Lagos state, Nigeria’s fastest growing megacity is often viewed as the nation’s hub of limitless opportunities and as such, is home to all sorts thus housing all kinds of communities, which evidently is one of the reasons the state population keeps increasing each time the population census is conducted. Despite the heavy influx of migrants seeking greener pastures, the state government, through several programmes has managed to maintain order and balance in the society. The OkoBaba Destitute home which is widely known as the Beggars Colony is arguably one of the biggest communities of migrants in Lagos state. Housing an estimated three thousand men, women and children at any given time in a vast compound lined with semi-dilapidated buildings and heaps of filth, the Okobaba destitute home comprises mostly of beggars and cripples of Northern descent.
The Destitute home, situated in the Ebute Ero axis was established in 1988 during the administration of Buba Marwa and is divided into three different sections, the Crippled, the Blind and the Lepered and each section having separate leaders, the Sarkin Guragu, who conduct and mediate their activities. A typical day in the home involves receiving government officials and guests bearing gifts for the residents. Asides the Lagos state government’s support with food and health supplies which the state’s opposition party tag as bribe in exchange for votes during election, several well meaning Nigerians and philanthropists have also taken a fancy to the home, lavishing the residents with food items and gifts from time to time with some going as far as celebrating important milestones and festive periods with the residents. Looking past the regular philanthropy and efforts in alleviating the living conditions in the home, some private individuals seeking spiritual assistance and fruit of the womb have become regular fixtures, they donate cash and share items they bring as appeasement of sort, believing the home to be a mecca of sorts where their prayers will be answered once the residents pray for them.
The home is filled with mostly handicapped and challenged Northerners with some of them resolved to begging for alms for the rest of their life and although they claim to enjoy constant electricity supply, that has done little in improving or enhancing their way of life. The environment leading to the home is filthy and has a bad smell, probably the stench emanating from the home mixed with their mischievous neighbor’s marijuana smell. The Destitute Home shares an entrance with another compound which accommodates seemingly irredeemable miscreants who most times make life unbearable for the residents especially whenever guests and celebrities visit the home with gifts, these misfits make it their duty to levy the guests with the threat of violence and even the police presence in the vicinity does little to limit their activities, an example is the recent visit by Papas Charity Foundation Founder; led by King of Lagos Nightlife and CEO of Papas Entertainment, Frank Okamigbo, who wanted to thrill the residents of the home by bringing celebrity friends including DJ Humility to entertain them in what he tagged: “Dance with the Destitute” where he donated cash, bags of rice, cartoons of biscuits, bags of salt, tissue papers, cartoons of fruit juice, custard and powder milk, as part of his humanitarian gestures especially during his yearly birthday celebration but the misfits almost ruined the day, if not for quick thinking on the CEO’s part, by personally waiting to address and ensure the youths get a token of the share, they would have wreaked havoc. It is often rumored that it was due to the activities of the Lagos state taskforce, the society’s worst; the beggars and the hardened criminals were dumped at Oko Baba. When TrekAfrica visited the home, the young ones had gone to school and still the compound was heavy with activities as the women traders plied their wares, which consisted mostly of sachet water, bottled soft drinks and sachet beverages while the men attended to matters which required strength like construction of wooden materials and heavy lifting. Officials also came from the ministry of health to vaccinate the young ones who weren’t in school yet and their manner of interaction with the residents gives the idea they are regular faces in the home.
When TrekAfrica spoke with the leader of the Cripple section, Sarki Abubakar Amadu Gaya, the Sarki Guragul of Lagos state, at his office located opposite the entrance where he sat with other chiefs of the Cripple section, he seemed happy to talk to journalists about life since he moved into the home and how they cope with their violent neighbors which he described as trying to maintain a peaceful coexistence. “Alhamdullilahi, I have been a resident of this great home for 22 years now and I have been the Sarki Guragul for 13 years and haven’t had much to worry about thanks to the Lagos state government, prominent benefactors like DPapas who always comes from time to time bearing gifts, also Senator Oluremi Tinubu who gave us a bus 2 years ago and others who come so God can answer their prayers through us. Although the food and supplies do not come on time unlike before which didn’t usually extend till the end of the month and the issue of water is another major concern, there is no potable water, we use meruwa trucks to transport hygienic water”. The issue of water obviously should be a major source of concern considering there are breastfeeding mothers and horde of kids. Another matter that poses an equally dangerous threat is the heap of refuse that lays unattended right in the compound. Other than being a community eyesore, the heap of dirt and the lack of clean water leaves one to wonder if the close bond shared with the health officials stems from regular emergency cases. “We have spoken with someone, the permanent secretary. Before Sallah, she brought food and supplies, then we told her our plight concerning the dilapidated exteriors, toilets and waste management because we can’t always afford our collective contribution to invite LAWMA, people fall sick all the time.” Government is doing well, they pay our electricity and hospital bills, for our sick and nursing mothers.”
Other than government sponsorship of the kids through schools, some kindhearted Nigerians also sponsor some of these kids through private schools, the Sarkin Guragul gave an instance of a woman who helped sponsor a lot of kids from the home through secondary school and even went as far as setting some of them up in different businesses. Prominent Lagos politicians who have visited the home include Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, whose picture with the Sarkin Guragul is embossed on the wall of his office next to the embossed photo with Former Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola and that with DPapas, Oluremi Tinubu is also a respected face in the home having contributed immensely to the welfare of the home.
TrekAfrica also took time to chat with the General Secretary of the home who happens to be a member of the Lepers Colony in the home, a Mohammed Baba who according to him is a graduate of the University of Maiduguiri. In his story Mohammed claims he was afflicted with Leprosy shortly after he joined the civil service. “I have spent 30 years in Lagos and I have been the General Secretary of this Home since establishment, Immediately after my High School Certificate. I proceeded to study at the University of Maiduguri where upon completion of my studies there I joined the civil service. It was shortly after I joined the civil service, I noticed the strange things happening to me and although the government assisted with treatment but it just happened that way. People should know not all cripple or beggars were born that way and we can’t always leave the whole responsibility to government”
Sometime ago, the ministry of health raised an alarm over the unhealthy lifestyle in the community but the General secretary and Sarkin Guragul claim they were improving. When asked what the home offered in exchange for all these acts of kindness, they simply replied “we can guarantee your prayers will be answered and we will continue praying for the development of the nation” and when asked what they would like in exchange for the prayers the General Secretary was quick to reply “we wouldn’t mind a renovated compound and pipe-borne water”. The home has been a subject of debate over the years; some view the house as a revenue consuming outlet which is taking a toll on taxpayers, a school of thought suggests that the government and private citizens making donations are encouraging the age-long laziness culture practiced by poor Northerners whose instinct in life is to serve the rich. Another unconfirmed secret is that the home is a useful tool during elections. These and many more make good reason to inquire what the state government plans to do about the home, renovate the home and provide the basic amenities including security or repatriate its residents.