‘Street life seemed so perfect’

‘Four of my friends died on the street. Three of them as victims of violence, one overdosing on painkillers.’ Zeinabou (19) is calm when she tells her story. After years of living on the street, she is now close to graduating from a small school in the city of Zinder, Niger. The diploma she gets out of it will give her more independence.

Zeinabou is sitting on some steps close to her school in Zinder. It was founded  some three years ago by Saafia. Being herself a former victim of an unwanted marriage, she wanted to give girls a chance at a more independent future. In her school girls starting from the age of 14 can choose between cooking, knotting and sewing. After three years, the girls receive a diploma.

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Saafia (right) ©Frank Dejongh

Palais des jeunes

Zeinabou must have been one of the first girls to enroll in the school. And it’s what saved her too. She was only 10 when she joined on of the many Palais des Jeunes (French for Palace of Youth) of Zinder, groups of teenagers who live on the street. ‘I was drawn to the street life. The absence of parents and social laws and the freedom the comes with it,’ Zeinabou explains. ‘An older friend of me used to give some money from time to time. She would tell me about life on the streets. It seemed so perfect.’

Her parents were furious when Zeinabou announced she would quit school. However, the young girl was convinced she would gain more out of street life than out of school life. At that time, her father was married to 3 women and had 20 children. Running away was – even though her parents opposed the idea – not too difficult.

Little thief

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Zeinabou ©Frank Dejongh

She was crowned thief of the group by her Palais des Jeunes leaders. She was the youngest, looked cute and was agile enough to use those skills in her advantage. Everyone in the street group had their own responsibility and everyone did what they had to do without protesting. Embarrassed, Zeinabou admits she even stole from her parents.

Things collapsed when she stole from a friendly rich family. Her group pressured Zeinabou in stealing from them and she thought they wouldn’t notice. But they did en they knew who did it. ‘I was hit until I finally confessed’, she recalls while she rolls up her sleeves to show the scars. ‘They told me to get the money back from my friends but when I asked them they had already spent it in Nigeria’, she says. ‘Not long after, my street group and I were held by the police for questioning.’

No future without education

At that time Zeinabou was younger than 15 and so, following the Nigerien law, could not be sentenced to imprisonment. The police gave her a serious warning. ‘They showed me the Koran. If I would do it again the holy book would kill me, they told me.’

When she came back from the police station, her friends were furious. Zeinabou quit street life and went back to her parents. That didn’t go natural as her parents hadn’t forgotten about her excesses. ‘They refused to let me go outside’, Zeinabou says. ‘If I tried, they would hit me.’

‘It was then, only then, I realized I had no future without education. I was nothing without education,’ she sighs, ‘Way too late.’

Meat balls in tomato sauce

‘Luckily, a friend told me about a new school for girls in the city.’ Without hesitation, Zeinabou told her dad. After a serious conversation, he agreed. Not long after Zeinabou was enrolled at Saafia’s school.

Fast forward to now and Zeinabou is close to being graduated in cooking. ‘I’m a pretty good cook,’ she says. ‘And it’s not just Nigerien cooking, I’m also skilled at white cooking like french fries and meat balls in tomato sauce.’ Zeinabou giggles when she sees our expression.

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Saafia and some of her girls ©Frank Dejongh

In November 2016 I won the Belgian Unicef Young Journalist Award managed by Unicef Belgium and news organisation Stampmedia. A month later I visited Niger together with Philip Henon from Unicef Belgium, photographer Frank Dejongh, journalist Jesse Van Regenmoortel and people from Unicef Niger, including Viviane Van Steirtheghem (head of Unicef Niger) and Charlotte Arnaud (communication specialist).

Foto heading this article ©Frank Dejongh.

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