By Ola Kehinde-Balogun
In Lagos, an army of school-age kids parades the highways. They overrun the roads and the side streets with prayers and begging bowls. As young as they are, they have joined hands with their parents to depend on members of the public for their daily needs.
Many wonder why such toddlers, mostly between four and six years old, are allowed to roam around highways, perpetually at the risk of getting injured or killed by reckless drivers.
Street begging, especially by children that should be in the classroom, is a prevailing situation at bustling bus stops across the Lagos metropolis. Toddlers of different ages abound on busy highways, begging, praying and crouching at the feet of passersby for a token. Some of them shower praise on their targets. This sometimes evokes emotions, and the kindhearted passerby would give some money to the beggar-kids.
Our reporter, who recently monitored the trend around the city, observed that as passengers disembarked from buses at Iyana-Iba Bus Stop, on LASU-Igando Road, they were swiftly waylaid by some of these witty kids. Many of the toddlers were quick to cling to the shirts, trousers and skirts of the disembarking passengers even as they pressed them for alms. Some of them were even more daring in their approach. They were observed clinging unto cars that were moving slowly in traffic.
At Orile, beggars of different ages line up the Lagos-Badagry Expressway. Parents, usually from the North, with their big begging bowls and their children, usually armed with small bowls, wait for passersby who would care to drop something for the day’s meal.
Close to Iyana-Ipaja roundabout was an array of beggars, with their youngsters looking hungry and helpless. While some toddlers sat on the laps of their parents, some older ones just loitered around the scene to see who would hand them some alms.
A trader in the area, who identified herself as Mama Biliki, wondered why the adult beggars continue to make babies.
“If you asked me, I would say, what is the benefit of bearing children that would turn out as beggars? Because that is the only job the kids are being exposed to. Among those people (pointing to the beggars) are husbands, wives and children. We have known so many of them for years in this place. It is just painful that some of them also give birth to kids in their condition. What can such children turn out to become in future? When you even look at the economic situation in the country, those that have been trained and educated are not finding their feet yet, let alone those who have got no training at all,” she said.
At the Iyana-Ipaja roundabout, the reporter observed a black sport utility vehicle that pulled over by the roadside. The window was wound down and the occupant of the back seat handed over a pack of foods and other gifts to the waiting beggars, who sprang up rapidly and clustered around the vehicle.
One of the beggars, Mama Amina, quickly directed one of her kids to keep some of the food. Speaking with the reporter, the middle-aged woman hinged the reason for using her kids to beg on her poor condition. In barely passable Pidgin English, she lamented that she and her family had no shelter, which was why they were on the road. She also stated that her culture and religion were not totally against begging, as the wealthy were expected to cater to the needs of the indigent.
“In the North, there is no discrimination against the poor who beg on the roads. On many days, Fridays especially, the rich ones in our society would gather us (the poor) together, and feed us. They would share with us cooked meals, and we would dine together. They would even give some foodstuff to us. It is natural that some people are destined to be rich and some to be poor. Those that have should give to those that do not have,” the woman said.
She pleaded with the Lagos State government to see beggars as part of the larger society and care for their survival as well.
“Some years ago, government officials used to disturb us a lot. In fact, they moved many of us to different locations outside Lagos. Help us beg them to have mercy on us. We do not like using our kids to beg, especially now that we see it is not a common practice here, but we cannot survive without begging. Government can help us in whatever way, but not by chasing us away,” she entreated.
At Oshodi Under Bridge, a woman dressed up her two babies and put them on display, even as she solicited for alms from passersby. With a bell in her hand that she rang intermittently to draw attention, she pleaded for mercy for the twins and told those that cared to listen that the poor babies’ survival depended on the alms she received.
The woman, who declined to give her name or allow her photographs to be taken by the reporter, said she was a widow and had no other means of survival.
She said: “Since I lost my husband when my kids were two months old, life has been very difficult. We used to live in a one-room apartment at Abaranje, a suburb of Lagos, and the landlord asked us to leave his house since I could no longer afford the rent. As a nursing mother of two, where will I turn to for work? Who will hire me with two kids?”
Some passersby were surprised that a mother would expose her little babies to the elements just to make money. A schoolteacher in Oshodi, Aderonke Muritala, said: “The dust and dirt around this environment is not good for these babies. It defies logic how a true mother would subject her child to the sun and the cold all the time in the name of money.”
A lawyer based in Lagos, Ayo Adeyemi, criticised the use of babies to beg within the metropolis. He anchored his view on the poor psyche being forced on such innocent children. He also cited the risks of being on the road as a factor that should deter any would-be beggars to have a rethink, even as he called for a social welfare system for the downtrodden in the country.
He said: “Child Rights Law should be promoted in Lagos State. There are many cases of child abuse and child labour. The Ministry of Youth, Sports and Social Development ought to ensure that promoters of child-beggars are dealt with. These children are supposed to be in school instead of the streets.
“But to what extent can you blame these beggars? Most of them are victims of the disjointed social system. They were dislocated from their base, and they really need to survive. They have been raped of the good things of life. Many of them were not privileged to go to school, and the same problem is gradually bedevilling their children.
“Need I tell you that this is a general problem in society? Today, both the rich and the poor cannot not sleep with both their eyes closed. We have the menace of Boko Haram, herdsmen, vandals, and bombers everywhere. This is because a section of our society has been neglected. People only see them as beggars; they forget that a section of the country’s political and economic system has enhanced it. This is a problem that must be tackled headlong from scratch.
“However, I am not saying that people have every reason to take to the streets and beg. No. There should be an enforcement of the law prohibiting it. But, more importantly, our people need survival. In fact, everyone is even a beggar in one way or the other in this economic crunch in the country. It is just that some are better placed than others.”