By Bola Bolawole
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Last week Friday as I made my way home after a hectic day of burial arrangements for my mother-in-law, I ran into some “area boys” not far from my home at Agege. Five of them rudely forced the driver to a halt. One stood right in front of the car to prevent any movement; the others surrounded the car and commanded us to give them money. You cannot live in Lagos and not be familiar with beggars and street begging.
In times past, it used to be the “Banbi Allah” that went from house-to-house begging for alms. The name must have been coined from the song they sang while soliciting for alms: “Asiri abo, Banbi Allah” They would sing the main stanzas and we children would chorus the refrain “Banbi Allah” after them! They were mostly handicapped and flaunted their disability to attract pity, attention, and patronage. They were mostly blind and were led by a child whose own destiny, obviously, got truncated that way.
Itinerant beggars are still a common sight in Lagos but, beyond that, they now have colonies where they sit in rows waiting for customers. They are usually of all sexes with their young ones milling around them and running errands. These young ones are now the ones who run after passers-by, sticking their hands and neck into people’s cars soliciting for arms while their parents watch from a distance. Once a catch is made, the child runs joyfully to Mom or Dad to hand over the collection.
Efforts to get beggars off the streets of Lagos have failed. Reasons adduced include that the beggars were not properly looked after in the facilities created for them by government; that begging is lucrative and beggars make so much money begging; and there is also the religious angle to begging. Giving of alms is one of the five pillars of Islam. There must be beggars to receive the alms. Adherents of other religions also engage in “sara” or giving to beggars for their prayers and or supplications unto God or the gods to be answered.
In those days, it was rare to find Yoruba beggars. Gradually, however, they have surfaced everywhere. Initially, they were women and they came from outside of Lagos. They were not handicapped but had tales of woes that drew the sympathy of many. Before long, two of such women-beggars were busted at Maryland after one got into an argument with a Good Samaritan and boasted about how she had recently completed a second storey building at Ibadan!
As their tribe grew, many of such beggars feigned illnesses, diseases, disabilities, and disasters you would never wish on your enemy. While I was editor at the PUNCH, one well-dressed man was led into my office and he told me the heart-rending story of how he had just lost his daughter at the Ikeja general hospital and needed X amount to transport the corpse back home for burial. I gave him more than he requested.
Years later, I saw the same man in Lagos traffic begging for alms. One day he was unfortunate enough to accost me on the flyover linking Ikeja to the local airport. As he poked his head into my car, I told him “You are Dr. So and So from Owo Polytechnic; your daughter had just died at the Ikeja General hospital…” He did not wait to hear the remaining part of the story before voting with his leg!
Standards have fallen; values have been lost and the Yoruba time-honoured concept of Omoluabi lay in ruins. In those days, rather than beg, the Yoruba would undertake menial jobs to keep his integrity intact. Rather than steal, the Yoruba refrain in those days is that it is more honourable to die. No more! Many of the beggars on the streets of Lagos today are Yoruba – male and female. No shame or qualms again!
The other day, one who pretended to be disabled on one leg accosted me for money but I did not oblige. Few metres down the road, my vehicle developed some fault. In the meantime, he had finished his soliciting, packed his make-believe crutches and was walking briskly past. He taunted me and my wife: Olorun mu yin! Mo ni k’e fun mi l’owo, ee fun mi! He even tried to discourage those helping us to push the vehicle from doing so simply because I had refused to fall for his trick.
Those were bearable days when beggars begged for alms and went their way if not obliged. Some would throw tantrums or curse, though. My wife would respond with “back to sender” while I assured myself that the scripture says “a curse causeless shall not come” Times have, however, changed and we now live in perilous times.
The “beggars” out there these days are not ordinary beggars but crude and merciless enforcers of the “new normal”, as someone called it, which is fast defining the relationship between the poor and the rich, the haves and have not. There is class war out there and it promises to get sharper and more vicious as the economic situation deteriorates further.
Last Friday my wife wanted to take umbrage at the rudeness of the roughnecks who had accosted us but I quickly saved the situation: “Eyin boys, ki le fe?” “Baba Alaye e fun wa l’owo” I commanded my wife to open her bag and bring out money; which I handed over to them and they evaporated into thin air. As we negotiated the bend less than 50 metres away, there was this lanky chap right in the middle of the road. Mouth agape, he was gyrating, his tongue as blue as blue can be and he pointed our attention to it with his fingers. I asked my wife what was that, and she simply said “tramadol”! We quickly gave him money and he, too, cleared out of sight.
I recounted these incidents to a neighbour who told me I was very lucky. A friend of his was stopped in a similar manner in broad daylight. The boys stripped him of his phone and other valuables and walked away. Passers-by minded their own business; otherwise “oran oloran” (another person’s wahala) can become theirs instanta!
During the recent ENDSARSNOW protests, some Yoruba intelligentsia played the ostrich, accusing the Igbo and Fulani of burning down Lagos. It is likely that there are vagrants, miscreants, and bad belle Igbo and Fulani youths who could have done that but it bears repeating that the Yoruba have enough of its own bad boys to destroy Lagos many times over without a helping hand from anywhere. And these Yoruba youths have mountain-high grievances.
Check the statistics: The South-West has the highest number of higher institutions in Nigeria churning out the highest number of Graduates yearly, majority of them roaming the streets 10, 12 years after graduation with no job in sight. Besides, many of the undergraduates in institutions of higher learning in the North especially and other parts of the country are also of South-West origin. The stream of rural-urban migration from all over the country empties into the South-West.
The hordes of workers losing their jobs in Lagos mostly stay put there. The millions of feet that pound the state on a daily basis and the millions of vehicles that traverse it cannot but wear the roads out in no time; and the sheer number of people who struggle within the Lagos space, laying claim to its sparse infrastructure, cannot but run everything ragged. Yet, Lagos is accorded no special status by the Federal Government.
South-West’s political leaders would rather run errands for Northern feudal oligarchs as well as run rings around one another than join forces to better the lot of their own people. So selfish and so bereft of ideas! So self-opinionated! Once they are okay personally, nothing else matters! What kind of leaders are these?
Igbo youths are busy learning a trade under a master at Alaba, Ladipo, Computer Village; name it. Fulani/Hausa youths are learning the ropes of the foreign exchange trade all over the place but Yoruba youths are the ones doing “Alright sir” all over the place. Those who parade as Yoruba leaders should be ashamed of their activities and records.
But I tell them this: When heaven falls; everyone will be affected. We all had a taste of it in the recent ENDSARSNOW protests. The earlier the Yoruba leaders urgently developed for their youths a scheme like the Igbo did after the Civil War for their own youths, the better for us all. Begin to empower Yoruba youths to go into trading and commerce. Revive all the abandoned farm settlements and industries of the Awo era. Stop the corruption. Stop playing to the gallery. Stop the wasteful expenditure. Stop white elephant projects. Stop chasing the shadow of 2023. Love your own people. Help your own people. Stop the in-fighting. Imitate the Fulani. Imitate the Igbo. Take the Yoruba youths off the street before it is too late!
You will say I said so!
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