Street beggars: Begging in coat of many colours


The act of begging dates back to ancient days; even Odysseus of ancient Greece crossed paths with Arnaeus, a beggar who sees Odysseus disguised in shabby clothing and fights for his territory. It is a practice that has endured for centuries. Considerably, the principle of inequality can be adjudged as the cause of begging. All fingers are not created equal, nor are humans across the globe. We experience birth more or less equally, but afterward, life never treats us the same. Life chooses to turn its bright side to some and leave others in darkness. Fortune and misfortune do take a toll on humans unequally. All in all, we are all predestined to fall on either side of a two-sided coin. Once tossed, we get shuffled between affluence and poverty, happiness and sorrow, success and failure, greatness and ordinariness, as well as being well-to-do and being needy. Generally, beggars lack the necessities of life which include shelter, clothing, and food. They rely on alms for their continued upkeep. These, they acquire by either wandering from place to place in search of good samaritans or rooted to a particular spot where all sorts of Naira notes are dropped in the pan and outstretched hands. The worrisome state of these beggars has become a burden and a responsibility to citizens across Nigeria. From the Northerner’s perspective, beggars are part and parcel of the society and culture. Their wellbeing is an obligation that must be fulfilled by everyone. The beggars are regarded as ‘The Almajiris.’ However, being an Almajiri is not limited to the disabled. They include able-bodied men and women, energetic boys and elegant girls, who regard their condition as a way of life.

Meanwhile, the South-Westerners’ (Yoruba) perception of begging quite differs from the northerner. Yorubas believe that hard work is the antidote of poverty. They believe in the strength of their arm, illustrated by their common phrase,

“one’s palm doesn’t deceive one.” Thus, they see no reason to give alms to able-bodied individuals. Such a person, either young or old, will be considered a lazy fellow and someone who wasted his youthful days and ended up being a failure.

Yorubas cherish dignity and respect which makes it quite difficult for one to come out as a beggar. However, beggars do emerge from the Yoruba under two categories; conditional beggars and ceremonial beggars. Conditional beggars are victims of circumstance. They include, mostly, physically challenged individuals and those that life has obviously and glaringly being unfair to. Unlike the Almajiris, these beggars are not imposed on the people under the umbrella of culture or belief. They don’t just wander along the streets with bowls, believing that the people must help them. Rather, they consider themselves victims of life’s cruelty and their misfortune shouldn’t be anybody’s cup of tea. While pleading for alms, they usually include a prayer to their ordeal. They recognize their ill fate and hence pray for passersby not to witness a fate such as theirs. They are good orators, narrating their story as brief as possible with prayers flowing in and out of their sonorous voice. Indeed, there is power in the tongue; that whatever utterances made through it can influence one’s life. This catches the South-Westerners well enough that they usually feel obliged to give to these conditional beggars. Funny enough, the Northern beggars, who found their way to the South-West, also learn about this clue. Thus, they upgrade from their mute mode of begging to the oral mode. They’ve mastered two Yoruba utterances, Adura a gba (your prayers will be answered) and Asiri a bo (may you never lack), which they echo once they come across someone. Just as stated in Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, “Eneke the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” The Yorubas also find a way of turning down their Northern friends by mastering a suitable response in the Hausa language. Allah bamu sa’a is the token response used in discharging these beggars whenever they appear with their two learned Yoruba utterances; which has become their national anthem. However, the majority of the Yorubas barely know what Allah bamu sa’a implies. All they know is that once said, the beggars do give up their quest and quietly walk away. Yet, what is being said is, “May God grant us success.” Ceremonial beggars, on the hand, are those certain of coming across at Owambe party. One distinctive feature of the Yoruba people is being socialites.

It is a long-accepted norm in Yoruba land that every little accomplishment of an individual calls for a celebration. From the day a child was born to his day of demise, there is always a cause to throw a party. The naming ceremony, matriculation, and valedictory ceremony, wedding ceremony, burial ceremony, etc., are paramount in the Yoruba social setup. In conformity with the exciting atmosphere attached to these ceremonial events, beggars tend to change their garment of sadness and put their despair aside for the meantime. They blend in with the crowd. Those who are conversant with Owambe party must have had an encounter with these ceremonial beggars. They range from a group of middle-aged women to wandering food beggars. These women are known for throwing themselves at anyone lingering around the premises of the party. Regardless of whom you are, you become the VVIP of the ceremony once you are sighted by these women. In a blink of an eye, they’ve started giving you special treatment; fanning, mopping and placing hand-made stickers on your dress. By the time they start rendering appraisals and eulogies, you need not be told before dipping your hand in your pocket. Almost immediately after you’ve donated, they depart from you and disperse; waiting for another hapless victim.

Similarly, from the Easterners’ (Igbo) perspective, begging is equivalent to hopelessness. The Igbos are well-known to be energetic, gregarious, and highly industrious. Among the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, they are convincingly the most enterprising. Hypothetically, they are the least likely to be found begging. However, despite their amazing attributes, beggars still emerge among this ethnic group. Though Igbo beggars might be rare in Lagos (I’ve only come across three since I was born), by venturing the Far East down to South-East, one is certain to come across a substantial number of panhandlers. For instance, a study conducted at Enugu revealed that beggars there are mostly Igbos (70.2%), Hausa (27%), Yoruba (0.8%), and nationals of Niger Republic (1.7%). Unlike the beggars from other tribes, the Igbos have what I describe as “Opera beggars.” Culturally, Igbos are prone to bursting into song at every slight incidence- even when the occasion doesn’t call for it. Their songs, when backed up with Ogene and enchanting flutes, are enough to keep someone at bay. In the time of good tidings, they sing songs of joy.

But in the face of hardship, strife, despair, and hopelessness, they sing sorrowful and sonorous songs. They best express their feelings through singing. Similarly, beggars from this part of the country apply songs to their ordeal to acquire sympathy from passers-by. Their sonorous voices are so captivating that it can pierce through a lion’s heart. However, irrespective of ethnicity and ideology, there are two categories of beggars commonly found across Nigeria. They are child beggars and disabled beggars. These two are on the rise in our society with little attention paid to their plight. It is disheartening that begging is gradually becoming a legacy in Nigeria; passing from parent to child. Our society has become eroded with poor innocent kids running after cars and wandering from shops to houses, person to person. Their territory has no boundary. Equally, they meander around suburban areas, slums, and ghettos, the same way they stroll through luxurious places like Lekki, Ajah, Victoria Island, etc. Meanwhile, most of these kids have parent whose inability to take up their parental responsibility had left the kids to strive for survival. Since their chance of survival is slim, they resort to begging which becomes a habit and in later years becomes a lifestyle. In the worst cases, some of these parents are also beggars. They put their children in the frontline to beg for alms while they helplessly watch somewhere in the background- their future vanishing.

Kehinde wrote from Lagos.

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