. He stood sheepishly to one side , not knowing what to do, scared he might upset or break something.
I could see his discomfort and told to sit down : he sat on the edge of the leather 2-seater, unsure of himself, hands between his legs.
‘ Hungry?’, I asked.
I steered him towards the kitchen. He still held his carrier bag, tightly: his worldly possessions. I sat him down at the table watching him stare at all the gadgets, in awe, he’s never seen before while I rummaged around.
I still had some leftovers in the fridge. I hurriedly fashioned them on to two plates and put them, one by one, into the microwave oven.
After the microwave had pinged its readiness I placed the steaming plate in front of him.
For a few seconds he stared at the plate of rice and stew in front of him and the next second he was wolfing it down like there was no tomorrow.
Sitting opposite him, I raised a stern finger,’ slow down or you’ll choke’. Out on the streets there would be at least half a dozen of them gathered round a plate : the one who was the fastest with is fingers, shovelling food into their mouths like a bulldozer, got to eat the most.
He seemed to have heard me: his fingers slowed down from going 100mph to about 40mph, still too fast to be considered decent but slow enough for a start.
Soon, all the food was gone, every scrap and morsel, and he proceeded to lick the plate clean. I could have told him that we wash our dishes after we finish eating but that will have to be a lesson for another day. One step at a time.
Next on the agenda was recreation. I switched on the telly, handed him a bottle of Coke and watched as he marvelled at the figures on the screen. He probably has never seen a TV before or been in close proximity to one.
The day wore on, and after several hours, soon became night: he had relinquished his hold on his carrier bag and after a shower had changed into a clean set of clothes I had bought him. Jeans, trainers, socks and a clean T-shirt. I had bought well. They fitted him perfectly. He looked as if he had been re-born: his dirty matted hair was now all black, curly and shiny; his clean skin had a new glow to it and his whole face radiated hope.
After a long time it was time for bed. I had a small store room, the size of Harry Potter’s bedroom, which I had cleared out and customized for his use.
The bed took him aback: he had never slept in one before. A ‘bed’ to him was probably scavenged newspapers, a sisal sack or a torn cardboard box laid on the bare floor.
I watched as he caressed it, not knowing whether to sleep on it or whatever. It was like watching a child taking its first footsteps into the unknown – will I fall or will I walk?
When he finally got to grasps with it he stripped off and reluctantly changed into the pyjamas I had laid on the bed for him: another culture shock, he thought they were going out clothes! I tucked him in and went off to get some shut eye in my own bed.
I hadn’t slept for long when I woke to a rustling in the night.
Thinking it to be a burglar I tiptoed into the living room, cutlass at the ready to defend myself if need be.
As I switched on the lights I saw him standing there like some kind of nocturnal animal caught in the headlights of a car about to run it over.
He had his carrier bag in his hand, only now his possessions had been replaced with items he had pilfered: my cellphones, laptop, remote control, watch and food from the fridge.
He stood there, petrified and scared. He was bracing himself for a hiding of a lifetime before I threw him out: to be quiet honest the thought did cross my mind but I had something better in mind.
‘You can walk out of the door with the things you’ve stolen’, I told him,’…and never come back. Or you can put them back and go back to sleep. Your choice’.
I switched off the lights and went back to bed.