My recent trip to Nigeria recently has reinforced my belief that Nigerians beg more than any other people in the world; this, they do forcefully, aggressively and annoyingly. Right from the morning when I arrived Murtala Muhammad airport in Lagos from Paris till I dropped my luggage at my hotel and headed to meet an aunt of mine at a hotel on the island, I was besieged with begging. Nothing polite about anything. I made a face once we were being cleared by the immigration and customs, because I always say that whenever a Nigerian tries to smile at you or starts being so very friendly with you, he wants something from you. No matter how you want to discard my generalisation, this is my opinion.
The three immigration officers who were going through the pages of my passport booklets figured I was tired and also stingy. They smiled at me; I frowned. I am not even sure they stamped my passport. They were still trying to extort money from the man before me, who was all smiles and greetings. They threw my passport back at me and I heard them say to the man, “Give us wetin you bring come for us.”
At the carousel, some guy in uniform was very busy, pestering me until I told him I didn’t need any help. I went to get the trolley myself. I didn’t have any naira on me. And from afar, I had started hearing the lady who was issuing out tickets for the trolleys say something like, “Oga, I don’t have 300 naira change o.” In my head, I concluded she’s one of those who collect your money and then tell you that they don’t have change.
There is a Nigerian restaurant in Berlin called Nigerian House. I was there during my trip to Berlin last summer. Once I walked in, Nigerians were seated randomly, chattering away and laughing. Then they said something about my hair in Igbo and laughed. Two Edo men discussed me in their language; I picked one or two things from the discussion and added one to one to make two. When I finally ordered for my food, it took about 30 minutes to arrive and while that happened, I played with my camera.
Done eating, I paid her and she started rummaging her bags. Not one. About three bags. For change. And then said to herself and to the girl who was carrying her baby beside her, “Na wa o. How I go tell am say change no dey now.” I pretended like I didn’t know what she said. How could they not know that I am Igbo? Or very very Nigerian myself? And that I know these ‘I don’t have change’ pranks. I waited for her to tell me that. She got some money out and handing them to me, she said, “Sir, I don’t have 5 euros. I will owe you.” I said, “No, I live in Paris and I am leaving tomorrow. Just try and get it.” She sighed and then sneered at me. But I waited patiently, until one of the Edo men brought out a 5 euro note and I left. Whatever they said after I had left, is their business.
Back to the airport, I had to go and change some euros, so I could get change. The guy behind the counter at the Bureau de Change gave me one thousand naira notes. I went to the girl for the trolley and once she saw my one thousand naira note, she said, “Oga, change no dey o.” I looked around, perplexed. There is no way I’d leave all my money to this lazy goat, I said to myself. I started asking around. I was really tired, but I didn’t mind. Then I got change and paid her, took my tickets and went to pick my trolley from the guy-in-charge who said to me, “Anyting for your boy, oga?” Somehow, I felt like slapping him. Somehow, I felt like spitting on him. I went calm. “Please, give me my trolley, biko.” And I left him.
You haven’t gone to all the eateries in Nigeria and you don’t see that particular uniformed guy bugging you with greetings, “Oga, how weekend na? How your family? You don dey go?” How are these things his business? If you go to the banks, you can’t escape them too. If you go to VFS to apply for your visa; it starts from the touts on the streets to the gods-know-where. This is absolutely bewildering, but it has gradually become a culture, a tradition that Nigerians find very normal and have adjusted to. They will never call it begging. A Nigerian forces you to tip him. He reminds you that you need to give him money, because he feels he is obligated to get some of your money since you look happier than him.
I travelled to Owerri and went to a barber’s shop before Maris Supermarket. After shaving my sideburns and wiping it with a dirty brown towel, the short barber who said his bill was 200 naira held onto my 500 naira and said, “Make I keep dis one na, Chief!” I made that ugly face and said, “No, please bring my money. I’m waiting.” Once he gave me my change, he never smiled at me again, simply because he didn’t get what he wanted. But I had nothing to lose.
That evening, I sat in a chair at the reception of my hotel and decided to experiment. The receptionist was curious about what I was doing. I told her, “I want to know why beggars feel very cool about begging.” Once a young man came down from his room with his key, to hand it over to the receptionist, I gauged. He brought out wads of naira notes to pay the receptionist for another night. I smiled at him, like my fellow beggars in Nigeria smile at me and said, “Oga, abeg, give me 500 naira.” He looked at me and smiled. Once he finished paying, he gave me a 500 naira note. I took it from him and put it in my trouser pocket and said, “Thank you o.”
As he left the reception, I lost every sense of dignity and pride in me. I just didn’t understand how people revel in seeking out the sweat of others from them, either by emotional blackmail or by smiling at them ruefully. I just lost every sense of ego and pride I had in me. I lost everything. And I know that other beggars have lost it all too. Shame on all of us.
Onyeka Nwelue who is a founding member of The Trent Voices lives in Paris, where he runs La Cave Musik, a record label, specialising in quality music from Africa and the Caribbean.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.