Nigeria: Suleja Heroines Who Break Stones for Peanuts

17 September 2019

On a sunny July day in Kwamba, Suleja, Niger State, 12-year-old Rachael smiled shyly with a heavy hammer in her hand. Alongside other children, she used the tool to manually crush stones for sale as gravel.

Rachael said she crushes enough stones daily to fill four 50kg cement bags. The gravel are then sold to builders and contractors who use them for construction.

Racheal makes just enough money to buy her basic needs and assist her mother to take care of the family.

"I use some of the money to buy clothes and shoes for myself while the rest my mother spends on food," she said.

One would easily mistake the Junior Secondary School Student (JSS2) for an adult, perhaps because of the arduous task of breaking stones.

When asked why she was breaking stones during school hours, Rachael said she was driven from school because of fees.

"My school fee is N6,000, we have only been able to raise N3,000 and school says if my fee is not complete I should not be seen within the school premises," she said.

Manual quarrying is the norm within and outside the rocky Suleja town. Very few mechanised quarrying exists.

Manual quarrying could be noticed by the roadsides, where people use simple tools to excavate stones and crush them, principally for building or construction work.

Despite working under the scorching sun in a quarry at Suleja in Niger East District the whole day, the income is meagre for the scores of women and girls who work there.

Salome Linus is one of the women who turn up at the crack of dawn in this quarry, regardless of the risks of falling rocks.

"I get my money according to the quantity of stone I break a day and a 50kg of cement bag goes for N200," said Mrs Linus, who came to Suleja in search of greener pastures from Benue State.

She crushes between two and eight bags of cement a day and takes home between N400 and N1,600; the latter only on the best of days.

"If I do not sell broken stones, how would I eat or send my children to school," she told PREMIUM TIMES.

The quarries are teeming with mothers and young girls. The women break huge rocks into ballast which they sell to builders.

Ballast crushing has been 52-year-old Salome Linus's source of livelihood for the past 16 years.

For the single mother of one, it does not matter how physically demanding the work is, as long as it helps feed her only child, and the five children of her younger brother, now late, in her custody.

"I started stone breaking 16 years ago, the first time we started, we go into the bush pick the bigger sizes of the stones, come with it and break before selling. Along the line, I lost my husband who went to work one faithful day and was killed by armed robbers on his way.

"It is from this business I feed my children, I have just one son with my late husband.

"I took five of my younger brother's children, who is also late and left 9 children behind," Mrs Linus said.

She said they no longer go into the bush to get the stones but buy from trucks who do the original collection.

"At times, we even buy on credit. After breaking and selling the stones, we go back to give them their money and hold on to the little profit from it.

"As things continue to change, we no longer go into the bush to get the stones rather we buy from men that drive tipper, we buy from them N13,000. After breaking the stones, we sell a bag for N200," she said, adding that she makes a profit of N2000 from such transaction.

The money made by Mrs Linus is barely enough to feed her family and so she has no bank account or any savings in a registered financial institution. She is one of the millions of Nigerian women who are unbanked.

Thrift Collection (Adashe)

In 2016, data from the CBN showed that 58.4 per cent of Nigeria's estimated 96.4 million adults were financially included.

This comprised 38.3 per cent banked, 10.3 per cent served by other formal institutions and 9.8 per cent served by informal service providers.

Nigeria plans to have 70 per cent of its adult population in the formal financial services sector and 10 per cent included in the informal sector in 2020, the apex bank said.

Further analysis also revealed that 55.1 per cent of the excluded population were women; 61.4 per cent of the excluded population were within the ages of 18 and 35 years; 34.0 per cent had no formal education and 80.4 per cent resided in rural areas.

But as more of the rural populace in Nigeria remain financially excluded from the ecosystem, local alternatives have served as options.

"We participate in 'Adashe'--local contributions---whenever there is a need to address any major financial responsibility," Mrs Linus told PREMIUM TIMES.

"With that, I sort the educational needs of my children and their feeding. Most of us do monthly, daily, every five days and every market day 'adashe' and it has helped us," she said.

The widow said she has raised her children by participating in the thrift contribution and other traditional means of raising and keeping the money.

When asked if they prefer the local thrift system to keeping their money in banks, the women said they cannot take the little money they have to bank but added that they would operate with banks if they see more reasons to do so.

"It is not like the 'adashe' does not have flaws but we can get our money when we need it and we know who to hold accountable," Mrs Linus said.

Why We Don't Use Banks

The women stone breakers, like Grace Linus (unrelated to Salome Linus), are largely unaware of the CBN policy on financial inclusion.

Mrs Grace Linus, a mother of six, said she started breaking stones in 1998. She spoke of how she uses proceeds from her sale to take care of her family.

She also spoke about her non-use of financial services. She said though she has a bank account, she has never used it.

"I opened the account one time like that; but with the little we get from here, I do not waste my time to pass through the stress of queuing, In fact, what we get here is just to make sure there is food on the table," she said.

Speaking on why she has never used her bank account, she said the little profit she makes from her business is barely enough to sustain her and her children.

"I pay a tipper truck N12,000 to N15,000 for the stone but it depends on the size of the stone and we end up selling it N18,000. There is no profit at all. Most of them lament after each sale but what will we do? Our children must eat," she said.

"I break these stones even with pregnancy and since I started I have given birth to three children here," she added.

A plea to the Government

Both the women and the young girls involved in the stone breaking asked for government assistance.

"We are not asking for much, the machine crushing these stones into pieces sold for N50,000.

"If we cannot get that, the government can help us with little capital to start provisions business, age is no longer on our side to continue with the stone breaking business," Mrs Linus said.

For Racheal, she sees the breaking of stones as her way to make enough money to return to school.

"I want to return to school, but I need to make enough money to pay my fees," the 12-year-old said.

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