Begging isn’t a new business concern but Lagosians are getting smarter with the age-long commerce. NEWTON-RAY UKWUOMA, NAZA OKOLI, AYOMIDE OWONIBI-ODEKANYIN and OPEYEMI OWOASEYE probe into the new art, its trade secrets and legality.
There is a Yoruba wisecrack about bush rat sucking the breasts of its babies when it is grown and unable to fend for itself again. The saying also holds true for Africans who believe that children must grow to take over the welfare of their parents, after the latter must have spent their energetic age to support the growth physically, professionally and in all other areas, of the former.
The Holy Books also admonish it. Babies must grow to care for their parents for all their efforts. Another Yoruba wisecrack puts the interchangeable responsibilities as “gba fun Gbada nile, ni gba fun Gbada loko” which translates into (life is give and take).
Nothing should therefore be wrong, including legally, in whatever form with babies helping their parents to make ends meet. Even the mode of assistance considered illegally; youngsters who help their parents to hawk items to help family finances, has gradually become an acceptable societal norm, especially in the face of crushing economic situations all over the continent, including Nigeria.
Lagos is a mini-Nigeria and whatever is missing in the fabled City of Commerce is possibly not existing elsewhere. Every available means of parent-support by children is expected to be in abundance in the state. But what isn’t elsewhere is now also in abundance there. From acceptable and somewhat illegal child-help, some Lagos parents, particularly mothers, are now stepping into the real realm of criminality to have their children, no, babies, support them financial, even when yet out of diapers and the mothers, still with strength to eke a decent living themselves!
Child begging is a common sight on the streets of Lagos. But the new trend is more like child-support begging, when mothers rent out their babies, including week-olds, atimes, to total strangers, for a day of street begging and for a ridiculous fee of as low as N800 and as high as N1,500!
The Twin Price
It is said that when a woman gives birth to twins or triplets, she has brought immense blessing on society. The blessing, it is said, becomes even more copious and far-reaching with the increase in the number of babies. This is why women with twins are looked upon with adoration and kindness. There are, in fact, towns in Lagos where using babies for begging is accepted as a part of a grand culture. Badagry, Epe and Ikorodu are some of the places where women with twin babies are seen dancing around the market premises asking for money.
A woman beggar, who spoke to Saturday Tribune simply identified as Iya Ibeji, said that begging has become a part of her now, though she did not like it at the beginning.
A mother of two sets of twins, she said her foray into the business started after she gave birth to her first set of twins. The woman who hails from Osun State narrated how she carries her twin children around Ikorodu market dancing and singing, while her husband plays the drum.
She said, “It is normal in my family that when anyone gives birth to a set of twins, the woman would have to carry the children to a market place and begin to dance around.The arrest of some members of the syndicate recently by agents of government in the state got Saturday Tribune digging into what turned out to be a huge illegal business of new form of trafficking in which heartless mothers who hire the hapless babies make about N300,000 monthly!
At Iyana Ipaja, Lagos, opposite the BRT Bus Terminal, on the concrete slabs that separate the road from the drainage is a large number of women sitting, several children clustering around them. As vehicles move slowly in the traffic, the children wave at them, and call out for help.
This is not an unusual sight in Lagos, particularly under major bridges. Most pedestrian bridges in the state, it would seem, have ‘designated’ beggars on and under them. The male beggars (mostly those with disabilities) would sweep and keep the walkways clean in hopes that sympathisers would double their offerings in appreciation of their efforts. In spite of their hard work, however, findings reveal that they do not make as much money as their female counterparts, especially those with children.
Female beggars with children are the most patronised. Sometimes, they lay the babies, mostly twins or triplets, on mats and fan them while they sleep. Other times, they are seen making a show of feeding them. While passers-by make their way up and down the stairs of these bridges, they are often serenaded with loud, “God bless you!” “God bless you”. It is as if God’s blessing is for sale. But most times it works as the black polythene bags that lie in-between these children are never empty.
If you are one with overflowing milk of kindness and always eager to give, don’t at least be taken in by the mother-child begging bond! That hapless child lying helplessly on the mat with flies feeding fat on the mucus cascading from his or her nostrils to the mouth, is out to support a family, even as early in life as eight months old!
At Ojodu Central Market, at the Berger area of Lagos, during the week, an incident further led Saturday Tribune to seeing the evil of this trade. A young girl, who was about four years old, was seen beside the main road, with a small baby strapped to her back. Undeterred by the heavy traffic, she accosted people on their way to work, crying bitterly that she wanted something to eat.
The little girl soon began to cry very loudly, with mucus running down her nose. The baby strapped to her back was asleep. When she was asked where her parents were, she pointed to the back of a shop.
Some angry women followed her there and found her mother taking a nap on a mat she had spread on the floor. She explained that she was tired, and that people gave the child more money because she was young. She was severely warned to stop the practice, but sadly a few days later, the young girl was back on the street.
Could the four-year-old baby-mother and the weeks-old baby truly be her children and she would expose them to such grave danger of being run over by motorists?
A stakeholder was of the opinion that unless government agencies engage in sweeping arrests of such mother-beggars and compel them to show evidence of their parenthood of the children being exposed to danger, the success of the ongoing campaign against child abuse would be insignificant.
“In my own case, I did not like it initially, but I have to do it. When I carry the children around, my husband will be with the local drum (agbamole); sometimes he would go out with the talking drum. As I sing, the children dance while my husband is on the drum, and that is how we make our money. I have been doing this job for more than seven years. I have customers who give me money very well. In fact, they tell me that they want to hear me sing. I enjoy the job.”
She believes that her numerous customers seek her out daily because of the blessings attached to giving money to twin babies. Asked if she knew the legal weight of her action, Iya Ibeji, who communicated only in Yoruba, shrugged listlessly and moved on with her children.
The demand of this questionable tradition has become a crime avenue for some unscrupulous mothers as discovered by Saturday Tribune. Fake Iya Ibeji are now even more than the original as twins are allegedly rented out to beggar-mothers who engage in the usual e ta ibeji lore (bless the twins) dance in market places to make money that would be shared among her, the real Iya Ibeji and their go-betweens who are said to be mostly older women.
The fraud is reportedly taken to a level of two different babies from two different mothers but of almost the same age, being hired at a go, to create the twins impression in order to make more money than having just a child for the begging trade.
The use of infants and teens for begging has remained an aspect less considered as heinous. This is perhaps because of the immense sympathy it draws from, and the blessings it is believed to attract to the givers. The multiplicity of women beggars with babies in most towns in Lagos speaks volume of the general acceptance of this menace. However, recent findings have revealed that most of these women use rented babies to seek financial help from unsuspecting passers-by.
The case of Hadiza Umar, a 30-year-old woman arrested during the week with a set of twins she supposedly rented from her sister, Amina, for begging is an eye-opener. Hadiza, who hails from Niger State, was apprehended a week after the Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Social Development nabbed two other women later identified as Hadiza Nosiru and Salamotu Salisu. The women from Jigawa State were found begging at Oyingbo area of Lagos with three children they rented from two different mothers.
The ministry, on a rescue operation to evacuate tramps and beggars off the street, told Saturday Tribune that it was not until these women were taken to the Rehabilitation and Training Centre at Majidun, Ikorodu for shelter that it was discovered that the babies weren’t theirs.
Hadiza Umar, who spoke only Hausa, said, through an interpreter, that she was merely three weeks in the business before the law caught up with her. She, however, revealed that she agreed with the mother of the twins she called Husain and Husena, to remit between N800 and N1000 daily on each child. Hadiza confirmed that she made more than the remittance daily. Her daily income, she said, ranged between N8,000 and N10,000 daily. This is an approximate sum of N300, 000 per month and N3.5 million per annum, while the biological mother received about N30, 000 every month on each child and roughly N360,000 per year – merely 10% of the impersonator’s income.
The twins, whose father is a farmer in Kano State, will be a year old next month. Though Hadiza could not answer many questions put to her due to the language barrier, she disclosed that she operated under the Costain Bridge and lived in Otto, Oyingbo area of Lagos.
Meanwhile, Hadiza Nosiru and Salamotu Salisu, who were arrested earlier in the week with three rented babies also confessed to paying one of the biological mothers later identified as Tawa Aregbesola the sum of N1500 daily for her child.
Mrs. Aregbesola, who hails from Ibadan, Oyo State, told Saturday Tribune that she had an agreement with one of the impersonating mothers to use her baby for begging between 5pm-7pm daily on the condition that between N1000 and N1500 would be given to her in return.
Aregbesola, a mother of four, stated that she needed the money to pay the bills she incurred after giving birth to the baby, seeing that she lost her husband not too long ago. She also claimed she did not know her baby was used for begging.
Reacting to the menace, Mrs. Uzamat Akinbile-Yussuf, the Commissioner for Youth and Social Development, urged Lagos residents to “stop patronising” street beggars.
“Henceforth we will allow the law to take its full course on anyone caught begging or using children for that purpose. The fact that you have any disability does not make you a beggar potential. The Lagos State government has provided a lot of avenues where people living with disabilities are being catered for. And we have new plans to improve upon what has been done. We are saying instead let anyone living with disability come to the agency so that we can assist them.
“The Child Rights Law (Section 168) does not permit using any child to beg or as ancillary for begging. Government will no longer tolerate residents who beg for alms. It is rather unfortunate that as we try to evacuate these beggars from the street into social facilities the more they relocate from other states down to Lagos.
“The use of small children for alms seeking should be highly discouraged. What future do we pave for the children when they begin their lives as beggars or learn that they were used as props to seek alms?”
To what extent can this practice be likened to human trafficking? The Head of Press and Public Relations, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) Abuja, Mr Josiah Emerole said NAPTIP would not be able to “situate” the case until it is referred to the agency.
“It is unfortunate,” he said. “The issue of trafficking has to do with deceit, exploitation of the vulnerability of persons. If they use these children for begging it means that they are exploiting these children. There are basic reasons why people are trafficked or there are basic ways people are exploited in trafficking: some use them for labour, some for prostitution, some for begging, for organ transplant and harvesting, etc. if the authorities will refer the case to NAPTIP, it will help us to investigate the case properly, to help know who owns the children and how these children were taken from their biological parents. Right now, it is only when we have access to the culprits that we can adequately situate where the case belongs.
“Lagos has a properly defined Child Act Law, which also deals with this kind of situation. Lagos State can conveniently deal with this matter. However, if we have these persons in custody we will be able to investigate properly.”
War against giving?
Lagos has always been associated with greed, impatience and meanness. But it is also true that there has always been an abundance of kindness in the city. Kindness is the reason why begging has continued to thrive. Perhaps there is need to change all that?
“We are asking for attitudinal change,” said Akinbile-Yussuf. “We are used to giving N10, N20, N50 to these beggars. Now, we are calling on people to change their attitude of giving because street beggars are not the only ones that need your token. Beggars don’t need this money. There are people in our society that really need this money.
“We are not against anybody giving offering. We are saying that they should channel it through the right purse. We have social welfare homes, NGOs and the needy around us. We need to identify these places. We have different orphanages in Lagos State. And we are going to make these homes available to the public. We believe that we need to give to the underprivileged but the street beggars are not underprivileged. Some of them are richer than most of us.”
But Lagos residents are also deeply religious. The Reverend Bayo Awala of the Chapel of Christ Our Light, University of Lagos, said help should be given to those who “genuinely” need it.
“The Bible says you should give to the underprivileged,” he said. “Christians should fulfil their roles in giving to those who genuinely need help and leave the rest to God. God knows how to reward people according to their deeds. Perhaps, what is happening now is God’s way of exposing those who have abused this provision.”
For Sheik Shaykh Ismail Busayry, an Islamic scholar, begging has no place in Islam, and so should be discouraged.
“Begging is a social menace. You don’t need to give a fish to a hungry man; you should teach him how to fish. Islam discourages begging but encourages empowerment. So from the Islamic perspective, begging is wrong.”