Ibrahim Bala, five, ran around the premises in company with other children as they engaged each other in a game of hide and seek. Naive and harmless, the little boy jumped about with utmost joy as the play increased in momentum. His charm was infectious.
But the toddler could have been in a different situation now if not for share luck. Last Sunday, his father, Yusuf, used him as collateral for a bag of 50 kilogram rice at a popular market in Kano after being unable to provide for his family anymore. The middle-aged man after agreeing price with the seller, Alhaji Suleiman Bagudu, had left his son behind and went away with the bag of rice to fetch the money he claimed to have forgotten at home. Six hours without a sign of him, the worried trader traced Yusuf all the way to his house in the Koki, Dala Local Government Area of the state, through the help of his little son. Bagudu arrived to the sight of the household feasting on hot plates of rice.
“I am ashamed I had to go that far to get food for my family but if I hadn’t come up with that trick that day, I don’t know what would have happened to us or how we would have been able to withstand the hunger,” Bala said earlier in the week when one of our correspondents visited the family’s home in a densely populated part of the city. “I have sold almost everything I have to sustain my family. Things are getting hard by the day; taking care of them is not easy for me anymore. It is not as if I don’t love my son or plan to do him evil, I left him at the market because I knew as a brilliant boy, he would be able to lead the owner of the rice to our house if they didn’t see me after some time. I am so sorry for committing this act, it is hunger that drove me into it,” he said, as neighbours, uncomfortable at the sight of our correspondent, prevented any further interaction.
Frightening as it sounds, Bala is not the only one to have turned to weird and unconventional methods to escape hunger and lack these days – individuals and even families across the country are embracing these new tactics to weather the storm, too.
For example, a middle-aged woman in Ibadan, Oyo State, according to unconfirmed reports, had used her seven-year-old daughter as deposit for a bowl of cassava flake known in local parlance as garri six weeks ago. Hit by pang of hunger, the woman like Bala, had tricked the seller into believing that she forgot the money at home and would rush to fetch it while her innocent child stayed back. By the time the girl led the trader to their house hours later, the widow and her two remaining children were already feasting on the item. The seller quietly walked away in shock after finding out the motive behind the strange behaviour.
Even with these almost unbelievable stories, the survival tactics adopted these days go beyond mere using of biological children as collateral – the practice appears to be assuming different and in fact scarier dimensions by the day.
A drinking joint operator in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, Ibiba Dakoru, told our correspondent during a telephone conversation in the course of the week that some customers now plead with her to convert drinks bought for them by friends into money so that they purchase food items with it.
According to her, customers in this category would only drink around one or two from about four or more bottles bought for them by buoyant friends while pleading with her to convert the rest to money. She said she started witnessing the trend among her customers three weeks ago.
“It came as a big shock to me when some of my customers started asking me to convert some bottles of beer bought for them into money so that they can use it to eat and also take care of petty responsibilities at home. If for example they are given four bottles, they would only drink one or two and beg me to please bear with them and give them the rest as cash. Even though I want to make sales, I cannot deny any person such request especially when it is to take care of feeding. I am already used to this type of thing from customers now,” she said.
A food vendor in the Mile 12 area of Lagos simply known as Iya Mubarak, told Saturday PUNCH that pleas for credits by customers had increased significantly over the last few weeks so much so that her once thriving business is now under severe threat.
According to her, apart from owing debts running into thousands of naira, many customers now use some of their valuable items like mobile phones, shoes, wristwatches and even expensive fabric materials to stand as deposits for meals pending when they’ll be able to offset their bills with her.
“I was shocked when one of my very loyal customers came to me that he and his family didn’t have anything to eat for the weekend and that he wanted to leave one of his expensive native attire with me as deposit for food pending when he’d be able to raise money to pay me. I felt like crying at that point because this is a man that paid me cash every time he came around no matter the amount of the food he bought.
“There are other customers who would beg me to hold on to their mobile phones in exchange for food so that they can collect them when they settle me. In fact, the items people offer me for a plate of food these days breaks my heart but as a good Muslim, I cannot accept those items. All I do is give such people the little food I can and ask them not to bother about the money. I do this for only those customers I have known for a long time and whom I know fell into hard times.
“However, I must confess that this is really affecting my business because it is what is supposed to give me profit that I give out to my loyal customers who come to me for food on credit. It has not been funny at all,” she said.
In recent weeks, Mr. Bayo Aluko, a public relations executive at a leading communications agency in Ikeja, Lagos, has had to part with various sums of money as handouts to people especially on Sundays when he visits his mother at their family home in the Ikorodu area of the city.
Apart from the regular financial assistance to some old time friends and even elderly neighbours around the place who would immediately come into the family compound on sighting his vehicle or noticing his presence, his mother, a retired civil servant, also gives them free meals during such unsolicited visits.
“It’s always a full house whenever I visit my mother every Sunday at our family home in Ikorodu. For some of our neighbours and old time friends, it is always an opportunity for them to eat free lunch. In fact, many of these people would hang around the house once it’s 2:00pm because they know that is about the time I visit my mother. Even when I don’t visit with my car, they still have a way of finding out that I am around and come into our compound for the usual stuff.
“But what can you do? People are hungry and want to utilise any given opportunity to survive. Even though I am also managing to sustain myself and family, I cannot stand the sight of these guys staying hungry when I could at least do something for them. In fact, there are some Sundays I hand out nothing less than N5, 000 to many of these people. What some of them are facing is better imagined than said. On few occasions I am not able to visit; my mother tells me that some still come to eat lunch at her place after pretending to have an appointment with me there. It is a very serious situation,” he said.
Confronted with crushing hunger and stark deprivation, putting food on the table has become increasingly tough for many families and individuals in recent weeks, especially with the economy showing no signs of improving. In many states of the federation, government employees are owed months of salaries while in the private sector, job losses have been the order of the day. As a result, three square meals have become almost a luxury many can no longer afford.
“I had to sublet one of the rooms in my flat recently just to raise some money to survive with my family. The caretaker of the house is not aware of this; the arrangement is just between me and the young man who rented the room. Since losing my job last year, I have yet to get anything tangible to do. My wife also does not work anymore, so survival has been very difficult. At least with the little money the guy paid, we have bought enough foodstuff in the house that would last us for some time. I fear hunger and I don’t want my family to experience it at all,” a former bank worker who resides in the Alapere area of Lagos, Tola Adedeji, told our correspondent during a chance meeting at a football viewing centre earlier in the week. Lack has driven him into devising a new survival tactics.
According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, part of the new strategy people now also adopt to overcome hunger in many parts of the country today is by sending text messages to people they know to solicit financial assistance. Some who are bold enough openly beg for money to eat while others simply pay unannounced visits to friends at periods they know they are likely to meet such individuals and families dining.
“If I show you the number of messages I have on my phone from people I barely know begging me for financial assistance, you’ll be shocked,” Charles Edafe, a businessman based in Warri, Delta State, told our correspondent during a telephone conversation earlier in the week. “Some of them are church members while others are people who I have known not too long ago in the area where I live and mostly the reason a lot of them give for the request is to take care of feeding and other related needs. Business is not thriving the way it used to in the past, there isn’t much help I can render to anyone at this time because I am also managing the little resources at my disposal,” he added.
Also, the rising trend has equally seen individuals attending parties and other social gatherings where there are plenty to eat and drink without being invited. Once able to smuggle themselves into such venues, individuals in this bizarre survival practice stuff as much food as they can lay their hands on into polythene bags and even sacks to take home to eat with their families.
Smart young men now leverage on the crowd at such social events to make brisk money and also combat hunger. While some turn emergency praise singers, hailing and flocking around people for a token at such gathering, others simply think outside the box, parking and watching over vehicles in return for financial reward. Most of what they make from such smart concepts goes into taking care of food and other basic needs.
In Kwara State for instance, theft of cooked food especially the ones still on fire is now a common feature.
The incident which had become widespread in areas where there are no perimeter fencing, has left many residents of the state, especially Ilorin, the capital, in panic and confusion. It is a trend never previously seen in the ancient city.
“People would devise means to survive any situation,” sociologist, Dapo Bodunde, pointed during a chat with Saturday PUNCH. “What we are seeing now is a clear case of natural selection, survival of the fittest if you like. In any society where the leaders are not committed to the welfare of the people, these types of things are certain to abound. Look at the country today, nothing appears to be working. The implication of this chaotic system is that hunger and crime are certain to be a regular feature. In the bid to put food on the table by all means, citizens are of course going to adopt all sorts of strategies including selling belongings, borrowing, begging and even stealing in some cases.
“I think government at every level must quickly come up with ideas on how to tackle some of these problems. When people are hungry, they can resort to extreme measures to address their needs. Some of the steps such people could take may harm the society at the end, so their case is not something anybody can wish away. Our leaders must urgently improve the welfare of the masses before this leads to bigger problems for the society,” he said.
Economist, Chidi Nweze, identifies one of the major factors fuelling the spate of hunger across most parts of the country as a result of the stagnation of the economy and short flow of cash in the system.
The rising rate of unemployment, he also reckons, is another dimension to the problem.
“We don’t need rocket science to explain the reason behind the level of hunger in the country. The economy is yet to pick up and as a result, there is short flow of cash in the system, meaning that the money in circulation is not trickling down the chain system the way it should. Even though the budget had been passed into law, implementation has not really taken effect.
“So, until this, in addition to problems like unemployment, is addressed, many households might continue to experience hunger and lack. The truth is that until you deal with the factors fuelling these problems, nothing significant would change,” he said.
The new bizarre trend sweeping across the country appears to be a respecter of no man or woman as the crave for food continues to drive individuals into adopting all sorts of measures. On June 23, 2016, for example, a policeman was shot in the leg and left hospitalised after soldiers and police officers engaged in a scuffle over rice meant for Internally Displaced Persons at the Government House, Maiduguri, Borno State. Reports say things turned violent when the soldiers, deployed to maintain law and order at the place, tried to fill their vehicles with several bags of food items. Unwilling to allow the diversion take place, police officers who were in charge of distributing the rice resisted attempts by the soldiers to have their way.
According to Bodunde, the shameful incident further highlights the problem of hunger in the country and how far people can go these days to fill their stomachs.
“The shameful conduct of our uniformed men in Borno last week over bags of rice meant for IDPs is a stark reminder of the level of hunger that prevails in the land. If soldiers and policemen can openly embarrass themselves over food, what then do you expect of ordinary citizens who do not even have a source of income?
“As a society, we would be committing a big mistake to overlook this disturbing trend. If a growing number of people now sell their belongings and even resort to crazy survival tactics to beat hunger, then the society must not wave this off. It is a serious issue that calls for urgent attention,” she said.
Additional report by Ted Odogwu