Nigeria – October 6 2020

Siblings form new healthy memories despite childhood trauma

By Anne Kahura

The painful memories of abuse Oba* suffered as a child often sneak into his consciousness, no matter his frantic efforts to bury them.

The pain and anger is not as acute and overwhelming as it was before. The nurturing environment Oba has lived in for the last 12 years, as well as the therapy he received, has allowed him process and deal with his childhood trauma.

“Therapy helped me identify the burning emotions from my childhood,” says Oba. “I was able to talk about the hurt, anger and self-hate that controlled me.”

Oba’s troubles began when his parents separated. His mother moved him and his two younger brothers, Wasi* and Domi*, to live with her cousin in one of the bustling brothels in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. It was a terrifying place for a child and Oba says he saw a lot that is hard to forget.

“This was a dirty place with cigarette butts strewn all over the floor. My mother started abusing drugs soon after we moved in,” says Oba. “Instead of sending us to school during the day, she sent us to beg and fend for ourselves on the streets of Lagos.”

Oba and his siblings could only return at night to avoid disturbing their ‘auntie’ while she worked.

“When we came back to the brothel after a difficult day, dusty and dirty, we sat in the cluttered room - no one spoke to us,” recalls Oba. “I do not know how old I was, six may be seven, but I remember feeling irrelevant and invincible. As I grew older, I stopped waiting for my mother to change; it seemed that drugs and alcohol were more important to her. I told myself that I would be a footballer or an actor one day to change my family’s story.”

To make his hopes a reality, something had to change.

In 2008, child welfare officers from the state removed the three children from the care of their mother, and placed them with SOS Children’s Villages. In addition to the trauma of abuse and neglect, the children also suffered poor health and hygiene. Oba was eight years old, Wasi, five, and Domi, two.

“I was afraid of SOS because I did not know what would happen to us here,” says Oba. “I distanced myself from the other children in the family house and refused to engage with the SOS mother. I resented my own mother for the pain she had caused us, and my SOS mother only reminded me of her. My brothers were younger and more accommodating. I was sad and angry,” he explains.

Onifade Olubunmi, a social worker at the SOS Children’s Village helped Oba address his difficult past. “We keep in mind that most children and young people in need of alternative care have experienced traumatic episodes,” says Ms Olubunmi. “They need stability and to know that they are loved and that this is home for them.”

In addition to a family-like environment that provides all their basic needs, Ms Olubunmi says it is critical that children receive psychological support.

“Childhood adversity leaves a deep-rooted mark on a child’s mental health,” says Ms Olubunmi. “It is very important to be healed from their traumatic experiences to enable them integrate successfully into society, to become productive adults. When trauma is not managed early, children develop low self-esteem, a damaged sense of self-worth and lifelong mental and physical struggles,” she explains.

Oba says the counselling sessions with Ms Olubunmi helped him to confront negative feelings for himself and others.

“The counsellor guided and encouraged me; she told me I deserved to be happy, to be successful and that I had a big role to play in life,” he says. “I was scared of mingling with the other people before because I thought they were better than me, and I lacked confidence. I was timid and shy.

“Dealing with my past has helped me change my mind about myself and about life,” he adds.

His change in outlook also helped improve his relationship with his SOS mother. “Once I understood what it means to love a child, to feel safe and to trust others, I felt happy to see someone take care of me perfectly like my own mother should,” says Oba.

Oba’s biological mother sometimes comes to the SOS village shouting and screaming that she wants her children back. “It takes calming her down, reassurance that we are doing well before she goes away,” says Oba. “She is my birth mother and I like that I know that, but I do not like how she causes a scene when she comes to visit us. I feel conflicted between pursuing a relationship with her, or avoiding one because I know it will only cause me pain.”

Attempts to support Oba’s mother through counselling to overcome substance abuse, and start an income generating activity have not borne fruit. She still struggles with addiction.

Now 20 years old, Oba is studying mechanical engineering at a technical school; Wasi, 17, is in high school and wants to be a robotics engineer, while Domi, 14, is in his first year of junior secondary school. They are gaining the knowledge and skills they need to break the cycle of poverty in their family.

They still attend therapy sessions occasionally, to address the lingering effects of their past.

“We consider ourselves extremely lucky that nothing bad happened to us on the streets or in the brothel,” says Oba. “But I feel there are many important experiences we missed that other children with caring parents enjoy. We are, however, blessed for the opportunity to create new healthy memories that will now shape our future.”

*Names changed to protect the privacy of the children.