As the sun rises over deserted streets, a group of volunteers prepares for their day. For a few hours – from late morning until curfews are enforced in the late afternoon – the volunteers will work to support one of the most vulnerable and often-forgotten communities in Africa’s most populous country.
“Being on the street is already traumatic,” says James Okina, founder at Street Priests, a social enterprise born from Okina’s own experience as an at-risk youth living on the dangerous streets of Nigeria’s urban landscapes. “Now, with COVID-19, there is also the added fear and pressure of a health emergency and a strict lockdown enforced by police and military forces, which is putting severe pressure on this vulnerable group.”
Street Priests was founded in 2014 by then-15 year-old Okina in the southern city of Calabar, near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. The organisation operates on the belief that “If each one reaches one, together we would reach all”, relying on a highly-motivated group of more than 150 on-the-ground volunteers and local and international backers.
“We felt it was important that everyday people take up the responsibility of solving the pressing social issues in our country, in this case the plight of street children, who remain persecuted and neglected by state and other institutions,” says Okina. “Our work has taken on even greater significance during this time when countries are on lockdown and the most vulnerable – including street children – are at even higher risk due to COVID-19.”
Support, hope for those left behind
Nigeria has an estimated 8.6 million children living on its streets, with more than 10 million not attending school – the highest rate worldwide. Widely rejected and vilified by Nigerian society and state authorities, many street kids turn to a life of crime to survive.
One of the major interventions that Street Priests aim to achieve is to break the cycle of violence that often traps street children in a life of crime. “We do this by meeting kids half-way, engaging with them on their terms, and giving them opportunities to explore what it would be like to reintegrate into society,” explains Florence Louis, Director of Administration at Street Priests. “The approach has proven effective: nearly 10% of the kids we engage have returned home or gone back to school, and one recently completed their entry exam and will be attending university in the new year.”
Before the coronavirus made its way to Nigeria’s cities, Street Priests were able to centralise outreach via a community centre owned and operated by Street Priests. “Our Excellence Centre offered a safe place for street children to gather, learn, play and interact with our volunteers and mentors,” says Louis. “We were serving nearly 500 kids a month and providing social and emotional learning support. Unfortunately, when our government enacted a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, we had to close the centre, cutting off vital support to street kids when they arguably need it most.”
This sudden closing has had a distinct impact on Street Priests’ ability to continue its work. According to Hanson Hanson, Programs Director at Street Priests, volunteers currently have to travel to where street kids gather to hand out essential supplies – such as food and personal protective equipment – that may help keep them safe from the worst of the pandemic.
“With lockdown measures in place, this unfortunately means we have to pass some police and military checkpoints, which adds another layer of danger and uncertainty to an already-tense situation,” explains Hanson. “However, our volunteers have continued their outreach for more than 11 weeks, working across Calabar to directly reach out, engage with and support kids living on the streets. Ultimately, we want to instil confidence in these kids and inspire them to become beneficial to the societies in which they live.”
Scaling up for greater social impact
With an approach that works, Street Priests’ next challenge is to expand the organisation’s work to more kids in Nigeria – and other parts of the world. To do so, the organisation requires corporate support.
In 2019, SAP Head of Corporate Social Responsibility Alex van der Ploeg and the We Are Family Foundation invited Okina to the Social Enterprise World Forum in Addis Ababa as one of ten young African leaders. Since then, SAP has connected Okina and his team to experts, mentors and financial relief, both before Covid-19 and as part of SAP’s global relief fund which was launched in response to the pandemic.
Okina says this type of support from the private sector is essential to Street Priests’ efforts to scale outreach to more kids in Nigeria as well as other countries with large populations of street children. “The process of building direct relationships with street kids and inspiring them to pursue lives of purpose has proven to work. We now need the financial and human resources to allow us to apply the model in other markets, for example Latin America, where millions of children live on the streets.”
Although the sheer number of street children living in Africa and elsewhere may seem overwhelming, Okina believes it’s only by acknowledging the scale of the problem and pulling in as many likeminded partners as possible that any meaningful progress can be made. “Simply put, if you really care about this you are bound to feel overwhelmed. However, if each of us takes on the role of a ‘street priest’ and makes a necessary contribution where we are, the problem is far more likely to be addressed, to the benefit of both the street children and the communities in which they live.”