I was caught in bottle-neck traffic. There were about five lanes of cars moving very slowly up the bridge. In the middle of the traffic, I saw a man whom I initially mistook for a hawker. Then I noticed he had a megaphone. And he was holding a picture. It was a picture of a face. Only, it wasn’t quite a face: it was the front part of a human head, yes, and the right eye was visible, but the rest of the facial features – the other eye, the nose the mouth seemed to have been painted off with the same colour as the skin on the face. I was confused for a brief second. Then I saw her. The woman in the picture was a real person and she was standing on the road a few metres from the man with the megaphone. Only, her face wasn’t painted over; in real life it seemed to be… melting off? I don’t know how else to describe it. Then I noticed a third man with the woman’s picture and a collection basket. The man with the megaphone was apparently asking for money – at least I think he was since I couldn’t actually hear what he was saying. The other man with the basket came to the side of my car and asked me for money. I asked him what the money was for and he said “to save the life of this sister”- he pointed to the woman in the picture, the same one standing on the road. I asked, “what happened to her?” and then he walked away. I genuinely wanted to know what the problem with the woman’s face was, whether it was something that could be rectified in any hospital, if it required a specialist, or whether it was something they could take to a charity organization for funding. But the man preferred to gather people’s loose change rather than engage in a conversation – and it wasn’t as if there wasn’t enough time for a brief conversation; we were in a traffic jam after all. As I couldn’t stop smack dab in the middle of the road and go back and ask what the medical problem was, I inched away slowly and watched them through my rear-view mirror. I don’t know if they’re still on that same road asking for money as it’s not a road I use very often. But I still think about them, the same way I think about all the people who need help that I don’t help.
I was in a queue for petrol. In fact, I was in the queue for my mom whose fuel tank was so empty there was a red warning light flashing. She didn’t want to drive around looking for petrol in case what little she had completely ran out before she reached an open petrol station. So I was in line waiting to get close to the front before I called her to come and take my place – I’d already gotten petrol earlier that morning. I’d only carried a book and a bottle of water since the station wasn’t far from home and I wasn’t the one buying. I looked up from my book and noticed a woman in a black and gold kaftan and a red scarf. There was something ashen about her complexion and her eyes looked simultaneously jaded and pleading. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She had just finished speaking to the driver in the car in front of me and she was walking toward my car. She caught me looking at her. I greeted her. She stopped at my window, greeted me, then said “please, my sister”, and proceeded to kneel down. I thought “shit shit shit, get up!” I said as much, only I replaced the expletives with a “please”. The sight of someone kneeling down to beg me for something made my insides want to spill all over the floor. I had to do the begging for a moment, to convince her not to kneel. Finally, she acquiesced. Then she said, “please, my sister, if I am here begging you today, it is because I don’t know what else to do. I am coming from the hospital, and I am going back to the hospital after this. Anything you have to give me, even if it is only five naira, please I will take it”. I didn’t need the speech. There was something in her eyes that screamed desperation and despondence – eyes don’t lie. I reached toward the passenger’s seat where I thought my purse was and thought “craaaaap!” I had only carried my wallet because it had my driver’s license – my purse with my money was still at home. I turned to the woman, intending to explain to her that I had no money on me at the time, but that I had every wish to help her. I had my ATM card in my wallet, so if she’d wait till I got close to the front of the line and my mom came, then I’d drive her down to the nearest ATM and withdraw some cash to give her. I started to explain this to her, but as I soon as I said I didn’t have my wallet, she said a stiff “thank you” and walked away with as much dignity as she could muster. I think she believed that I was trying to shrug her off and she left so quickly that I was momentarily startled. It was only after she had walked some distance that it registered in my brain that she was gone. I felt terrible. In hindsight, I think I ought to have gone after her and at least make her hear me out. But that day I just sat there feeling like I’d let down someone I’d only met two minutes earlier.
It is Sunday morning. We are heading into church. There is a one-legged man with crutches standing outside the gate. He is begging. He is here every Sunday morning. He will be here when I am leaving the church. I’ve planned to talk to him after church. I want to know if he’s been inside the church to ask for help. It turns out he has. There is a Catholic church group called St. Vincent de Paul whose purpose it is to help the poor. The group has helped him and a number of other poor, disabled [this word makes me uncomfortable] people financially, and on Sundays they stand at the church’s entrances –there are two – and ask for assistance from whomever will give it to them. I don’t have any money on me but after that I make it a point to greet him every time I pass him, just the same way I used to greet the lady outside the metro station where I lived in Lille. She sat on the floor with a little dog, some of her belongings bundled up into an old cart, and a sign wooden sign that said “j’ai faim. Aidez-moi”. I gave her some food whenever I shopped for groceries, otherwise I said “bonjour” and continued on. People have a tendency to avoid meeting a beggar’s gaze because they don’t want to be asked for money, because they don’t want to give money. I know this because I often have to do battle with myself to look at them, and acknowledge them, not hurry past them like they’re some unsightly thing. Some people are more expressive of their discomfort – there are signs on Abuja roads that read: Begging, Hawking, Stop it. But there are no suggestions of an alternative for the people who are so poor they chase after our cars to try and sell us things, or just straight up ask us for money.
I don’t come from a rich family and I’ve never had much money, but I hope that I will someday. I’ve seen all too clearly the close liaison between money and power, and I want power. I want to fix things. I see no reason why one person should have a house the size of a small stadium while another person sleeps under a bridge. I don’t think I can fix all the poverty in the world – I am one person – but I think I can help, truly help a few people leave poverty far behind. And shake things up a bit so that people who are not poor don’t feel comfortable saying stupid shit like “why don’t they find something to do instead of standing on the road asking people for money”, like begging strangers for your daily bread is a hobby. Granted, there are those who beg on the road, not because they’re in dire need, but to make a quick, relatively easy buck. And of course there are the children who are kidnapped, or bought from their homes by crime syndicates, dressed in rags, maimed and forced to beg in order to make profit for their criminal handlers. However, it’s hard to say what percentage they constitute exactly. In any case, their existence does not erase the fact that some people really are begging because they are in need and don’t see any other solution.
I’ve never had to beg strangers for money, but I’ve had to ask people who are not close family members for financial help, and it was not a pleasant experience. I felt extremely vulnerable and quite small, as if at that moment, my very existence was reduced to being a burden to the person I was asking. Perhaps there are people who are less proud than I am, but I am fairly certain that most people who beg would live differently if offered the choice.