How youth begging is thriving in Lagos
As of March 2021, Nigeria’s unemployment rate stands at 33%. This ranks Nigeria as the country with the second unemployment rate according to Bloomberg. The figures are actually worse when you factor in the underemployment situation in the country. And for the purpose of this post, it is important to do so. In general, nearly 50% of Nigeria’s 69.7 million workforce are either unemployed or underemployed.
This means in your community, it’s likely that around 50% of people within working age don’t have jobs or work at jobs whose pay can’t take care of their financial needs. In other words, nearly 50% of people within working age in your community are broke and desperately in need of earning a living. If you live in a low-income area, the truth might be way more than 50%. In the absence of jobs and any hope of it, these guys, many of them young people and uneducated, are mostly expected to resort to crime, usually petty thieving, street mugging, house burglary and the inevitable cyber fraud better known as yahoo-yahoo.
But then again, these forms of criminality aren’t as lucrative as they used to be. For one, there’s actually very little money anywhere around their low-income communities to steal. And with the proliferation of digital banking, people hardly carry considerable cash on them. Even petty traders and retail shop owners prefer bank transfers. Indeed, the woman running a shop close to my house would always ask me, at the close of business, if I needed cash so she could supply me with some while I transfer to her. She’d count the fifty and hundred and 200 naira notes she received until they were up to 5,000 or 10,000 and hand them over to me. If you commute around Lagos and always find yourself in needless hassles with conductors over ‘hold your change o’, then you’d understand why someone like me doesn’t mind exchanging with her.
Neither are people wont to store up money in their homes for future use. Not even housewives and handworkers. In the end, just like most other industries where the big guys earn mega wages while the smaller fish struggle to keep up, these petty thieving and mugging doesn’t guarantee minimum wage for a great majority of our broke neighbours. They require extra sources of income and they required it like last week.
In comes the hustle of begging, or mu’le as it has come to be known in my area. Mu’le is simply a Yoruba term which means to hold ground. So basically, these guys, their ages ranging from preteen to way past 50, all jobless and broke to their very bones, will walk up to you, an obviously more successful individual (usually a fellow young man) begging you to find them some cash to hold their respective grounds with. Something to keep them standing more solidly. Something to finance their meagre welfare.
For the professional ones usually the area boys, the art is quite primary enough. They usually huddle in street corners or popular junctions, or in front of popular barber shops, or even at busstops where they harass bike riders. Once they see a potential customer like myself approaching, they start pumping their fists in the air as a sign of respect and maybe admiration. If you’re a fully-bearded Igbo man like myself, you get titles like Odogwu! Ogaranya! Ebube Dike! Etc. If you’re a Yoruba guy, you get titles like Agbawo! Agbalagbi! Ajanaku! If you’re from the north then you’re Sariki! Sai Baba! If you’re walking, you might want to be careful if they try to surround you because you could get pickpocketed in the process. If you’re on a bike and you mu’le for them, they are very likely to let your bike go unhindered. Though I’m pretty sure the bike guy would eventually pay the tuft dues if he runs into them again.
Sometimes, these guys render unprecedented services too. If you have a car, they could clear a lane for you in the middle of a mild traffic jam. If you’re looking for something or someone, they could get them for you. If you’re in an aggressive confrontation, these guys could fight for you, as long as you aren’t in that confrontation with any of their leaders. They could even chastise their own members for you. I mean, these are the things you pay them for, even if you don’t realise it. During the EndSARS protest, these street urchins came in handy defending many a neighbourhood.
Street begging or mu’leh has become a serious prerogative of street urchins and area boys. But beyond them, it is becoming a culture, almost an industry, that is spreading as quickly and as surely as the nation’s economic situation worsens. The jobless young man or woman, sitting at home or in the streets, possibly a graduate and quite enlightened enough to know stealing is a crime against humanity, has no option but to play in that industry. The young person browsing on free mode, liking every post on Facebook and Twitter even when they don’t make sense and hoping that the poster might one day do giveaway and they would like to be remembered when that happens is tapping into the culture of mu’le.
Social media inboxes are full of young men begging for money to finance a small business, fund an application, transport to an interview, purchase data and all. Young women are often the more popular adapters of the mule culture and any urgent 2k is always highly appreciated in words or in kind. The growth and explosion of that industry is borne out of the most basic human need to survive. Fulfilling this need has been made extremely difficult by the worsening socio-economic situation in the country. And unless there’s a turnaround in this situation, the culture and industry of street begging would keep growing.