Helping himself to a gorgeous-looking bowl of rice and chilled bottle of a popular soft drink as his hands carefully flicked through each naira note from the bunch clutched tightly between his left palm, Adamu Turaki, 54, sang quietly but excitedly to himself at intervals as he rests from a tiring day at ‘work’. Having returned to the spot after nearly walking nine, energy-sapping hours navigating different street corners in search of potential ‘clients’, treating himself to such ‘feast’ is a tradition he never misses at such periods. His picture and countenance on this evening speak of a man deeply content with the day’s ‘business’.
But while the Jigawa State-born man swims in money these days despite the harsh economic situation in the country affecting many individuals and families, his only ‘business’ is not any form of buying and selling or even rendering a service – Turaki is a beggar, who lost his sight when he was 15. Even though he had solicited for alms back in his hometown since that period, it was until he made the long journey to Lagos – Nigeria’s commercial capital, 12 years ago that the pastures before him turned green. With three wives and 31 children under his care, the 54-year-old has hit gold begging on the streets of Lagos.
“Today was good,” he told our correspondent at a section of the popular Mile 12 market, one of the largest groceries shops in the country, earlier in the week through the help of an interpreter. “I and my son, Mutari, left here by 9:00am for Gberigbe in Ikorodu and only returned to this place a few minutes past 6:00pm. If not for the Ramadan fast, we could have been out till almost 7:00pm before returning.
“Today was different; people blessed us a lot in all the places that we went to. In fact, it was as if we had never been to the areas we went to today. I am very happy and wish every day could be like this,” he said smiling, before taking another sip from the bottle of beverage drink beside him.
One of the veterans in the act in this part of Lagos, Turaki, in company with his guide-son, Mutari, a pale-looking 11-year-old, heads out to beg for alms in different sections of the metropolis every morning, hoping to record enough returns capable of dwarfing the previous day’s ‘earnings’. He has mastered the art and understood the terrain so much that he knows which day is best to visit which community. Even though he refused to disclose how much he realised on the day our correspondent encountered him, the father of 31 revealed that he comes back to his base at Mile 12 with nothing less than N3, 500 daily on the average. When calculated, that is about N105, 000 in a month – more than five times the monthly N18, 000 minimum wage for skilled and able-bodied workers in many states of the federation.
“There are some days we make up to N5, 000 and even more,” he pointed sharply, carrying on with eating and counting the naira notes in his hands. “Some rich people sometimes come across us and ask that we pray for them. After such prayers, people like that give us special amounts enough to make us stop work for that day. It is not every day that we meet such people and that is why we have different days for visiting different places to beg for alms.
“Before my son became my guide, I used to pay the people that took me about a certain amount from the money we realise in a day. Even though the amount wasn’t fixed, the least they collected was N500. That price has gone up today, they collect between N800 and N1, 000 now,” he added before exchanging pleasantries with fellow blind beggars, who had also returned to the section of the popular market where many of them reside, after a hard day’s ‘job’.
Also frantically counting different denominations of naira notes at a corner of the section when our correspondent visited the place recently, 32-year-old Ibrahim Hassan, a native of Sumaila Local Government Area of Kano State, was all smiles as he interacted with other blind colleagues in the ‘business’ of begging. Losing his sight before turning six, life dealt him terrible blows, throwing up new and tougher challenges on his path as he struggled to find his balance growing up in the countryside where deprivation was rife. But since journeying to Lagos 14 years ago, a lot has changed for Hassan, his two wives and five children. Full of humour, the young man returns to his base at Mile 12 every evening with a loaded pocket.
“Even though moving around different locations to beg consumes a lot of energy, the returns at the end of the day compensate for all the pains encountered in the process,” he said in disjointed English. “Before coming down to stay at Mile 12, I had operated at Agege, Ijora and Mushin, so I know a lot of places in Lagos even without seeing. But since moving down to this place, the experience has been quite different,” he stated with renewed vigour.
But lucrative as it sounds, operating as a beggar at Mile 12 and many parts of Lagos is not totally a smooth sail – there are processes and conditions one must fulfill before getting the approval to do so. For example, like many organisations regulating and coordinating the affairs of members of the society, especially artisans, beggars including the blind ones also have an association that oversees their affairs. While in most cases the ‘longest serving’ individual at a particular location presides over the affairs, in others, the oldest person at such places could also be handed the mantle of leadership, findings by Saturday PUNCH reveal. To be allowed to become a part of a particular ‘branch’ of the association, members must agree to certain rules which include always accepting the verdict of the leader on any matter regardless of what the individual may think. The person must equally agree to pay the daily and special levies to the leadership which is usually between N100 and N300, depending on the nature of occasion at hand. The money collected, according to some of the leaders, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH, is to take care of the sick among them, pay for bails in cases of members arrest during routine raids by government agencies, and also take care of other expenses like security and general welfare of all.
Apart from these, new ‘intakes’ are told which areas they can start operating pending when they would be fully absorbed into the body. According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, some locations and spots regarded as “very lucrative”, are preserved for top members of the association especially those, who have stayed long in a particular ‘branch’. Individuals operating in these areas with high human traffic, make more than twice the amount the others bring home by the close of each day, it was discovered. Major bus-stops within a particular neighbourhood, entrance of estates, religious organisations, motor parks and even markets are all considered to be lucrative locations to beg for alms. Leaders of each particular unit, to avoid unnecessary conflict, divide these locations among members depending on their hierarchy within the group. Of this bunch, markets and schools are considered the least lucrative by members, our correspondent found. New members are usually dispatched to these sections and inner streets until about one year when there could be some form of ‘reshuffling’.
“Once a person returns to the North to treat maybe a sickness or eventually dies, the location where they go to beg automatically becomes open and therefore would need another individual to take over,” leader of beggars at Ketu bus stop, a very busy part of the metropolis, Jumai Ahmadu, a middle-aged woman, told our correspondent. “Dispatching another person to such place will come after I consult with other senior colleagues. This could take up to two or three weeks. In between, some members come to me to lobby for such places. Some even promise to pay double the normal levy and occasional contributions if I give them such area to go to beg. As a principled leader, I do not condone such because I believe in merit and fair play.
“I have been chairperson of beggars here for about two years. We don’t conduct election; we select the person to lead us by first praying and also considering how long he or she has operated at that particular spot.
“But one of our biggest problems at the moment is thieves. They steal our money and also collect our phones.
“That is not all; people that we keep our money with also cheat us. Many times when we go to collect it from them, they’ll come up with all sorts of excuses while some will in fact run away from this area completely. It is from part of the money that we keep that we are able to bail anyone of us arrested during raids by government officials. We pay as much as N30, 000 most times to effect these bails,” she said.
At the Mile 12 market, an elderly man with no sight simply known and addressed as Seriki, is the leader of both able-bodied and visually-impaired beggars in the community. Having been in the business for more than 20 years and in the saddle of leadership for about that same period, he lives like a royal among his people. Every day, more than 50 people sleep and wake up in his expansive premises at a section of the market. Beggars all across the community even as far as Ikosi, Agiliti and Alapere pay homage to him on regular basis. His influence is so strong that market and political leaders in the area consult with him before taking any major decision in and around Mile 12. Seriki was said to have travelled to Saudi Arabia to observe the Ramadan fast when our correspondent visited the area recently.
“Our leader, Seriki, is not around, he is in Mecca to observe the Ramadan fast,” a 56-year-old blind beggar, Umaru Musa, told our correspondent. “He travelled since last week and won’t be back till after the fast. But there is no problem of leadership as there are elders amongst us taking care of things. Every member of our union knows the rules and what is expected of them, so nobody will go against these.
“Over here, we also pay levies and contribute certain amounts in cases of emergencies when one of us is sick and needs to be taken back home in the North. The Seriki and other leaders also ensure the release of our people whenever they are arrested by government officials for begging on the highway.
“Even though before a new person starts begging here, they don’t have to pay, they are told all the rules and regulations guiding us and must agree to abide by them. The laws are different from place to place.
“In fact if not for the type of leader we have here, a lot of people could have been fighting one another over who goes to which location to beg for alms. Even at that, a lot of lobbying still takes place because some areas are indeed more profitable in terms of begging for alms than others. This issue used to cause a lot of bad blood anywhere you have beggars and that is why without good leaders, such can degenerate into a major crisis. In this regard, our Seriki is really trying. He has ensured that we live and operate according to the laid down rules,” he said.
Interestingly, this practice is not limited to beggars in Mile 12, Ketu and environs alone. In other parts of the city visited by our correspondent, the trend was discovered to be almost the same. In Agege, Ebutte-Meta and Ikorodu where large concentrations of beggars exist, daily operations of individuals in the act are mostly coordinated by leaders in each axis. While the levies vary across these places, the decision of who stays where to beg also rests in the hands of the leaders. Many of them not willing to play the politics of lobbying, go to as far as places like Sagamu and Epe from their respective bases to beg for alms every day. Part of the daily and special contributions made by members in a particular area are used to also take care of the welfare of the leaders and their households, who mostly do not go out to beg again after putting in years of ‘meritorious services’, it was discovered.
“There is nowhere you go to that you won’t see leaders of beggars living fairly good lives,” Abiba Hasana, a former beggar but now petty trader in the Ikorodu area of Lagos, told Saturday PUNCH. “Having put in so many years begging from one corner of Lagos to the other, the period they are made leaders in a particular area is their time to reap some of the fruits of their labour. It is not as if they mismanage the funds of the group, no, they have a number of businesses that bring in money for them apart from the benefits they also derive as leaders of the unit. People gift them money specially, also community leaders relate with them very well and bless them too. So, many of such persons don’t lack,” she revealed.
Another interesting aspect discovered by our correspondent is that just like most trade unions where there are structures and mechanisms to protect and punish erring members, beggars in many Lagos communities have their own ‘special police’, whose duty is to enforce an order once taken. For instance, blind beggars at the Mile 12 area of the city have their own security officials, who are also visually impaired. They are to ensure that members’ items and personal belongings are not tampered with while they are away in other areas of the metropolis ‘scavenging for customers’. Part of their job is to also ensure the safety and peaceful cohabitation of members with other individuals and groups within the community. While those who beg do so with the aid of a guide, many of these ‘special police’ officers move around only with the aid sticks in their hands – they know and understand every corner of the area even without their eyes.
“Our work is to avoid any form of harm coming near our people,” a member of this ‘special force’, Mohammed Nahim, told our correspondent. “A lot of our people are usually attacked and robbed of their monies, mobile phones and other personal belongings because they cannot see. Our leaders decided to establish this unit to protect ourselves and also ensure that members obey laid down rules. Many of us come from Oyingbo and Agege on regular basis to carry out assignments here. Our operations have improved the safety of members a lot,” he said with a warm grin.
Apart from the solid organisational structure that appears to exist in the fold of street beggars in Lagos, their conditions seem not to affect their taste for the good things of life, in fact. For example, during visits to Agege, Ebutte-Meta, Ikorodu and the Ketu/Mile 12 areas of the city recently, our correspondent observed how many beggars used quality mobile phones besides eating good food and also wearing nice foot wares in some cases. Despite their visual disability, a handful of individuals in this category were seen instructing lotto agents in some of these areas on what games to stake for them. Their knowledge of the lottery scheme, according to one agent, Akeem Lanre, who spoke with our correspondent, is amazing.
“I have many of these blind beggars as customers,” he said. “They come to my kiosk to play games regularly. Even without seeing, they know when each game will start and end. It surprises me at times. Apart from lotto, they also play sports bet because many of them love football. In fact, they do what any normal person does, not minding their conditions. What I just like about them is that they take good care of their families from the money they get from begging. I really like their spirit,” he added.
Amusing as it sounds, in many parts of Nigeria today, dozens of funny associations and unions catering for the interest of members now exist, carrying out their operations without disturbance in most cases. While sex workers now proudly flaunt and announce themselves through their association at the slightest opportunity, the idea of beggars having a coordinating union in different Lagos communities today perhaps introduces a new twist to the entire phenomenon. According to some of the leaders and members interacted with by our correspondent, the ‘vocation’ of begging on the streets of Lagos must be done in an orderly manner. Their world, from all indications, is indeed one filled with plenty of intrigues, power-play and uncertainties.