Meet Nigeria’s child apprentices
On Nigeria’s Children’s Day, we profile youngsters who are learning and working to support themselves and their families.
At the end of a school day, at weekends and during holidays, many teenagers in Ibadan, Nigeria start work in shops and on work sites. With unemployment at 33 percent in Nigeria, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, children are increasingly taking up practical apprenticeships – “isé-owó” which loosely means “work of the hand” – on top of their schoolwork to improve their chances of finding a job after they leave school. These apprenticeships are usually unpaid, but offer children the chance to earn a little money doing practical work as they learn, if they pick up the skills quickly enough. In some parts of Nigeria, as many as 49 percent of schoolchildren undertake them.
The Nigerian Child Rights Act prohibits children from being engaged in “exploitative labour” but does not rule out children working altogether. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), as many as 15 million (43 percent) Nigerian children engage in work at some stage of their childhood in order to earn money for their families.
Isé-owó refers to a genre of jobs that are largely learned by “watching and doing”. These include skills such as tailoring, fashion design and bricklaying.
While some require more physical energy than others, the entry requirements into these work spaces are not strict. Young apprentices give different reasons for their choices – from widening their future career options to earning a small amount of money to pay for some basics such as food and items of clothing for themselves and their families.
Waheed, the generator engineer
Waheed*, 15, is showing off the bright red slipper-shoes he has bought with some of the money he has earned as an apprentice generator engineer a few kilometres from his home in Ibadan.
As COVID lockdowns took effect last year, Waheed’s life also took a new turn. He could no longer go to school. When the lockdown was partially lifted, things were tough. His parents and older brothers left the house to work each day as usual and he found himself alone. The family had recently moved to a new part of the city and he had nothing to do.
“I told myself, rather than just sitting down at home doing nothing, why not look for something to also start doing?” His parents were supportive when he told them he wanted to begin an apprenticeship.
Waheed says he always wanted to be a mechanical engineer and believes his apprenticeship with a domestic generator engineer takes him a step closer to that dream.
His place of work is 3km (just under 2 miles) from his house and, when he cannot afford the 500 naira ($1.21) round trip (a large amount for a low-income family), he has to walk it, taking about 45 minutes each way.
Waheed works for three to four hours every weekday, from 2pm, and from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays. He earns about 1,000 naira a month ($2.42) from this and other small jobs he does for his family around the house.
He says he enjoys the way he learns as an apprentice more than the approach taken to learning at school. “Most of what they teach people in school is theory, but while here, one learns by doing.”
Unlike what he has been taught in his science class, where his teachers would dictate and the pupils would write down, this experience is hands-on and he only has to watch his boss to learn. After that he learns through practice.
“I follow my boss. I look at how he services the generator. I know the possible things that can be wrong with a generator if it is behaving in a certain way.”
He says that he is not only learning but is productive at work, impressing his boss enough to give him some small amounts of money at times.
Besides learning how to make repairs to a generator, Waheed says he is also fascinated by generator names such as Honda, Elepaq and Tiger.
“How do they get their names? How do the makers decide to call them what name? I really wish I had a generator that could be named after me tomorrow,” he says, smiling.
Tunji, the generator repairer
Tunji*, 14, works in the same shop as Waheed. He has always been good with his hands, he says, using materials he finds to make new things.
“I would take paper, cut through it and make a generator from it.”
But his imaginary generators could not help when his family’s home was thrown into darkness at night, so, at the age of 12, he decided to learn how generators actually work.
“I told my parents about my desire to learn to repair generators and they brought me here themselves.”
Even though he is just an apprentice, he has gradually started taking on small generator repairs jobs which people pay him about 300 naira ($0.73) for each time. He usually lands about three of these jobs each month, earning him roughly 1,200 naira.
“Whenever there is anything wrong with a generator around us where I live, I fix it. The ones I cannot fix, I tell my boss who tells me how to go about it.
“I give the money to my parents to add to the money we have at home.” He walks to all his jobs, no matter how far they are. “I trek most times from school and home to work – I see it as a form of exercise.”
Money is not an incentive for Tunji to leave his education, however. He says that he will continue his education to the highest level while continuing to repair generators on the side.
“My boss always advises us never to run away from school.”
Ibrahim, the fashion designer
Since he was nine years old, Ibrahim*, who is now 13, has been fascinated with how clothes are made; how they are turned from mere yards of fabric to clothes adorning people’s bodies.
So, at the age of 10, he told his parents that he wanted to learn fashion design. They agreed on one condition: he would continue his education and he would find an employer close to his school. He found one and his parents helped him to pay 2,000 naira (just under $5) for the registration form. It is common for parents in Nigeria to pay such a fee to register a child for an apprenticeship and is seen as a commitment that the child will take it seriously. He also bought some tools such as scissors and threads of different colours.
“I start work every day at 2pm after school and finish [at] 6pm,” Ibrahim says. He adds that this addition to his daily schedule does not affect his school work.
“When I have homework, I do it at the shop before starting work,” he says. “I try not to let myself get distracted when I am in class and, once I am at work too, I give the work the best of my attention.” He is currently studying for exams and has taken some time off work. Until the exams are over, Ibrahim is only working at weekends.
After learning for a little more than two years now, Ibrahim is now able to sew clothes for men. He proudly demonstrates how he uses the scissors he bought for himself with the money he has earned. He still has about two and a half years to go in his part-time apprenticeship. After the five-year apprenticeship is finished, there will be a ceremony called “freedom” at which Ibrahim will be certified to start his own fashion design practice.
He is already earning some money from his trade. Once people in his neighbourhood heard he was apprenticing as a fashion designer, he started to receive requests for clothes, particularly when there are festivals to attend. Ibrahim earns about 500 naira ($1.21) for each item of clothing he completes and smaller amounts for alterations or for changing zips and buttons.
While Ibrahim looks forward to his freedom ceremony, he also wants to carry on to higher education where he hopes to study fashion design.
“I want to learn as much as I can so that I can do all I can with fashion design,” Ibrahim says.
Kunle, the bricklayer
Bricklaying is an energy-sapping job that many might consider unsuitable and unsafe for children. Yet, at weekends, once 13-year-old Kunle* has finished his school week, he scouts for bricklaying jobs with his boss at different work sites. He mostly works on Saturdays and during school holidays until 6pm each day.
For each day of formal work that his boss takes him to, Kunle can earn 1,500 naira ($3.65). “People are shocked sometimes when they compare my physical size to the amount of work I do,” he says. “But I am loving it.”
Kunle, who attends primary school, says that the job was his mother’s idea to keep him away from rough play.
“I play rough a lot. She said that I won’t be able to cause trouble if I am busy working.”
But while Kunle enjoys bricklaying and his apprenticeship allows him to keep his options open, he has another dream: to become a lawyer one day.
“That one is still far, far in the future. No one knows tomorrow,” he says.
When he first started working, it was hard – the heavy lifting of blocks and the mixing of the cement. After his first day at the site, his body ached from the heavy lifting. But with time he got used to the work.
“I learned to be careful even as I worked. Now, I have learned the tricks and I can comfortably set blocks. I no longer see it as anything tedious even though it was not easy in the early days.”
Taiwo, the well-ring moulder
Every weekday, 15-year-old Taiwo* can be spotted in his immaculate school uniform, on his way to his secondary school. He hopes to become a building site engineer one day. When he was 10, he started going to work sites with his father, who also works as a well ring moulder, making the round, concrete openings for ground wells in residential sites.
“That was when I began to see how they were doing the work,” he said. “Now, I can’t imagine myself not doing this type of work.”
In many parts of Nigeria where there is no water mains supply, people rely on other sources of water, including wells. The energy-sapping work of building the well ring involves the use of a metal mould which is filled with mixed cement and then left for some hours until the well rings are formed in their moulds.
Three years after Taiwo began site-hopping with his father, he started to visit worksites by himself to do the same job. His father was concerned and followed him to ensure his safety on his early jobs.
“I gave him the assurance that I could go without his supervision; he did not believe it until he checked the work I did.” Impressed by what he saw, his father created a new set of well ring moulds so that the two of them could begin to take jobs separately.
“Whenever we have work to do on more than one site, I go to one and he goes to the other,” says Taiwo. If there is work available, Taiwo usually heads to the building site at 2pm after school finishes and works until 7pm. The amount he earns depends on the number of well rings he moulds, but he can earn 3,000 naira ($7.37) for each well ring he makes. He does not get to make one by himself all that often. Along with his boss and other apprentices, a single well – which requires 10 rings – will take two to three weeks to complete.
Taiwo says he wants to be a building site engineer when he is an adult but adds that he does well-ring moulding to be sure he will have an alternative career pathway if his dream job does not work out.
“You cannot say specifically what will eventually become your means of livelihood later in life. Many people go to school these days but still end up learning ‘handwork’ because education is not giving them their desired job.
“So, if my education brings in money, fine. But, if not, there is always something to run to, which is this. If someone tells me today to quit this and assures me that with my education all will be well, I will gladly leave it.”
Saheed, the assistant well-ring moulder
Saheed* and Taiwo work together. They live in the same community and attend the same school. So, it feels natural that they work together as well. Saheed, 12, says he wants to be a police officer, just like his father. However, he started following his friend to work sites two years ago, to pass his spare time.
“During the weekend and sometimes after school, I will beg him to allow me to follow him to places where he has work.” When Taiwo allows it, he works as his “assistant”, and Taiwo gives him 1,000 naira ($2.42) from every 3,000 that he earns.
Saheed says that rather than just staying at home doing nothing, he is busy learning a skill now.
“If I stay back at home, what else will I be doing if not rough play? Why not then invest such time in something more fruitful?
“People think this work is difficult but, I tell you, until you start doing it, you won’t know it is such an easy task. You just have to learn the tricks.”
His family members were initially surprised when he started learning how to make well rings. However, after enough assurance from him, they were convinced and encouraged him to continue working.
During the pandemic, things have become quite hard for Saheed’s family and his small earnings from well-ring moulding have come in handy for them.
“If I have the power to be helpful, why shouldn’t I? No matter how little money I make from here, it means my parents won’t have to give me that money when the need arises.”
Adeola, the hairdresser
Three years ago, at the age of nine, Adeola* started styling her own hair, rather than just wearing it short. This involved visiting a hairdresser or having her hair done by her mother. She wanted to learn more about different hairstyles, and she saw it as an avenue to make extra income.
Her parents took her to a hairdresser in their neighbourhood where she registered as an apprentice.
“I started learning first with [a] dolly head,” she says, referring to a doll on which she practises her hairdressing skills.
“Then, I started assisting with hair washing and helping my boss with hair extensions.”
She works at the hairdresser every day after school from 2pm to 6pm, and from 9am to 6pm on Saturdays (once she has finished her household chores). During festivals, she is much busier, staying at the hairdresser until late at night to attend to everyone who needs their hair done.
She does not earn money formally from the hairdresser, but gets paid small amounts by neighbours for small jobs such as plaiting hair – something she does frequently on Sundays. She does not charge a fee, so these payments are gifts. Sometimes they are more than she would charge as a hairdresser, sometimes they are very small. “I take whatever I am given with joy,” she says.
Adeola does not know exactly what she wants to be in the future. For now, she hopes to remain in school because it increases her chances of getting better-paid jobs in future.
“Sometimes I feel confused about what I would like to become tomorrow. Personally, I think such questions are a waste of time. How many people became what they intended while they were growing up, here in Nigeria?
“The situation around us does not encourage that. Just do your best, with whatever good work you find yourself doing.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.