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The Begging Menace On Nigerian Roads.

The other day, I was stuck in a gridlock somewhere along Aba road here in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Characteristically, I could see hawkers brandishing their commodities to commuters and drivers alike with ebullience and zest. Fruits, medicines, handicrafts and almost every kind of our everyday paraphernalia were waved so that it seemed one could even buy a ticket to heaven at a give-away price in such snarl-ups that smack of hell. This is a sight that has become the trademark of our roads as street-vendors look forward to capitalizing on the slightest traffic situation to conduct banters with passengers all in a bid to enhance sales.

I was trapped at the rear seat of a rickety vehicle that was jam-packed with passengers like enormous piles of dirty laundry stuffed in a bag. It was a hot afternoon and I was sweating so profusely that someone could assume I had just taken a dive into the Niger fully clad. Tell me about tragedy on a Friday. I wanted to get home in one piece.

Our minivan had crawled to a halt at a junction, and in my line of vision just a taxi ahead was a peddler (or so I thought) hoisting and waving something at the passengers. Apart from the fact that he was very young (not more than 5-6 years old) for street hustle and dressed in an extra-extra large red jersey, something else caught my attention. From my tight corner, I could hear him sing a jingle while displaying his goods. I would have rather expected this kind of strategic displays and sort of over the board form of advertisement from the more experienced pitchmen and itinerant sellers who were obsessed with hoodwinking even the most uninterested passenger into buying an expired product or even a placebo. At that moment, my mind had moved away from the inferno that was burning me inside as though wanting to consume my very soul, and I was eager at least to see whatever it was the very young lad was selling.

On the pedestrian lane to my right, a stone-throw apart, was two jejune and shabby looking girls (8-9 years at most). The first hunkered and the second stood with the left hand akimbo in the scorching sun. They both carried a plate in one hand beckoning on every passerby for a token without fear or favour. My attention diverted to the first girl as she ran towards a pedestrian who fitted the description of a young job hunter. He was enshrouded in a black regal-size suit that looked over-worn and held a file in hand. The child-beggar tugged the poor guy who was trying in futility to get away from her grip. He looked mortified but the girl was putting up a good and strong fight for her cause. Finally, the guy accepted defeat, put his file in-between his legs, dipped his hand into his pockets and handed her a red polymer note. This was met with an unsatisfied visage from the girl. The guy seeming to understand what the problem was and eager enough to get off her grip handed her some other note of a higher denomination and then she let him loose. I could read her lips saying 'Thank you' before scampering to bum some more cash off the next unsuspecting pedestrian. The scene reminded me of a documentary on NatGeo Wild where little predators ambushed and jumped on humongous preys in a guerrilla warfare fashion. This cycle of aggressive panhandling continued with little or no rest interval in-between.

I watched with keen interest wondering where the parents of these kids were and why they would expose them to the hostilities of the streets at such tender age or even at all. Should they not be enjoying free education at least at this age? Perhaps their parents were dead I considered. If so, where were social workers when one needed them? Do we even have social workers in this country? An avalanche of questions had encumbered my mind and I was lost trying to get answers.

I was jolted back to reality where the unconventional seemed to have become a sacred and revered norm as I saw the little boy in an oversized jersey tottering towards our taxi as though he had a morbid desire to showcase his brand to every commuter in the traffic. I could almost see the strong-will and resilience needed for such herculean task on his puerile face but something wasn't right (well, was everything not wrong?). All I could see in his hand was a sonorous plate in semblance with that of the girls on the walk-way. There was no product. Maybe he was sold-out already. I could have sworn I heard the boy sing a jingle. Was I wrong? The boy moved closer and I could now see him in a higher definition. He looked like he hasn't found his way to a bathroom in ages. Eyes looked a bit sunken, the hairs on his head were sparse and variegated making it look like a sort of flag.  He now raised the plate in his hand and I could see his spoon-shaped nails. A potpourri of differential diagnosis flooded my mind. His oversized jersey was actually red dented with dark debris. It was that of my favourite football club. Fetid air gushed into my lungs as the boy said in deep Fulani accent:

"Oga abeg give me money I never chop since yesterday, my bele de knack me since. Oga abeg. God go bless you"

He kept saying it repeatedly with such finesse as though he was auditioning for the Nigerian Idol- yes it sounded like a chorus. He was standing directly in my face.

Eyes fixated on the poor chap I parted my lips and then these three words came out in broken English: "where your mama?" The boy just merely turned away to his far left uninterestedly, looked back at me and continued "singing". I turned my gaze with him but it was just the two other girls, now under a shade, that was in sight. I was turning away my gaze when I saw a dark and slim lady wearing a hijab and sitting on a pavement behind the two girls. It was then it struck me that she might have been the one the boy had looked at. One would almost doubt his claim she was his mother. She looked reluctantly into the hot sun but not necessarily at her son, with a baby on her lap. On her right hand was a black nylon bag held firmly like it contained some treasure. My conjecture was that that was the final collection point for all the proceeds from the children on the road. Well, that turned out to be fact as I later saw the girls empty their plates into the bag before returning to their ordained posts on the street.  I looked at her to see any sign of disability, but much to my dismay, there wasn't any that met the eye. What was her alibi for condemning herself and her children to a life of perennial begging? I wished I could hear her side of the story. Or maybe I should cut her some slacks for making an "effort" with the kids?

Where is the man responsible for these kids? Perhaps his job description involved just child proliferation and engagement of the feminine counterpart in a birthing spree in the midst of scarce or zero resources to go round the family or possibly he is out somewhere on another road panhandling for the love of family with his head high. Should I also cut him some slacks?

Is it possible this is about preserving a sacred culture and it is merely a rite of passage for the children to be on the streets doing their forefathers right? I remembered a few days back, while dissecting dialectics with few friends over some topical issues, someone tried explaining a culture where people (including children) begged as part of their education or as a religious obligation. In Buddhism, like I understood, monks and nuns traditionally begged for alms as did the great Gautamana Buddha himself. I had also got to know from research that many other religions including Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Jainism specified begging as the only acceptable means of support for certain classes of adherents so that they could focus entirely on spiritual matters while avoiding earthly distractions. It was the concept of child begging that was hard wrapping my head around and  I thought the oral tradition must have been passed on misconstrued at a certain generation. Who would propose an arrangement where children lived in an especially difficult situation; in extreme poverty and hunger and at the mercy of the next unsuspecting stranger all in the name of education or religion? No, perpetual begging cannot be the solution but rather the bane.

I imagined if the government was not culpable in all of this. After all, it's in her place to provide a good economic climate and a social security system that protects the interest of the weak, strong, poor and rich as the case may be. This was probably a plague befalling us for failing to educate and empower our females, protect our children and abolish cultures and traditions that are repugnant to natural justice, equity and fair-play.  In my mind, there was enough blame across board as there was sand on a beach.

What could ever justify leaving our children nothing but an inheritance of a chronic disability and inability of the mind.

It was the sound of the car engine flickering to live that jolted me back to Aba road this time. At this moment, the poor chap was already giving up on me. I looked at him with pity in my eyes and on his face I saw a host of many other kids bereft of common opportunities even before their prime – Presidents, Governors, Technocrats, Economist, and Professionals in various fields of academics. On their faces were the keys to making our society better. All we had to do was to emancipate and protect them. It was clear that was all they ever wanted.

The juvenile had managed to cadge a few naira notes off some of the other passengers aboard who now looked at me sanctimoniously seeming to make a point as to what I should have done if I had any bit of a conscience left inside of me.  For a few others, there was no face to save for the rest part of the ride as they sat unflinchingly and with an indifferent mug.

The traffic was already clearing-up and impatient drivers honked like they were satisfying an obsession as they got ready to negotiate a space and move at the slightest opportunity. I took some notes from my wallet and passed it on to the boy who was already rushing to meet up the next bus before the line would move. It just felt like the right thing to do at that moment, and the only good thing I could have done from my position. I wondered how disappointed the boy would feel that traffic was already clearing up and hoped the little breadwinners would have enough from the 'pan-pool' to cater for their 'knacking' stomachs.

As our minivan negotiated a good space, and then sped off, I could find myself saying a silent prayer for all of our seraphic children on the streets.

May God help us build a country and continent where the rights of our children are protected.

God bless Africa!
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