The rate of teenage pregnancies in Makoko is still one of the major problems facing the predominantly riverine community.
On a rainy day in October 2012, 21-year-old Leah Ahonsu, fell into a deep slumber she would have wished she did not wake up from.
After a hectic day at the market, she returned home with her son, Clement, for a well-deserved rest on the mat she had laid on the floor of their wooden house built on water. While she was still fast asleep, Clement woke up, crying. Probably he was hungry. But, she didn’t hear him. When she eventually woke up, she could not find her baby boy by her side.
Ahonsu had thought one of his uncles had come to pick him up. She later realised this was not the case. A search party was subsequently raised to unravel the mystery surrounding the boy’s disappearance.
Unknowingly to her, Clement had fallen into the murky waters a few feet below them. There was no way he could swim. He was seven-month-old.
His corpse was found 30 minutes later by an inconsolable group and a distraught mother when they looked through a hole on the wooden floor. All efforts to revive him failed. The little boy had drowned in the water underneath his parent’s house in Makoko, Yaba Local Council Development Area, Lagos.
“Earlier, my mother had called me to ask if I heard my baby cry, and I had replied, ‘yes,’ but I said that unconsciously from my sleep,” she recollected, with obvious pain.
The hole has since been covered up, but the one inside her heart still remains. “He’s gone and there is nothing I can do about that, I cannot follow him to the grave. I have not yet recovered from the loss, he was my only child,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH.
A resident, who did not want to be named, also spoke of a similar incident which happened four years ago, where his relative lost her two-year-old son who fell into the water and drowned while playing with his peers. His mother had gone to the market.
However, such gut-wrenching incidents are rare in Makoko, a community inhabited by mostly Egun people. “Every child is taught how to swim by the age of six,” said Ahonsu’s mother, Magdalene.
Although Ahonsu stated that she had yet to recover fully from the loss, almost a year after, she is thankful that she was pregnant, again. The room lit up with smiles and laughter when our correspondent asked if she already had a name for her unborn child. They had not chosen a name yet, until the baby is born, Magdalene replied.
Aged 19 when she first got pregnant, Ahonsu is still learning to deal with the tragic past. But the present reality for many in Makoko, a peaceful and sometimes bustling riverine community, where their major occupation is fishing and trading, is lack of education and high rate of teenage pregnancies.
Since their forefathers migrated from neighbouring Francophone West African countries like Togo and Benin Republic, as well as from Badagry, Lagos, most of the children in the community neither speak nor understand English. They speak their local Egun dialect and sometimes French.
Findings show that many young girls in Makoko still find themselves drowning in the waters of premarital sex.
A 2008 statistics from the World Bank put the percentage of teenage mothers in Nigeria, aged 15-19 who have had children or are currently pregnant, at 23 per cent. Low education levels have also been closely linked with early childbearing.
For example, 19-year-old Suzanna Hunsene, never had proper schooling and does not know how to speak English. She had her first child at 16, but now she said her 23-year-old husband, who works as a carpenter fixing tiles in houses in the city, wants a divorce.
“He doesn’t love me anymore but I am also ready to divorce him,” she said, and mentioned her 15-year-old friend who was not married but already has a one-year-old child.
She isn’t aware of the issues surrounding teenage pregnancy, but told our correspondent that she just wanted to get on with her life. “I wished I went to school. But now I want to learn tailoring to help me and my son and to take care of his future,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH.
She wants her three-year-old son, Ayomide, who is nicknamed ‘Baddo’, like popular Nigerian artiste Olamide, to become a lawyer in future. “We are suffering here in Makoko. But if he becomes a lawyer, he will be able to defend us against any planned demolition,” she said.
Over a year ago, the Lagos State Government had demolished some houses in Makoko, which it said constituted an environmental nuisance, security risk and a barrier to the economic use of the waterfront.
Nineteen -year-old Owolabi Hungbo, still unmarried, had her first child when she was 18. She also expressed regrets for not acquiring an education, pointing out that the lack of education and not listening to the advice of their parents and elders were major impediments to the development of young girls in her community.
“We need to have more schools here and the government can help provide vocational training centres for girls to learn a trade so that they will have something that can earn them a living and keep them busy. Many young girls are idle,” she said.
The lack of any form of infrastructure in densely populated areas such as Makoko has contributed to the cases of teenage pregnancies, noted Mrs. Princess Olufemi-Kayode, of Media Concern Initiative (for Women and Children), a non-governmental organisation.
“Teenage pregnancies affect nearly every area, but it is more prominent in densely populated areas and this is due to several environmental and social factors, lack of infrastructural facilities in healthcare and education, and what they are exposed to. So, they may have more social problems than others. And if everybody they know is getting pregnant or married at 14, it would be the attraction for the majority of these young girls to also want to become ‘madam’,” Kayode explained.
The 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, implemented by the National Population Commission, identified teenage pregnancy as a major health concern because of its association with higher morbidity and mortality for both the mother and child. The report also noted that the percentage of teenagers who have started childbearing decreases with increasing level of education, while teenagers with no education are more than twice as likely to start childbearing early as those with primary education.
“Additional childbearing during the teenage years frequently has adverse social consequences, particularly regarding educational attainment, because women who become mothers in their teens are more likely to curtail their education,” the report stated.
Twenty-year-old Hannah Hunge, who, like Hungbo, also had her first child at 18, dropped out of school in Senior Secondary School because of her pregnancy.
“I told my parents about it when I discovered I was pregnant and decided to stop schooling. If I have another opportunity, I still want to become a medical doctor. Young girls should go to school or learn a trade,” she said.
Like Hunsene, Hungbo and Hunge, the dreams of many young girls in Makoko have been cut short by teenage pregnancy, bringing another life into the world they never planned adequately for.
“Although I can’t say if the rate of teenage pregnancy is rising in this community, but one thing I know is that we feel ashamed of ourselves whenever we see each other, it’s not a good thing getting pregnant at a young age; you don’t feel good inside,” Hunge said.
She added that teenage pregnancy is not only common in Makoko, but worldwide also. “I also think we have more women and children in this community,” she said, after verifying from an elderly male.
Traditional beliefs, like the lack of education and adequate infrastructure, may also be a contributory factor.
However, the head of the traditional chiefs in the area, 55-year-old Mr. Francis Agoyon Alashe, said the rate of teenage pregnancies in the community was nothing to worry about. “Why should we be worried? We take it as the wondrous and marvellous deed of God, that young girls at 11 or 12-year-old are getting pregnant and giving birth and that a 15-year-old boy can get a girl pregnant. In my days, we were taught that 18 was the ideal age, but times have changed,” he said.
Agoyon has 14 children — 10 boys and four girls. He said, “My first daughter, who is now 29-year-old, got pregnant at 15; the second, who is now 19-year-old, got pregnant at 16. My boys have not impregnated any girl because they are focused on their education.
“Sometimes, Egun people don’t like using condoms. Our argument is, how can you ejaculate into a rubber? There is no pleasure in that. Although common sense says the use of condom could prevent pregnancy, but we don’t need it. We like real sex, even if we give birth to many children, we don’t mind. If, for example, I get married to a 15-year-old girl, it means I will now become a younger looking man,” he said, laughing.
Nevertheless, Agoyon advised young men in the community not to pressure their girls into sexual relationships at a young age. “The girls should also tell the boys they don’t want it. The girl should tell him that she wants to finish her schooling first, because if something happens and she gets pregnant, the girl has herself to blame. We, the parents, also have roles to play in advising them,” he added.
This could be why one of the young men, who pleaded anonymity, noted that young people in the community did not have role models to look up to.
“Sometimes too, the young men do not take responsibility for their actions, because they are the ones who sometimes trick some of these girls into having sexual relationships. We also need more vocational training centres in this place to keep young people busy and give them other means of livelihood,” one of them said.
Emergency responses and adequate social infrastructure would also help reduce teenage pregnancies in such communities, Olufemi-Kayode noted.
“If these communities have more education and health centres, and youth-friendly clinics where young people can walk up to without being afraid and be guided, these will help reduce it to the barest minimum so that our children can have a better future in this country. It will also prevent sexually-transmitted infections,” she said.
According to the World Health Organisation, health problems such as anaemia, malaria, HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections, postpartum haemorrhage and mental disorders, such as depression, are connected with negative outcomes of pregnancy during adolescence.
For gender and child rights advocate, Mrs. Betty Abah, Makoko is “a microcosm of what happens in communities that are neglected by government and snubbed by the majority in the society.”
She noted that promoting girl-child education and economic empowerment would reduce the frequency of teenage pregnancy and the effects.
“Most times, teenage pregnancies are a direct result of poverty and ignorance, as seen in Makoko. Although it is a major polling area during elections in Lagos State and a major contributor to electoral wins for the ruling party every election year, the electoral promises simply die on the eve of swearing in,” she explained.
One of the traditional chiefs in the area, Mr. Victor Panke, said the state government had forgotten about their community, with an estimated population of about 150,000, although Panke claimed it was more than that.
“During the elections, we provided high votes for them. They made promises to us but forgot us after we struggled to vote for them. Then, they promised us schools, toilets, hospitals, but after they get into office, when you call them, they switch off their phones or change lines, even when you send somebody to their office, they would say, oga is busy.
“The government and private health centres or hospitals are outside the community, just like the schools. We have only one private English school here (Whanyinna Nursery and Primary School). We also don’t have any health centre or hospital or public toilet. One person built a toilet and collects N30 each for usage. But we have privately-constructed borehole water for bathing and drinking and pay N10 for a gallon or basin.
“Also, the government did not compensate us for the last year’s demolition exercise. Some of those affected still sleep in their canoes on the Lagoon,” he said.
SUNDAY PUNCH contacted the public relations department of the Lagos State Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Development, which promised to get back to our correspondent. But at the time of this report, it was yet to respond to a request for an interview.
While there were a few bare, makeshift privately-owned ‘clinics’ in the riverine area, such as ‘Minangan Clinic Maternity Centre,’ the lack of quality healthcare could also pose health challenges to residents.
The ‘doctor’ our correspondent met, Mr. Antoine Tobor, said the clinic also treated general cases, but transferred those beyond their capacity to the general hospital.
“The rate of teenage pregnancy is not as high as it used to be, like about five years ago, because people are getting more education,” he said, and added that malaria was common in the community, especially during the rainy season.
Tobor said he had lived and worked as a doctor in Makoko for the last 10 years, after he completed a seven-year training at a hospital in Benin Republic.
From available statistics, there may be many communities like Makoko, with high rates of teenage pregnancies, across Nigeria.
According to the NDHS, a larger proportion of teenagers in rural areas (29 per cent) have begun childbearing compared with teenagers in urban areas (12 per cent). Also, a comparison of the geopolitical zones showed that North-West had the largest proportion (45 per cent) of teenagers who have started childbearing, while South-East (8 per cent) and South-West (9 per cent) had the lowest proportions.
It also showed that the rates for teen motherhood increased steadily from age 15 to 19, with especially large increases between the ages of 16 and 17 and between the ages of 17 and 18.
WHO has also identified pregnancy among very young adolescents as a significant problem.
“About 16 million women 15-19-years-old give birth each year, about 11 per cent of all births worldwide. Ninety-five per cent of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries,” it stated.
The report further indicated that the average adolescent birth rate in middle income countries was more than twice as high as that in high-income countries, with the rate in low-income countries being five times as high, with the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa, south-central and south-eastern Asia.
Nigeria ranks among the seven countries in the world with the highest level of teenage births. The other countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, and the United States.
Sex education would help create more awareness about teenage pregnancies and so reduce the number in the country, Abah noted.
“Parents must also take parenting seriously. We tend to leave that role to teachers,” she said.
For Mr. Shenebe Noah, proprietor, Whanyinna School, the young girls should also be made to realise that life did not end at Makoko. “There is still a lot they can do for their future,” he said.
According to him, the school, which he said was built for them by ‘white men’, currently has 218 children from the Makoko waterside.
“Initially, the parents here didn’t like taking their children to school, because they only believed in trading and fishing, but things have changed,” he said.
Another English school, known as the ‘floating school’ by residents, has since been built. Noah said the school would open on September 23. “It was a project by Mr. Kunle Adeyemi, an architect, and was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and the United Nations Development Programme. It is an extension to the existing school. I will also run it,” he added.
Education, he agreed, would go a long way in reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy in Makoko, and other communities across Nigeria.
For Tobor, health and environmental concerns aside, if the government could allow them to live peacefully in their community, there won’t be any problem.