The Unusual Beggar
The location was the Ade Ajayi Garden, University of Ibadan. I was enjoying the second round of a game of Scrabble with a good friend when this elderly man came around to beg for alms. You see, at the University of Ibadan, beggars are not an uncommon sight. Even for introverts who do not go out often, you are sure to come across one or two every passing week. I think this may be as a result of the closeness of the premises to town. Virtually anyone can walk in unchallenged and without stress. It is unlike the terrain for University of Ilorin or Obafemi Awolowo University where getting inside the school’s belly requires not only traversing a great distance but possible security checks.
That said; here was a man, probably in his seventies, who has come to two youngsters to ask for money. In asking, he must have spoken in Yoruba or very basic English language. We told him we had no “change” we could spare. He understood, and helped himself to one of the two vacant seats under the shed. I assumed he must have been tired from long-distance trekking.
He reminded me of another man part of whose story my brother shared with me during my recent stay at Akure. In spite of his very old age and feeble bones, this man would hop on his bike – nay, crawl upon; hop probably paints a misleading picture here – and deliver newspapers to people who still read them or decorate offices with them. With his bicycle nonetheless, his life seemed stuck in tragic slow motion. This job isn’t meant for him. This stress. But neither is death nor hunger. And the government has told in unmistakable terms that he must choose one of two evils.
Back to Ade Ajayi Garden.
This man – let’s say “Pa” – sat on the chair, admiring our game and conversation, while all the time wearing a gracious smile. My partner reached for her purse and handed some notes over to him. And, in the middle of “thank you” and “I am grateful,” he spoke;
“I like this game. It is sure to help you develop your mind and knowledge of words… If nothing else, you will learn new spellings.”
“Certainly sir,” I replied.
At once, my antenna of curiosity was stretched. My interest was piqued. I was stunned. How could this beggar speak in so beautiful and unblemished sentences?
He said other things, big words lacing his language here and there, and I was forced to ask, “Sir, have you taught in a school before?”
He smiled and said, “Yes. I was, in fact, a professionally trained teacher. I worked at St. Andrews College.”
“Oh okay,” I exclaimed, though I had never heard the name. ‘A college you say?’ I asked in my mind, and assured myself it is most likely one of these over-hyped “international” secondary schools.
He continued, “…now Ajayi Crowther University.” Really?! My interest swelled even more.
“Today, I have no salary, no pension. I live on charity… But that does not stop me from educating my children, because that is what is most important. I would never send them to the streets to hawk.”
As a true, hard-core teacher (from Africa) would say too, “I also discipline them. And when I do that, you would not think I am their father.”
We both laughed.
“But sir, what happened along the road? Were you sacked? Was it forceful retirement?”
But no, he was not going to share that part of his story. He had talked about it too many times already, and had grown weary of telling it.
He changed the subject back to the game we were playing.
“I like games too, especially football. But I cannot play energetic games anymore because I am old. You see, but that does not mean you won’t feel the impact if I punch you.”
Like kids, unaware of the tragedy that surrounds us, we laughed heartily again.
“Sir, is it that you have served in the military before?” I asked because his words reminded me of Muhammadu Buhari who, before the 2015 elections, challenged a host to an athletic contest to prove he was fit for office. Old soldiers never die, right?
“No,” he said, “but I am a trained criminal investigator; used to work for the police. So you see, I am two things – a professional teacher and trained investigator.”
After some minutes, Pa bid us farewell, apologising for intruding, wishing us well and appreciating the modest gesture at the same time. “It was a pleasure meeting you. Regards to the family,” were my final words.
But, though it was truly a pleasure meeting him, the encounter unveiled to my consciousness an unpleasant part of our daily reality. The part where old people are not catered for as they deserve, people who have served the country with all they had but are abandoned as soon as inability or disability sets in. The part where nobody cares about orphans, pregnant women, single parents, people with mental infirmities or our old ones – except a handful of Non-Governmental Organisations. The part where it is not about what you know or what you can do, but who you know and whose boots you lick.
Just minutes before I met Pa, another person had asked me for money to buy food. But he was not old; he was a young boy whom I saw tying logs of firewood into bundles. He had been getting wood from the nearby forest and collecting them for sale. And, like my friend said, this was both a good and bad thing – good because he was smart enough to know he needed more than the stipends he was going to get from the seller of the wood to survive, and bad because he probably is not schooling.
If as Gandhi said, the true measure of any society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, then what kind of society is this where, out of 1000, 71 babies do not live to see the next day? What kind of society is this which does not expect her average citizen to live beyond 53 years? And when you defy all odds, smilingly struggle and make it beyond that benchmark, this same society still makes sure you live your old age in hardship and misery.
May we save us from ourselves!