Lawrence Enyoghasu and Elizabeth Ogunbamowo
They sit on the pedestrian sidewalks at Egbeda. They stretch their hands to beg for money or food while their mouths mutter different sing-songs in their local language, in sync with one another. Crippled, blind and aged, they are all united by similar fate: they are all beggars. While some of them wear oversized clothes, the ones whose clothes sit well on them look unkempt. They flash at you, teeth tainted yellow with kola-chewing. A closer observation shows that the men sit some distance away from the women. Obviously, for religious reason! While some of their children who sit in the median busily finger leftover foods, others hold, by hands, their blind parents.
Such sight awaits you at Iyana Ipaja, Ikotun, Ejigbo, Shitta, Lagos Island, Ojota, Tollgate and many more places in Lagos. These beggars are from different parts of Northern Nigeria. Saturday Sun recently decided to wade into their world, to know how they live and make their money, to feel their pulse on how they cope with life’s challenges like poverty, hunger, love, dreams, etc. Do they have any dream at all, like you and I do, or do they hope or plan to die begging? How did they take to begging in the first place and are they really making it as people allege, as to want to continue to stay on the job for life? Those are the questions that our correspondents asked when they engaged them in conversation.
Different stories of how they started begging
As should be expected, they all have different stories to tell. Some of them claimed that the insurgency in the North forced them into the business. Mahmud Joseph, a 15-year-old who migrated to Lagos from Dikwa in Borno State spoke with Saturday Sun. You were surprised to find out that he could speak passable English and your consternation showed on your face, on your brows.
In your conversation with him, he started by addressing your surprise first. “I could see that you were surprised that I could speak English to you because I’m a beggar,” he said. “I am not proud of it but that’s what I have to do to survive. My parents were killed because of their religion. They were Christians and went for a fellowship down our street on the day they were killed. I was asked to buy pure water and biscuits they would share after the fellowship when the tragedy struck. Boko Haram terrorists attacked and killed many of the people at the fellowship, including the pastor and my parents. This happened six years ago. The rest of us escaped to nearby IDP camps and we were properly welcomed.”
At the camp, he said, some people were teaching the young ones schoolwork and encouraging them to aspire to be great men and women but Mahmud felt that his continuous stay in the camp might not bring him anywhere nearer his dream: to become the governor of his state. “I might never fulfill my parents’ wish for me becoming a governor. They believe that as a Christian, if I become the governor of my state, I will help to curtail the activities of Boko Haram insurgents.”
It was while he was contemplating what to do with his life that an idea came to him to follow ram-selling mallams to Lagos to look for greener pastures. During the last Eid el Kabir festival, he left the camp and joined a vehicle transporting rams to Lagos. Initially, the owners were not willing to accept him but Mahmud pleaded with them to allow him work for them for that period in exchange for food. He said the reason they objected to his request was because they believed that he would follow the wrong crowd and get lost the moment they arrived Lagos.
“By the time we finished selling the rams, I knew they would be leaving Lagos for Borno and I didn’t want to go,” he recalled. “So I sneaked out of the shed that served as home to us for that period. It was past 3 am because they do not sleep on time. I was determined not to go back to Borno. So I pretended as if I was sleeping till they all came in and dozed off. Even if anyone saw me leaving, they would have thought that I was going to pee. The following morning, I went to restaurants to beg them to allow me to be their messenger. They chased me away. Even the church my parents attended before they died, I saw the branch here in Lagos and walked in to explain to them all that happened so they could help me but they were scared. I could see that they were afraid, so I left.”
Not knowing what else to do to eke a living for himself, Mahmud said he wandered off until he found himself at Ikotun area of Lagos where he took to begging.
His story is markedly different from that of 25-year-old Ibrahim Mohammed from Kano State. He too stays at Ikotun to beg for alms. He ventured into it, he said, because he had no steady source of income. He revealed that beggars migrate between Ikotun, Ijegun and Iyana Odo where they spend a good number of months.
“My mother who is also a beggar brought me to Lagos as a child because she had no money to take care of me and since we cannot steal, I just had to continue to do this to survive,” he confessed. “If I get someone that would give me a tricycle to operate without any problem, I would stop begging because it doesn’t pay much.”
Jummai Isah, a female beggar, also from Kano, from Takai Local Government Area of that state, has a different tale. Divorced from a man who she believed was involved in an illegal business in Kano for which she was not comfortable with as he refused to disclose the nature to her, the 50-year-old woman said she had no other choice than to take to begging in order to survive. So, she is using the little money she is making from it to train her only son in school.
“I started begging because the child I have is not old enough to work and feed me,” she said. “He is with his father, so I have to look for something to do for a while to feed myself. I divorced his father because he was into things I don’t know. When I started asking questions, I became his enemy. So I divorced him.”
Saturday Sun gathered that, unlike Jummai, most of the female beggars are either married to a fellow beggar or to someone doing a menial job in the area. Young mothers among them have their husbands but some young widows remarry when they come to Lagos, especially so that they can get someone to feed them and their children. Amina who the correspondents ran into at Shitta, Surulere, said she is willing to move in with any man who will be willing to be her husband. She migrated to Lagos from Katsina, where Boko Haram insurgents killed her husband. She ran away from insecurity before she found herself begging on the street of Lagos, she said.
“To be sincere, one of the things that made majority of us run to Lagos is the killings in the North,” she noted. “They would kidnap someone as poor as a church rat and request for N2 million ransom from the family. Where would they get that from? They would kill the person at the end of the day. Just two days ago, vehicles conveying some of our people who had come to Lagos to make some money, on their way to Kano met kidnappers who shot at, maimed and kidnapped some of them. More than 15 passengers were killed on the spot. We have just come here to hide so we can live in peace. I stay at Iyana-Odo.”
At Tollgate, Nura Jatutu, a man in his 40s stood up from his seat and offered it to his wife, Fa’izah who was carrying in her arms a seven-month-old baby. She did so but ended up sharing it with her boy who came to lean on her legs. Nura called the boy and placed him on his lap. It was obvious he fathered him. Saturday Sun gathered that Nura who is a water vendor (mai’ruwa) met Fa’izah in Lagos when her parents who fled from Boko Haram in the north had brought her to stay. She became his third wife but as at now, she is the only one with him in Lagos. Others are in their home state. According to Fa’izah, she married Nura so that she and her children could be cared for. “It is a marriage I came to accept because I can’t go back to Borno. The land didn’t care for us.”
Aisha Musa, a young mother whose husband is a cobbler, seems to share the same fate with Fa’izah. “I have to beg for alms to feed myself and my child. The people here bring the kinds of food that are good for my child’s health but my husband cannot afford them. I am not working because my husband doesn’t want me to, especially with a child, though he knows that I do come here to beg for alms.”
She added that she did not see begging as something demeaning and shameful because God had commanded those who have to give to people like her who do not have. Shaibu Adamu, the Shugaba (leader) of Association of Egbeda Beggars said that they spend a lot to make sure they learn other trades aside begging. The 43-year-old indigene of Funtua Local Government Area in Kastina State said he took to begging because of poverty but he would like to leave it as soon as he gets any reliable means of living. “When I came to Lagos, I learnt how to repair vehicles especially tankers and generator sets but I couldn’t continue because I didn’t have enough money to buy some equipment,” he stated in pidgin English. “I don’t have money to rent a place also. Otherwise, I have been around for a while now.”
How they survive government harassments
Adamu also hinted on how they survive constant harassmentsfrom law enforcement agents and government officials in Lagos. “This location (Egbeda) is okay by me because in areas like Island and Ikeja, Maryland, Oshodi, we would not be begging in peace,” he said. “Security officials arrest beggars massively over there. Even in this place, I don’t stay for too long; I have time I am allotted to beg. I spend 30 minutes to two hours here every day. I earn at least N500 per day, which I use to feed myself. I belong to the association of the disabled but each time we approach the government, they ask us to go away, that they would attend to us later.
“I have a wife and two children in Kastina. My children are in school and I send money to them for feeding, fees, and upkeep. I am not educated but my children must not be illiterates, so they don’t end up begging like I do. It is not a good job. When they’re educated, they can help me. I stay around Idimu. If I get a better job, I would like to leave this job. I used to go to Cotonou to buy goods and sell them here but since they shut the border, it’s been difficult for me to continue the trade.”
Jummai insists that frequent sitting under the sun to beg for alms could cause more harm than good. “When I’m sick, the money I get from alms is what I use to buy drugs,” she said. “I am an ulcer patient and I also have hypertension. I always feel weak and dizzy. Every week, I purchase drugs so that I can remain alive. If I had remained in my town, nobody would have given me money for drugs or food. I have influential and wealthy people in my place in the North but they wouldn’t have helped me; they would have been looking at me till I die.”
Their ordeals in the hands of law enforcement officers
But she is not happy with what she sees as constant harassment from officials of Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, LASEPA. The officials, she avowed, often raid their habitation and whisk many of them away. They jail them or give them the option of paying N35, 000 fine which often they don’t have and cannot afford. In Lagos Island and Ikotun while our correspondents were talking to them, they noticed that the beggars responded to their questions while under high alert for a possible raid from the officials, which she said had been unpredictable.
“Government officials do not have a particular order of arresting us,” she said. “They might come today and not come again until after three months. They might keep coming for a full week. They just have a way of doing their things. They were here yesterday, but every one of us ran away. In the evening, around 6 o’clock we came back to our station but when we heard that they just arrested one of us at Igando, we took to our heels again. Sometimes even passers-by and those in vehicles inform us that government officials are arresting beggars at Iyana Ipaja or Igando and we simply run away.”
Appreciation for Lagosians and regrets
They say beggars cannot be choosers. But if Mahmud and his ilk, by any stretch of mind, have the chance to show their appreciation, they would want Sunny Ade’s music album, “Appreciation” played for all Lagosians who have been very kind and helpful to them. But he could not stop praising Ikotun residents, in particular, for their magnanimity.
“The people living in this area are good givers,” he said. “Some rich people would not even give you but those that do not have much give so well. Sometimes, they would cook jollof rice and chicken and bring them to us here. Some people would just come with bags of pure water and start distributing to us. During the Christmas period, we didn’t even feel like beggars; they showed us so much, love.”
Expressing his desire to further his education, Mahumd said: “I want to go to school. I miss my former school which is now damaged. When the problems of insecurity started, we stopped going to school and my mother was the one teaching me before she died. I love school and I hope that the government can sponsor my education. I see students pass by this place and I always envy them, but what can I do?”