Nigeria: Red Cross message brings comfort and hope
A Lagos shopkeeper had been without news of her son for four years until the ICRC arrived with a message from him.
Ashabi operates a small shop in Lagos where she sells yams and other vegetables. Her shop is in a narrow street, close to the tiny building that has been home for almost 30 years to Ashabi, known to her friends as "Mama."
One day, Mama's younger sister Yemisi arrived at the shop with a number of neighbours to tell her that "strange" visitors had arrived at her home in a car with a red cross. They were asking to see her.
Mama rarely had visitors, so she was a bit anxious. As she walked home, her heart beat wildly as she wondered what the visit was about. She felt the pain of not having heard from her son for so long, and the fear that he might be dead.
Mama's 29-year-old son, Kehinde, had left home four years before. After completing his apprenticeship as a car mechanic, he told his family he wanted to go abroad in search of new opportunities. Mama was sad to see him go, but reluctantly gave him her blessing.
A few weeks later, he left for Togo, promising to be back in a month. But the months went by with no sign of him, and no news. His mother could sense that something had gone wrong – her Kehinde would never leave her without news for so long.
"We're from the International Committee of the Red Cross," said one of the visitors, very gently, sensing her apprehension. "We have a message from Kehinde Idowu to his mother Mama Ashabi."
The visitors explained that their colleagues in Côte d'Ivoire had met Kehinde while checking on conditions in a prison. When they gave her a message in Kehinde's handwriting, Mama immediately asked them to come in and sit down, pressing them to tell her everything they knew about her son.
Unknown to Mama, her son's travels had taken him not just to Togo but to several other countries, and he had ended up in Côte d'Ivoire. Sometime in 2011, he was imprisoned in the Ivorian capital Abidjan, with no way of contacting his family in Nigeria to tell them what had happened.
Kehinde explained his situation to the ICRC staff who visited his prison. They suggested that he write a short message home and promised that the ICRC would deliver it. The message was checked by the prison authorities, then forwarded to ICRC staff in Abuja who set out to find Kehinde's mother in Lagos.
Mama Ashabi was overwhelmed with emotion as staff read the message to her. Hands raised in excitement, she told us "We didn’t know where Kehinde was or what had happened to him. After four years, we thought he might have died somewhere. We've had to live with that heartbreak. Even though he's in prison, I'm grateful to God to know he's alive. Now I know he'll be back some day and that we will see him again."
We have changed the names of the people concerned, in order to protect their privacy. For the same reason, the photos accompanying this article are taken from other situations where the ICRC restores contact between family members and do not show "Kehinde" or "Ashabi."