Ten-year-old Mary Ezumezu got more than she bargained for when she resumed in a new private school two terms ago. A bright new chapter was supposed to have been opened in her life; meeting new friends and learning in a new environment conducive to learning.
But what followed was dark and shocking. The 10-year-old orphan never expected to go through an ordeal that may leave her scarred for a long time in her growing up years.
It started when the Year Four (Primary four) pupil was ordered by the proprietress of Daniella Montessori School, Mrs. Chichi Ishoka, to stay back after the normal school period.
Ezumezu’s offence was that she allegedly cheated during a French class work/test. And staying with the proprietress was supposed to be the punishment to ‘teach her a lesson.’
According to Ezumezu’s guardian, Mrs. Elizabeth Sanda, the 10-year-old was allowed to be disciplined by Ishoka because they felt she would help to mould the girl’s character.
Sanda further said she thought as a mother that Ezumezu was in safe hands with a fellow woman like her and also one she regarded as a family friend.
However, the lesson became too harsh because during her forced stay with the owner of the school, Ezumezu said she was starved for three consecutive days – between Wednesday and Friday – two weeks ago, and subjected to severe punishment.
Ezumezu’s starvation would have lasted more than three days if not for the intervention of a concerned person, who informed the girl’s guardian about her sorry condition before she was returned home.
When SUNDAY PUNCH visited Ezumezu at the home of her guardian, she said she would not like
to return to the school.
Fidgeting with her skinny hands and looking distraught, she explained to SUNDAY PUNCH, ‘‘They said I copied the work from my textbook. When she (proprietress) said I was not going home because of that, I thought she was joking. She kept me in her house and said I should not eat. I kept my load in the room, and sometimes I slept on the corridor. I stayed there for about two weeks. But on some particular days, I went hungry because I was not given any food.
“The day she said I should not eat, she locked me in a room and said I should read my books. But I was hungry and I was looking for something to eat. That was when I saw a box containing biscuits. I opened it and ate one of the biscuits. Later in the night, she asked who took it and I said I was the one. She then said I should go on a dry fasting and that I would not drink water.
“She said anytime I wanted to take my bath, they should tell someone to look after me, so that I would not drink water from the tap while bathing and the person should report me to her if I did. After bathing, I went back to the corridor and did some house chores till we were ready for school.
“There was a Saturday the husband saw me and said she should give me food, but she refused. But I ate on that Sunday,” she said.
Ezumezu told our correspondent that she stole a sausage on one of the days that she could no longer bear the hunger.
“When I couldn’t bear the hunger again, I stole a sausage roll. When they asked me who took it, I couldn’t say I was the one because I was scared of what she (proprietress) would do to me. That was when she took me to the backyard and pulled off my clothe and punished me,” she added.
She said the person who allegedly punished her was a personal assistant to Ishoka, one Miss Anu.
“She (Anu) took a paint bucket and filled it with water, then turned me upside down and put my head inside the bucket of water. She did that three or four times until I said I was the one who stole the snack. One teacher saw her from the first floor of the school and cautioned her. She asked her to stop torturing me. Then, she ordered me to sit down. I didn’t eat from Wednesday to Friday until I was brought back home,” she added.
When SUNDAY PUNCH visited the school, on Wednesday, in the Abule Egba area of Lagos State, Ishoka denied starving the pupil for days or ordering her torture.
The proprietress claimed that the pupil was only kept in a special boarding facility in the school, like other pupils during her stay there.
Ishoka stated, “We have a special boarding facility, which has up to five pupils. We place boys and girls in separate places to correct erring children and help them improve on their academics. I never starved her. I fed her well and never ordered that she should be punished.
The proprietress also claimed that Ezumezu lied a lot and sometimes stole things, even from the home of her guardian.
Sanda said she was shocked when someone called her from the school and informed her of the condition Ezumezu was subjected to in the school.
She said they only allowed her to be in care of Ishoka because they trusted her as a close family friend.
“Mary (Ezumezu) is my late brother’s daughter. I took care of her from childhood,”she said.
Sanda told SUNDAY PUNCH, “I shed tears when I saw Mary that Friday when I got back home. I never expected that Mrs. Ishoka would do such to her. We were told she cheated in school during a French test, but the little girl only had the textbook on her desk. What does a little girl know about cheating? I also heard that she operated a boarding school and she had also done the same (keeping pupil back in school) to another pupil who couldn’t write well, but that pupil only stayed with her for one day before the pupil was allowed to go home.
“I went there to visit Mary after the first three days and was allowed to see her. But after then, each time we went to visit, we were not allowed to see her. They claimed that we would be distracting her from her school work. My son’s children also attend the school; she is like one of our own children.’’
On the same day, it was a shouting match when Ishoka insisted on visiting the home of the Sandas to confront them on the girl’s allegation against her.
Ezumezu repeated the same lines of allegation.
On Thursday, when SUNDAY PUNCH visited the school for the second time, the personal assistant to Ishoka denied ever forcing Ezumezu’s head into a bucket filled with water.
“Nothing of such happened,” Anu said, with a look of feigned surprise on her face.
After much questioning, Ishoka’s story changed. She then pleaded with SUNDAY PUNCH not to go ahead with the story. She said she may not have fed Ezumezu with enough food as she was used to during those days, but didn’t maltreat her.
“I was pushed to a fault. But I did not starve her,” she said, almost in tears.
Anu also said, “Sometimes, I have a hot temper, the only thing I did to the pupil was pour water on her face. I did not force her head into a bucket of water.”
The Executive Director, Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection, Betty Abah, said she was shocked that in the name of punishment, a 10-year old girl was enslaved and kept in dehumanisating conditions.
Abah said, “We are shocked to know that a character like Ishoka would be allowed to run a school of young, impressionable minds in this age, with the allegations of cruelty and sheer dehumanisation of the pupil under her. They made her sleep outside with no bed or bedspread, starved her and ask her to be punished in the worst form, obviously taking advantage of her vulnerable condition of not having her mother around her.
“How many more children has she tortured in this way? How many more could have been permanently scarred either physically or psychologically? The brazen wickedness and impunity is simply mind-boggling. She was meant to ensure they are taught, not tortured, for whatever reason. This is not even corporal punishment.’’
Abah said she was glad the little girl stood her ground and repeatedly recounted all that were done to her.
The child rights advocate promised to ensure that justice was served in the case, adding, “We look up to the police to investigate this case. We expect the Lagos State Government to do what is right and ensure that more children do not have to endure this suffering in the hands of this woman or any other within Lagos State, and indeed Nigeria.”
SUNDAY PUNCH gathered that the matter had been reported to the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.
When contacted on the telephone, the Public Relations Officer, WAPA, Mr. Femi Ogun, said the ministry would be on the case and take swift action on it.