Allegedly abandoned by their American mother in Africa, seven children from Texas begged small change to buy food and shuttled from a neglectful stranger’s care to a concrete-block orphanage, Nigerians said Thursday.
Eventually, the children proved their American citizenship to a passing missionary from Texas by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He notified U.S. authorities, who got the youngsters home last week as Texas welfare officials investigated the mother.
Ages 8 to 16, the three boys and four girls, all of whom had been adopted by the woman, apparently spent 10 months in this market city of millions bustling with traders and crippled and leprous beggars.
A Nigerian welfare official said local authorities first learned about the children only a few weeks ago, and immediately took them into custody and turned them over to the government orphanage.
By then, they were skinny, mosquito-bitten and suffering from malnutrition, malaria and typhoid, officials and other people said.
“Three of them were sick. They could not walk,” said a 23-year-old who gave his name as Alex and is a former ward of the orphanage now living there as a student. “They looked tired. They’d been sick for long, without food.”
Life among criminals
The young Americans found themselves living not only with other orphans, but juvenile criminals, including young thieves and rapists.
Officials at the orphanage declined to comment and would not let an Associated Press reporter talk with any of the orphans Thursday, but children in dirty and ripped clothes could be seen doing chores.
One 13-year-old girl washed dishes in an aluminum pail while younger children put the dishes away. Other children carried buckets of cassava on their heads, a starchy root that is the children’s principal food along with rice and beans.
U.S. authorities believe the seven American children arrived in Nigeria last October with their mother, whose fiance has a relative here. The mother, Mercury Liggins, 47, left within weeks. She later took a job as a food-service worker in U.S. military mess halls in Iraq, but quit in July, U.S. officials said. She is believed to be back in Houston, but couldn’t be located for comment.
A businessman's care
Government workers and others who knew the children said she left them in the care of a businessman, Obiora Nwankwo, who has a well-tended, two-story house in an affluent neighborhood of Ibadan. The nature of the relationship between Liggins and Nwankwo wasn’t known. Nwankwo couldn’t be found when an AP reporter visited the home.
Nwankwo drove up to the gates of an Ibadan Montessori School on Oct. 16, school officials said. He enrolled the children in classes with what officials here said was benefit money from the children’s mother.
“He claimed he was their guardian,” principal Johnson Akintayo said. “They were put up in the boarding school.”
Their new school was clean, fronted by a row of tall palm trees, and the children seemed happy at first.
Changes after Christmas
But when the children returned from Nwankwo’s home after Christmas break, they appeared underfed and neglected, said Victoria Mustafa, matron of the girls’ boarding quarters. “They were very pale and had lost weight,” she said.
The children began begging classmates and staff for money, using it to buy food.
The matron also remembered Brandy, the eldest at 16, talking longingly about America, her Houston high school, and home. “Brandy would talk about the school where she was, how she loved it.”
Then Nwankwo began missing payments to the school, and he complained that staff were being too nosey about the children, Akintayo said.
“The man grew suspicious when he claimed that some members of staff were embarrassing the children by asking certain questions,” the principal said.
By July 22, all seven children had stopped attending.
Six days later, Ibadan’s Association of Women Lawyers alerted local immigration authorities about the children, a social welfare official said, and Nwankwo’s home was raided the same day.
The seven were all malnourished. “Some of them were sick, critically ill,” with typhoid and malaria, said the official, who agreed to talk about the case only on condition of anonymity.
Four were sick enough to be hospitalized, but eventually joined their siblings at the orphanage, the official said. It wasn’t revealed which children went to the hospital.
Nigerian officials did not notify the U.S. Embassy, the official added, saying that was because the case was a sensitive matter diplomatically.
Some people speculated the government wanted to get the children healthy first.
The Texan children were fed better than the Nigerian wards at the orphanage, said another adult student living at the orphanage who gave his name as Brahim. “Some of them do not eat well,” he said of the Nigerian orphans.
At the orphanage, the seven passed their time playing board games or cadging a staff member’s mobile phone to play the games on it. “They were happy,” said Brahim, who would play with the Americans.
Their extraordinary ordeal ended only with the chance visit of an American missionary to the orphanage on Aug. 5.
‘Oh, say can you see ... ’
Swarmed by children claiming to be from Texas, too, missionary Warren Beemer quizzed the brothers and sisters about the roster of the Houston Rockets basketball team as a test, according to an account from his church in San Antonio.
Ultimately, Beemer launched into the American national anthem. Placing their hands on their hearts, the children joined in — singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the grass-and-dirt yard of the orphanage.
Convinced, Beemer contacted officials in the United States, and the children were returned home last Friday and put in the care of two foster families in Houston.
Alex, the student, said he exchanged e-mail addresses with two of the children, 16-year-old Brandy and 12-year-old Alice, as U.S. Embassy staffers ushered them out of the orphanage.
“They were very happy,” he said. “But they were even crying when they were leaving, because we had got so used to each other.”