Opinion: Nigeria’s Cowries Of Blood – By Lasisi Olagunju
Last Tuesday at the public presentation of my book, ‘Cowries of Blood’, a reporter asked me to crack the title. I smiled the question off. I hope my quizzer reads this and connects the silhouetted dots. It is not only about cows and forest boys grazing in farms and killing grumbling farmers. It is about ‘blood’ and ‘money’ appearing in same two-word phrase. It is about kings doing money ritual because they want to become Olodumare. It is about the pregnant poor pawning her womb to mammon. It is about the very dry monsoon of iniquity blowing across the nation; it is also about oil-rich Nigeria importing toxic fuel for its citizens so the rich could become richer. It speaks to politicians and their monetised desperation. It is about mothers who use their girls to beg for alms; about parents who rent out their babies to beggars on walkways – it is about those who say children are money spinners. The effort is about these and many more and about every actor who counts his/her coins at the dusk of every day of betrayal.
As I said in my speech at the book presentation, engaging Nigeria every week in a newspaper column can be very tiring. Events happen very fast and in numbers that confound. You engage them and go to bed. You wake up tomorrow to find the issues repeating themselves. Bad things walk in and endure so much that you ask if it is worth it at all to continue talking about them. They are like very bad diseases that mutate as soon as a treatment is found. The writer would soon find out that if he is not careful, he could become a broken record -repeating himself. But where I come from, repetition is more than a rhetorical device. It is not palm oil with which yam is eaten; it is that thing that saves the yam from getting burnt on fire. Prof Toyin Falola alluded to this in his seminal review of the book. I think I should quote him here for emphasis: “we are a country going round in circles, like a dog furiously chasing its tail. It is beyond any rational human’s understanding to see that the country continues to face the same issues, sometimes dressed in new garments of horror.” That is a professorial summation of the conundrum we have as a nation and the reason the columnist would never succumb to fear and fatigue.
Last week, we wrote on the case of Suwebat, the 12-year-old girl from Kano who was carrying bowls of pepper for a master in Lagos. There is another little beggar-girl called Nafisa Shehu on the street of Ibadan who dreams to become a doctor. She was in primary four in Katsina State dreaming wild dreams. But accident of birth was to rudely wake her up. She was dragged down south to ‘work’ as a beggar with her mother beside her. “I used to go to school in the north but I have not been enrolled in any school here. However, whenever we visit the north, I attend school for the duration of our stay there,” fourteen-year-old Nafisa told the Nigerian Tribune in an interview published last Saturday. She is daily on the street begging for alms while her age mates are in school, yet she has a lofty goal: “I want to become a doctor so that I can help people, especially my parents. I like the profession,” she said. If you go to Ojoo bridge in Ibadan this moment, you are likely to meet her there chanting babiallah while the spring of her optimism dies slowly with the embers of her spirit. She is not alone, they are many at that spot. Around her every day are her soulmates with dreams and ambitions that get caked out on the streets of begging.
Why is there always grunge in our glitter? The north has very powerful people who believe they can handle everything. They even boast they can bite water with their very strong teeth. They have power which they efficiently wield to freeze out everyone, everything, everywhere, yet they lack the power to help their poor. The two Forbes-rated richest Nigerians are from the north, yet their people travel a thousand kilometers down south to hold out pans begging for alms. And it didn’t start today. Like the marks on our palms, people from that zone have forever been travelling down south to transact their begging business. Can I ask, therefore, what makes begging more lucrative in the south than in the omnipotent north?
Emily Dobson in a May 2020 article titled ‘The Economics of Begging’ published in Chicago Policy Review, described beggars as panhandlers who “ask for cash without offering anything of value in return.” Someone disagreed with this and said, at least, Nigerian beggars pray for the giver. And the black man would pay and say Amen to any prayer. Is that why the Nigerian world may never be rid of beggars who come with torrents of prayers? We met it like that. How do we stop passing the shame on to the future? Since Buhari is very popular in the north, he should use his street credibility to freeze out a practice that shames him and his credentials as the leader of the north, the Bayajidda II. This street begging problem has so far defied all logical measures from southern authorities. The Seyi Makinde government in Oyo State, for instance, did something last year which we all thought was novel and noble. It built an expansive residential facility for these beggars, complete with modern amenities. What then happened? “The government provided a secure shelter for the beggars at Akinyele and they are fed three times daily but they prefer to stay on the streets. They say they do not get alms at the facility like they do on the streets,” the governor’s Special Assistant on Arewa Matters, Alhaji Murtala Ahmed, a northerner, told the Nigerian Tribune last Saturday. And why would they have their girls around them? Ahmed gave an insight: “If they go begging with the children, they make more money because of the sympathy people have for children and that is why they do not allow the children to go to school.”
Now, what do you call parents who, like demons, exchange their kids for accursed coins? Like the Ghanaian trickster character, Anansi, the north says nothing against messing around for freebies. Voting for street begging and rejecting schooling attracts outrage only in the south. Some would argue that every society has had to contend with systems as odious as this begging business. The difference between what we have today and what was is in the predisposition of the reigning powers to abrogate repugnant practices. I have not heard the north’s political noisemakers make abolishing mass begging a campaign issue. Less than two hundred years ago, the Yoruba had its own atrocious scheme pawning themselves or their children in lieu of interest on money obtained from the rich. They called it Iwofa. Reverend Samuel Olubi, in a 26 February, 1879 letter, wrote about how this system ruled Ibadan during the Yoruba wars: “There is a general cry among the people for want of cowries…Food is cheap but no money to buy them (sic). A man can be pawned for ten heads (of cowries) or ten shillings.” Imagine that. Exchanging one’s children for food with all the attendant shame and danger. The indentured were not slaves but many so pawned never returned. Where money and power cohabit, you find abuse there. Adeniyi Oroge, in a 1985 article, ‘An Historical Survey of the Yoruba Institution of Indenture’ not only quoted Olubi, he also wrote about how an Ibadan war chief amassed 400 Iwofa and took them all to Kiriji War in c. 1880. The man had 140 of them “killed and wounded in his first fight, while by the end of his third fight, the remnants had been wiped out.” Now, among the Yoruba of all eras, a man is allowed to be big and powerful but he is not allowed to use his powers to oppress the poor and corrupt the land without consequences. Historians say that an outcry that followed that Kiriji catastrophe led to a reform, and later, abrogation of the Iwofa system in Ibadan and in other places. Can we have sufficient outcries from the north too on this practice of taking girls out of school and trucking them south to beg for alms? Can President Muhammadu Buhari do something here before leaving us alone on May 29, 2023? Can he help his 12-million army of ‘underage’ supporters conquer their peculiar strain of poverty which sees mendicancy as cure? Can he use the strong arms of his powers to stop parents from yanking girls off school for begging in the south?
We cannot have neighbours who eat poisonous insects and keep quiet. If we do, we would have sold our peace forever to their misbehavour. Last Wednesday, I had a long telephone conversation with Professor Niyi Osundare on the book presentation event of the previous day. He was happy about the success of the outing and the quality of attendance. He said it was proof that the weekly engagements were not without audience in critical circles. The decorated scholar and poet then alluded to my constant allusions about Nigeria and its kidnapped destiny. He said the priest must continue to stridently stuff his lines into the inner ear of the addled nation. I agree with the professor. If the Nigerian madman is left to dress his mother’s corpse, he will make suya of it. And we continue to see that drift in the devastating insanity of a lost nation refusing to retrace its steps. That is what the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi emphasized in his opening remarks at the book event: Go back to federalism and regionalism. A union of the hound and the hare can’t be peaceful without a proper definition of territories and powers. The Ibadan gathering morphed into something more than a book-launch event. It turned out to be an unstructured, unintended conference on the state of the nation with speakers after speakers using the author’s pen to sketch a nation they wished they had. Read the book cover – the crimson ponds, the rivers of blood flowing coastwards, the horned evil and its silhouette against a darkened country. Everyone who was there was part of that message of deviance – and, may be, of hope. My very deep appreciation goes to all who made the day a great one: Governors and ex-governors; the academia and the media; public and private sector operators; friends and fans, home and abroad. I wish I could start naming them one by one and thanking them for their love of me and their validation of what I write. But attempting to list all, one after the other, will certainly lead to a mortal error of omission. I rebuke that error.