Behind the curtains: A day in the lives of street beggars

street beggars

Ma’ida (sometimes called Fatima) didn’t envisage herself ending up miles from home and roaming the streets of Nigeria’s biggest city (by population), Lagos.

She didn’t envisage being called a street beggar, one seeking alms from passersby she can’t even communicate with, since she neither understands English nor Yoruba. However, how do you rebuild life from scratch as an unskilled mother of 6 after a fire consumed what little you have?

Her answer was to pack the little she had left and travel to Lagos in search of greener pasture.

Nigeria’s millions-strong problem with destitute street beggars is a visible reminder that the country is home to a staggering 86.9 million people living in severe poverty.

The beggars of Lagos are as diverse as the city is – in age, gender, ethnicity, even nationality.

street beggars

Nigeria’s position in West Africa both geographically and in economic terms, coupled with a border as porous as a broken dam, means that the country, even as it grapples with its own internal problems, sees an influx of people from neighbouring countries desperate for survival. Young Juwon is one of those persons, who far from a rarity are as common as the windblown sands of the Sahara.

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In Northern Nigeria, where the country borders Niger Republic and the cultures across the border are intricately intertwined, it is a common sight. And to the indigenes in the states bordering the Republic of Niger, it is given to see whole Nigerien families walking about aimlessly, dependent on the goodwill of a passerby for their next meal. The notion, too, that all it may take to end street begging in the North is to stem the influx of desperate Nigeriens is also common among Northerners. It is however not that simple. For many of these people, like Juwon, the road back home is a blank memory.

“I don’t know how to go back home,” he said in Yoruba, a language shared by South Western Nigeria and his home country, Benin Republic.

Young Juwon has established roots here, no matter how wispy. Hanging around other beggars his age. They all share one thing in common, a lack of options. That means they are stuck in a cycle that may never end unless the Nigerian government takes seriously, the need for safety nets for its citizens and bilateral policies with its neighbours that will make its claim to greatness in Africa more than empty words.

street beggars

Solid structure in the rough

Seen from the outside, beggars in Lagos appear isolated; every man for himself. The reality, however, is that there is a structure to this thing. It makes sense too.

The tussle for survival even where the odds aren’t as unfavourable as they are for street beggars is an every man for himself game. Turf wars, as seen among street thugs in the megacity, could easily break out among the beggars in the city also, but the stabilising influence of Abdullahi Hamza, the chief of beggars union of Lagos, keeps that at bay.

“I was assigned by the Sarkin Hausawa Aminu Dogara,” he said. The government is also aware of his position, he claims. While he stays home and prays, he oversees his people, some of whose dreams and aspirations are larger than his own.

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Also, while speaking to a Lagos resident who asked for anonymity, there is a kingpin who protects and coordinates a beggar community in Lagos.

“So, I learnt that there’s a syndicate that brings these destitutes in truck loads into Lagos and environs in promise of a better life, but turn them into career beggars, impregenate the women to procreate more beggars.

“The major bombshell is that there is tax. Every beggar has to make returns at the end of the day to the big boss in their district. You cannot move around, unless you are permitted.

“Don’t you ever wonder why those children at Adeola Odeku, Akin Adesola, Ebutte Meta, etc, never get missing? Even though they wander around on the street. There are eyes on them,” he says.

Where aspirations come to die

Abubakar may have had an altogether different life where he takes over his father’s livestock trade. The father, who is now jobless following an accident that crippled him, has lost the capacity to inspire and Abubakar now roams the streets with young beggars like Juwon dependent instead on the goodwill of strangers. He aspires nonetheless – even though he sees no way to attain that aspiration, to go to school.

Razak, another boy about his age who left a broken home in Ibadan to fend for himself in Lagos also has designs for a life he is not in a position to have full reign of.

“I want to become a lawyer,” he said about his desired life. He had been to school up to J.S.S 2, the dream isn’t farfetched.

The same can’t be said of Shamsiyyah, who has only had Almajiri education, but then her own dreams are not as grand. “Whatever I get to do, I will do it,” she said about considering stopping begging, “begging is hard.”

Ma’ida, like all mothers, has eyes only on what she could do for her children. She left six children back home, 3 of them adult women she has married off. The remaining 3, one of whom is a girl studying in a boarding school in the North, are all in school. She doesn’t want begging for herself, “If I get a paid job, I will do it. I just want to be able to take care of my widowed mother and children.” It makes sense therefore that she is doing what she can to improve her children’s prospects.

A void in governance

There is a very human tendency to simplify things to avoid facing the intricacies of complexity, but complexity is the very fabric in which life is woven. While analysts understand that the reason for the destitution that occasions street begging is a hydra-headed monster that can include laziness, many everyday people simply hold on to the laziness bit. It is not that simple, sadly.

Shamsiyya’s unbowed spirit which shines like a beacon from her jade eyes would have seen her bloom into a fierce thriving career woman had it met a social safety net on its descent into beggary. It met the hard and unforgiving reality of a state that is unbothered how its 86.9 million poor survive the hardship of everyday living. Yet rather than shatter, she picked herself up and kept it moving through a terrain that is all hardship. She laughs notwithstanding.

There are many Shamsiyyas on the streets of Lagos, and a million-plus predators just waiting for a chance to pounce. If for nothing else, but the immediate safety of these beggars, many of them children, the Nigerian state needs to sit up.

The void in governance is yawning, and it is swallowing its own.

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