You can’t miss them if you live in a country as hugely populated and as diverse as Nigeria, more so if you live in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos. They remain a part and parcel of the metropolis. Even though beggars are not unique to these parts, the method and manner of soliciting for cash on the streets is certainly unique here. I first really began to pay attention to the growing aggression of beggars when I was observing the compulsory National Youth Service programme in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State years ago. One time, I was in a colleague’s car in traffic when this man walked up to us to beg for alms. Apparently feeling ignored, he began to rap on the side glass in an attempt to get our attention, and probably force us to part with some cash, if not out of mercy, then as a way of escaping the nuisance he was constituting. It didn’t work.
Back in Lagos, apart from the obvious exponential increase in the number of beggars on the roads, there are also “ingenious” methods these category of people have deployed to ensure pedestrians and motorists are somewhat compelled to give them something. There are those who badger you to the point of exasperation. They come over to the side of your car, barking out recited prayers, knocking on your glass, clinging to your car, refusing to leave even when it’s obvious they aren’t going to get anything from you. And it makes me wonder…why spend several precious minutes pestering one person when you can cover 2 to 3 other cars before the traffic light flashes green. It’s definitely not about how big the car one is driving is, as there are usually more sophisticated cars than that of the one whom they refuse to let go of on that same queue. Maybe, they have a way of deciphering who looks more generous. Just maybe…
I had also heard of the ones who device fraudulent ways to hoodwink people into parting with their hard earned money, but like the doubting Thomas that I can be sometimes, I thought they were exaggerated tales, until I began to observe this boy who would always have an almost-sold-out bag of sachet water with him while he sat by the side of any of the major roads in Lagos, and “cried” his eyes out. As traffic ground to a halt the first time I ever noticed him, I was still contemplating on whether to ask him what was wrong when a fellow motorist beckoned on him. I could make out something about losing the money from the sales he made from his sachet water business. The kind fellow gave him a few naira notes.
A few weeks later, I saw the same boy on another major road, sitting by the road side, with the same packs of water (indicating that he had sold most of what he set out to sell for the day) pretending to be distraught over something once again. The young man who was supposed to be crying had not a single tear drop from his eyes. Of course, this made me wonder if lightning could strike twice in the same place. But, when I saw him again in yet another part of the city, reenacting the same show, I needed no soothsayer to tell me he was a fraud. This time around my friend was in the car with me, and I recounted what I had observed over time to her. And yet, this lad’s deception and ploy to scam unsuspecting Lagosians is not the worst.
Recently, there’s been a rising incidence of women using babies and children to solicit for alms. Before now, I was puzzled as to how many of the women beggars seemed to have twins, triplets and even quadruplets. I wondered if it was simply a coincidence, or an act of God as many believe. I got my answer when it was reported in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago that 2 women had been arrested for using other people’s kids (sometimes kidnapping them) to beg for alms. Reports have it that these women drug children to sleep and parade them in traffic under the pretext that they are suffering from one ailment or the other so as to draw the sympathy of road users. And, more often than not it works! For a good number of people, the fastest way to get them to give is by shoving an ill child in their face or displaying hungry looking twins or triplets before them. These group of beggars are the ones I find the most deceitful and annoying. Anyone who takes advantage of innocent children is the worst criminal, and deserves to be subjected to a special kind of punishment.
At this particular junction I drive through almost on a daily basis, there are some beggars who have no business begging as far as I am concerned. They always look good, wear wristwatches, laugh and jest among themselves and appear to be in perfect health save for a missing upper or lower limb (a challenge that shouldn’t stop them from engaging in honest work), but they clearly think otherwise. Year in year out they remain a staple on the roads as they are encouraged by people who keep giving to them. Rumour has it that these men are members of a “begging syndicate” who have an underground boss they remit the monies they make each day to. There are also those who paint parts of their bodies to create an illusion of a terrible wound, some pretend to be blind, deaf or dumb, while others simply prepare fake hospital reports “Oluwole style” and regale motorists with sorry tales of their predicament.
While I am an advocate of extending a helping hand to those in need, I have increasingly grown wary of giving to roadside beggars in particular because of their unscrupulous ways. There was even one who insulted my friends and I, and proceeded to buy a bottle of water to show us he wasn’t that poor when we didn’t give him any money. This happened not less than 4 years ago, and till this day, the same guy remains a beggar on the same road, which also makes me wonder if he still hasn’t made enough to start a small business with all he has earned from begging through the years.
It will always be an act of kindness and generosity to give, but to be swindled out of one’s money in these times especially, by people who are only out to take advantage of others, and in the process deny those who really need help the opportunity of getting the assistance they deserve remains in bad taste.