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 sheer 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 Punch’s 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 Punch’s 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 PUNCH 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.