In cities and towns around the world, countless numbers of people flock to beaches in search of sun, sea and sand. Yet a different picture emerges in Lagos, Nigeria, the second-largest city in Africa. Kuramo Beach is situated on Victoria Island, a business hub of Lagos metropolis. Facing out to the Atlantic Ocean, it used to be a tourist attraction, but has now become an abode for child prostitutes, drug addicts and criminal gangs. The beach is littered with human feces, discarded bottles and syringes. Shacks made out of cardboard, scrap wood and tarpaulin are crammed together just above the high-tide zone. Children “of the streets” (or in this case “of the beach”) are a growing phenomenon in Lagos. During the day, boys from Kuramo Beach go out on to the streets of Lagos to hustle and scavenge for food in an attempt to scrape a living, only to return to the beach at night because they can’t afford accommodation. Girls as young as eleven ply their trade as commercial sex-workers under the sway of pimps who profit from their exploitation.
How do these children end up separated from their families and living in such deplorable conditions? A child may leave home to work on the street due to a sudden drop in income; the loss of support from a parent due to illness, death or abandonment; or as a consequence of an episode of domestic abuse. Sometimes a divorced or bereaved parent marries again and the child is rejected or maltreated by the new step-parent. Boys may be attracted to the freedom of life on the street compared to the discipline of family life. Sometimes girls are lured away from their family in the village with promises of education and employment only to end up in the city being forced into prostitution by an “aunty” who may or may not be a blood relative. Once they end up on the streets, children are exposed to health risks such as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse and are vulnerable to criminal gangs, physical abuse, theft and rape, as well as to state violence.
Yet this is not the whole story. In recent years the streets and beaches of Lagos have become a focus for intensive religious activities, particularly associated with Nigeria’s burgeoning Pentecostal movement. The city is dominated by a bewildering array of Pentecostal churches, occupying former office spaces, warehouses and cinema houses as well as their own purpose-built buildings. In 1998, Lekki Beach played host to one of the largest Christian gatherings on earth, the annual Holy Ghost Festival, organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). According to CNN, it drew an estimated crowd of six million people for one night of prayer and preaching.
If one visits Kuramo Beach on a Sunday morning one is likely to encounter the ministry of Habitation of Hope, a social initiative started by a group of women belonging to the RCCG which seeks to rescue and rehabilitate street children. Already they have started a church on the beach and opened other branches in Lagos specifically to serve the needs of those living on the streets.
So while the “beach children” phenomenon remains a blot on Lagos’s urban landscape, churches such as the RCCG, with their message of salvation and active concern for those at society’s margins, offer a glimmer of hope to those, such as the residents of Kuramo Beach, caught up in a seemingly never-ending spiral of poverty and alienation.
Richard Burgess is a guest contributor with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.