True Story

Victoria: My story, my first night on the street as a girl. My first charge was to secure a job.

 

 

The beginning was decent, although all my memories of those early days of serenity and tranquillity have long gone, giving way to the realities of present traumas and hardships.

My birth, as far as I can recall if I can rely on my memory, or at least what I have been told, was a joyous occasion. Like the birth of many African children, it was filled with special festive celebrations and the greatest of all, the expectation that one day I too will grow and fulfil expectations, my destiny and similar societal rolls. For a moment my parents became icons, the result of their good labour now manifest in their new born.

 

The euphoria surrounding the birth of a child in my village is captured in songs, dance, and numerous rituals, asking all the ancestors and the living to play an active role in the upbringing of the child. In some instances, celebrations can extend for days, a reminder of the importance of a child in my community. It is a belief in my culture and society that the future of the child is dependant on fate or the destiny of the child, which is determined not by man, but by following of the actions and procedures that the society has promulgated for its younger generation. My life would be filled with bliss, if all played their expected roles. As mother indicated to me, the future, according to my spiritual forecast was as an enterprising mother with many children, a career and a big household. A status symbol worth pursuing, to be labelled a success in my community. But the excitement of a new life, and all the pomp and pageantry is replaced by the challenges of daily struggles to survive. This reality sets in immediately the adorning crowds and spectators retreat to their own realities. I guess my birth provided many with a brief period of escape. At least for a short period of time, the celebrations of my birth masked the tribulations of many including my parents. My father was a farmer and my mother worked from home selling the surplus from my father's farm. She also sold kerosene, which was the main source of energy in my village.

 

There were many people in my household. It was a compound, which housed about 10 different households. I had 7 other siblings, and there were countless number of extended family members. My family shared a room, which was divided into a chamber and hall. My parents had the chamber, which had a bed and a stack of bags, which I believe contained some of the precious belongings of my parents. My siblings and I occupied the floor in the hall. At bedtime, we moved the little furniture we had to make room for mats on the floor. This was not the best of situations, but at least we had the protection of our family, and there was food at least once a day on the table. Some of my siblings were attending school, especially my three older brothers. Some of my sisters also attended school, but many times they had to help my mother with the selling of her goods, and caring for their younger siblings on days that my mother accompanied my father to the farm. I have fond memories of playing with my siblings and other children from my compound and surrounding houses.

 

I had survived my first three years of life with some stability and insights into how my world operated. For instance, I knew that it took an hour from our homestead to the nearest water body to get water for the household chores. Food was normally cooked once a day in the evening, thus the concept of breakfast and lunch was not in my consciousness. But there was always something to eat, including some fresh fruits and nuts. I was especially excited about mangoes when they were in season. For us the kids, there was always something to do. In fact, we played the whole day, occasionally taking a rest under a tree or sleeping on the veranda. However, this seemingly peaceful life was about to be interrupted.

 

At the age of six, I had started kindergarten. My first day of school was particularly funny. I did not have the prescribed uniform. My mother however assured me that it was being made, and will be ready in a week's time. I was one of the very few pupils with no uniform. We were called in front of the class, and given a warning that we could not come back to school until we had our uniforms. I delivered the message as emotionally as it could be conveyed to my mother. Her calm response provided some level of comfort, but for a brief period. I knew I wasn't going to school the next day, and the next day, or the day after that, and for the whole week. That one day turned out to be my only experience with formal education, that first day in kindergarten and the vivid memories of standing in front of the class with unprescribed attire and tears rolling down my cheeks.

 

My parents had split up at this point for reasons still clueless to me. One day my father did not come home in the evening. The answer for his absence from my mother was that he was visiting some relatives in another region of the country. Weeks passed by without any sign of him and I began to imbibe the rumours around town to be the truth. My father had abandoned us. This was the genesis of my fate on the streets. After a while, my mother left me and two of my siblings with my grandmother. It started as brief periods of stay, and finally one day the long haul. My mother did not return after 6 months, and the frustrations faced by my grandmother were projected on us.

 

My grandmother never physically abused us, but her verbal venom was enough to kill a chicken. At the market one day, I met one of my older brother's friends, who had just come from the city. At this point I had no idea where my older brothers were. My brother's friend indicated that two of my brothers were in the big city Accra. From his outfits, and his new electronic gadgets, I could imagine that where he came from could not be that bad. At least, you will have a job, and be able to buy some of this you have only imagined in your entire life. He spent just a week, but the stories about the big city only proved to be a place of opportunities and little risks. On the eve of his departure my plan to venture into the city and alter my destiny was crystallised.

 

Accra City: My Triumphant Entry

Three commercial vehicles left my village for Accra every day. With the help from one of my mother's friends, I had enough money to make it to Accra. I caught the first bus, which left at the crack of dawn. This was a seven hour journey on some of the most unfriendly roads in the country. It was not only filled with huge craters, it was also very dusty. You could see the trail of dust racing behind you. We got to Accra around 3pm and alighted at the main lorry hub, famously called “circle”. I had as my only belonging a black plastic bag with my change of clothes and some food.

 

The city was much different than I thought. I knew there were many people in the city, but the actual experience of walking among people, struggle to maintain a path, and coupled with no exact destination was beginning to be frightening. The sheer mass of humans beyond fascination, in fact, I was beginning to experience my first remorse, maybe I should have stayed in my village, maybe this is not the right place for me, maybe I would never make it here. The maybes were not only overwhelming, they were sowing a seed of regret, defeat, and above all, a heightened sense of fear. Now it's getting dark, and I still haven't found a place of refuge. I walked aimlessly for another hour till I was noticed by a lady who was preparing her table to start selling food for the evening.

 

She asked me,

“Who do you work for?

I say, “I am very new to this area”,

she responded

“This means you have nowhere to go?

“Do you know how dangerous this place is for a girl like you?

She quizzed.

 

But fate has a way of manifesting in everyone's life. My brief conversation with this woman turned out to be my passport to a legitimate street survivor. After where I had come from, she introduced me to another woman, who also sells food nearby, only to find out that they knew my mother's younger sister. She has been in the city for many years, in fact I could not remember the last time I met her. The only problem was that she worked in another part of the city, which meant meeting her was not an immediate possibility. My first lady was generous enough to offer me some food, which I reciprocated by washing dishes and cleaning the table after her customers had had their dinner.

 

My First Night: On The Street

I worked with this Samaritan of mine the whole night. We rounded up our takings around midnight, packed up all the wares and scrubbed the tables. I knew that people did not sleep in the city, but did not know that the night life for some was their only life. Loud music was coming from different parts of the city, especially around a popular place called “circle”. Many girls my age were all dressed up, some really nicely, and they all seemed to be walking towards a drinking bar, or what we refer to as a drinking spot. Many of the girls were in the company of older boys, which I later came to understand and appreciate as one of the best protections you get in the streets. That night I slept at the spot where I was helping my madam sell. It was not too peaceful a night, and sleeping on cardboard was also not too pleasant an experience. In any case, my first night in the streets was a night of many dreams, anxiety, fear, and yet, there was a determination on my part to make it, no matter the circumstance. However my experiences that day, my journey in the streets had begun.

 

Surviving: The Street As A Girl

My first charge was to secure a job. Many girls like me were selling on the streets by day and “working” at night under the supervision of their “boyfriends”. I started selling oranges at the main lorry park. The oranges belonged to a madam, who supplied the oranges to the girls at a discount. After a day of hard work, I earned about the equivalent of a dollar. From this money I would buy food, pay to take a bath and save a little. I usually ate once a day, in the afternoon. On days that I did not make enough, I would get some credit from my madam. The nights were extremely scary because of the many stories I had heard. I knew of the stories of a few of the girls who had been raped repeatedly by the boys and their monies stolen. Many of the girls also told me stories of how they were physically abused by some of the boys for refusing their advances. I dreaded nightfall, because you did not know what was waiting in store for you. One of our survival strategies was to always move in groups. In my group were 5 girls, the oldest was about 18 years and she was on her second pregnancy. Her first child died a few weeks after she was born. She was the matriarch by virtue of the respect she commanded. She had been in the streets since she was 13 years old and knew everything one needed to survive in the streets. The other girls were followers and just as scared as I was. My protection from the ills of the streets was only temporary. I soon began experiencing some of the wild stories that I had heard about. I was physically abused by some boys when I refused their advances. They destroyed my sleeping cardboard and poured water over me when I was asleep. They also stole my money and other belongings, when I confronted them they gave me a severe beating. This abuse continued for a while with no intervention in sight. Some nights I would be sexually assaulted by two different gangs. Many of these attacks took place in the open, but no one had the courage to come to

my rescue.

 

The leader of my group would be insulting and yelling at the boys, but that was her only weapon. In fact she got away with her actions because she was pregnant and knew some powerful people in the streets she could rely on. Luck however came my way when I was introduced to one of the boys by the leader of my group. He immediately became my “boyfriend”, the first process of protection on the streets for girls. Life with a “boyfriend” was much more bearable. I was protected from the insanities of the street violence, at least, from the painful sexual assaults I was subjected to frequently. I started working for my “boyfriend” selling his wares. Most of the items I was selling were stolen, but at least I had access to food, protection and some credibility.

 

To be the girlfriend of a powerful street boy came with some respect and some incentives. For instance, I could get most of the things I wanted when I invoked the name of my “man”. Soon I was working my way up the chains of influence and command. I had moved from scared to adventurous. My understanding was growing and I was beginning to enjoy life on the streets. At the same time, the fear of the streets, however remote, still lingers on. I know I will be pregnant and my “man” would want to move on to another girl. I know I am susceptible to deadly diseases, and may die. I know I have no means of looking after my child, and my child may die soon after it is born. The signs and experiences are so glaring, and I know it is just a matter of time. But I cannot worry about the future. For now, I am safe, I enjoy many of the things I did not have in my village, and city life is beginning to get to me and fast.

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