BY CHRIS ANYOKWU
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, a dramatist, poet, fiction writer, speaker, rights activist and public intellectual, is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and has joined Business a.m.’s growing list of informed editorial commentators to write on Politics & Society. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
There she was on a typically busy highway clutching a doll swaddled delicately in finery and passing it off as a bundle of joy heartrendingly exposed at dawn of life to the coarser aspects of human society: the unbridgeable class divide between the haves and the have-nots. Some Lagosians, habitually or customarily empathetic, were moved to dole out some money on account of the “adorable baby”, knowing that millions of people the world over are childless; some ready to give an arm and a leg to have a baby of their own, even a deformed one. They always need a child to call their own; a child that would address them as “Dad” and “Mom”. And as a result of this, some desperate couples go out of their way to adopt a child from orphanages and motherless babies’ homes.
In these parts, one’s material wealth, one’s worldly possessions, such as yachts, private jets, castles, exotic cars, land and gold – coveted indices of achievement – count for nothing, absolutely nothing if one has not got an issue: male or female, what does it matter? It is against this backcloth that a lady, ostensibly down on her luck, decided to cash in on society’s penchant for charity; its age-old fetishisation of a child. It’s possible she had left her living child (ren) at home, perhaps in order to spare them the inclement vagaries of the road. She had taken it upon herself to take a doll, deceptively wrapped up in swaddling cloth and pretended it was a living soul. And there she was with this “child” asking alms on the busy road amid all the attendant risks – exposure to the elements, sunstrokes, rain, wind, noxious fumes from vehicles, air pollution, air-borne diseases, road mishap, and the like.
For whatever reason(s), the Lagos beggar had run out of luck when a motorist ensconced in the cosy interior of his sleek carapace, took especial interest in the spectacle of a humbly-clad lady cradling her infant baby by the roadside, begging alms. He has wound down the side-glass of his car and addressed her thusly: “May I see the face of your baby, please?” Silence had fallen in a trice. It was the hush before a storm from the lady’s point of view. “Go on, lift the veil, please. I want to see the face of your child, abi?”, insisted the male motorist. Oh, Awkwardness, thy name is a fake mother clutching a dead doll asking alms of unsuspecting society! So pitilessly unmasked, the beggar knew the game was up; therefore prolonging the charade would only pique the curiosity of a gawpy society. She had obliged the car-owner, giggling nervously. She had lifted the veil to reveal the doll-child.
It is quite easy to want to take the Lagos beggar to the cleaners for this cheap blackmail aimed at loosening the purse-strings of polite society. It’s equally so to pelt her suitably with a barrage of whys and wherefores: Why couldn’t she do some decent work rather than begging under false pretences? She’s one of the lazy Nigerians we are told make up the population, notably of the youth. Maybe she was a whore doing this on the side in order to make ends meet. Plain moonlighting, that’s it! She should have gone to school in her younger days but apparently had turned deaf ears to parental advice. But we need to pause and ask ourselves, the educated ones, are they employed? Those fortunate enough to be employed, how much do they earn? Can their take-home take them home? Isn’t their employer a comedian and all he pays them, a joke? Quite likely, the Lagos beggar had taken to the road out of desperation. Hunger could have forced her to cast aside bashfulness, basic human shame to beg alms. Let us not discount or discountenance the tug of need as the foundation of motivation. For those familiar with literature, the Lagos beggar is simply a latter-day reincarnation of Moll Flanders. Born of a whore in a prison, Moll grows up to take after her mother and after having made good, she decides to pursue a career in crime. And, thus, in Moll’s case, need morphs and mutates into greed. This is a picaresque bildungsroman which on multiple levels allegorises the Nigerian Condition. Further, we know that destitution is a global phenomenon as highlighted in Majek Fashek’s evergreen smash-hit titled, “Majek Fashek in New York”. In the song, the reggae crooner bewails the lowly dog-life led by the down-and-out, including white folk! Europe and America in all their much-vaunted glory are full of street beggars and similar low-life. Only very recently we all saw on social media disturbing footage of daylight shoplifting in America in 2022! Perhaps this is in fulfilment of Bible prophecy, to wit: “The poor, you shall always have in the land” (Matthew 26: 11).
But on a more serious note, the average Nigerian has been so impoverished, pauperised and disinherited that s/he has only one option open to him/her for survival, namely: BEGGING! ASUU has been at the barricades for nearly a year now and all they’ve got from a callous and sadomasochistic government is “NO-WORK-NO-PAY” position! Eight months out in the wilderness of industrial dispute, no salary! You want to know how their members are getting by? By working, even during the strike action, with their collective self-respect and dignity intact. They are the exception to the rule! How about civil servants drudging everybody in government offices and parastatals? Do they beg? You bet, they do. To be sure, the Nigerian civil servant is nothing but a dignified beggar, selling reach-me-downs, odds-and-ends on the side in order to eke out a living. Householders are also beggars, more or less. They often beg their Shylock-like landlords and landladies to give them just a little more time to pay their rent. They beg their creditors to be patient with them; they beg school authorities to have mercy on them regarding payment of school fees as and when due. They beg the grocer, the foodstuff seller to bear with them their inability to pay up for the groceries bought on credit. Most women, both married and single, are now professional beggars. They beg uncles, aunts, next door neighbours, church members and even total strangers – for money to pay the bills. Rapists and lechers are not spared. These women beg them for money. Just to put food on the table. And clothes to cover their shame. (Overlook the irony, please!).
Do men fare better in this regard? By no means! African men, socialised to be self-possessing, to display sang-froid under the direst of circumstances, are a little better than corporate hobos. You find them, sometimes in suits, armed to boot with a posse of complimentary cards in offices, road-sides, on buses and at bus stops constructing various castles with brick and mortar of lies and stretched truths. My container is on the high sea, it will soon arrive! Please lend me 500k and I will repay it with interest. Sound familiar? Of course, it does, except if you are living under a rock!
Even the so-called high-and-mighty also beg. As an undergraduate, yours sincerely once accompanied a friend whose father was a former Senator to a Governor’s office. His father, then in straitened circumstances, had taken us to the seat of power in this largely bucolic State Capital. Seated and waiting hours on end were an army of powerful beggars, all former this, former that! We didn’t leave not until my friend’s Dad had been bailed-out! And we understand this is standard practice in ALL Government Houses to this day! Small wonder, therefore, politicians could and would commit murder, blue and otherwise in order to gain political power. For what better means of amassing unearned wealth for the rainy day? Also, that governance in these parts is sheer booty-sharing in which the privileged sharers cart away their heists to obscure places – soak-away, graves, cellars, and underground vaults – is commonplace knowledge. It is also in this light that the award of jumbo severance packages valued at billions of naira makes good sense.
Sadly, Nigeria as a country is a beggar or a beggarly nation, what with her current policy of borrow-and-spend. We now beg and borrow to do everything: to service our debt; carry out the day-to-day business of government; to execute both recurrent and capital projects and expenditure. We borrow to breathe as a people. Oh, we beg; we beg for toothpick; we beg for tractor. We beg for ideas and ideologies. We beg to exist, all things duly considered. Begging is now our national ethos. Why so? Because we are afraid to break the mould, to slough off our consumerism and roll up our sleeves to do – (the) grunt work, to engage in production! 2023 is upon us: let’s vote wisely!
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