In the summer of 1991, my immediate elder brother and I went to Lagos in the company of my Father to spend the holidays at an Uncle’s. We went to Lagos aboard an ADC airline and those were the days when rice and chicken sauce was still served in planes and not the ‘gala and La Casera’ that we have to put up with today. We were air borne for about an hour, and eventually landed at the Murtala Mohammed Airport. We were received into the waiting arms of the Driver of an official vehicle from the Cross River State Liaison office in Lagos.
We all got into the car and departed the airport premises. It was my very first time in Lagos and I had vowed to look and observe till my eyes would go sore; the new school term was in a few weeks and I couldn’t afford not to tell my school mates about my trip to Lagos, so I took note of the tall buildings, the flyovers, the imposing First Bank Headquarters, bar beach, the then NFA glass house and of course the heaps of refuse that adorned the streets (No!, Fashola had not been elected governor yet).
I was such an inquisitive child and that day, my father surely paid the full price for having an inquisitive son. ‘Why is that building tall Dad?’, ‘Is that man okay Dad?’, ‘Why are there yellow buses everywhere?’ and just how do you answer these kinds of questions from a kid, really? Well, I kept on asking and Dad kept retorting with those frigid answers like ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘May be’, ‘I think so’ etc. Would you blame a busy man who was by this time searching frantically for documents in his brief case for a presentation he had with the Lagos State Governor later that day?
The car engine soon grinded to a halt and when I asked the Driver what was going on, I was told we were in a ‘go slow’. I’d never seen or even heard about a hold up in Calabar where we had come from so I didn’t suspect we would eventually spend an hour stuck on the road. While this was going on I sighted hordes of people pacing randomly by the side of the road and in between the cars that were trapped in the gridlock. Of course I asked who they were and what they were up to and was told they were street hawkers trying to sell various items to commuters who may be interested in buying. Immediately one boy pulled out from the crowd of hawkers and brought out a pack of ‘Fan yoghurt’ from his flask. He held it up by the back seat window where my father was seated and beckoned on him chanting ‘Oga buy for the kids, yeees! Sweet yoghurt for the kids…’
The bespectacled Popsie then raised his head and gave the boy an austere glance that told him exactly what to do; ‘walk away’ and walk away he did.
I was devastated and asked Father why he didn’t want us to enjoy some yoghurt. He replied, ‘When we get to the nearest Mr. Biggs, you will eat all you want, but not this junk on the road.’ I wanted to ask him what the word ‘junk’ meant but I was too excited about having lunch at Mr. Biggs to bother about that.
That was my very first encounter with the phenomenon called ‘street hawking’. As a kid I thought the sight was appalling and I still do. I do because now I live in a city called Port Harcourt, the once feted garden City, now submerged in the lake of street trading/traders; I even discovered that Calabar, the supposed tourism capital of the nation has refused to be left out of this street carnival as pockets of street traders have emerged on a few busy roads tossing ‘pure water’ sachets, pacing after cars, tripping over and getting back up etc. (But they are street hawking at a high cost as they risk being arrested by the very mean city officials). To be honest, this trend is very much in vogue today across the country, in the urban cities and even on federal highways. In Port Harcourt they do it with impunity on virtually every major road and everyone is involved too; old and young, male and female. Gender isn’t a barrier when there is a vehicle to chase after to sell off an item, and these items could be ANYTHING, anything like ‘pure water’, handkerchiefs, shaving sticks, phones, snacks, drinks, jewelleries, newspapers, toys, cups, spoons, knives, shoe racks, mops, fruits, electronics, suya, bush meat, puppies, mortar and pestle, koboko, catapult, rat poison/trap etc. What used to be mere street hawking has blossomed into a full blown industry and indeed many of the dealers practically sustain their families on proceeds from the streets and have done so for about a decade.
It will be stating the obvious to say that this menace is an embarrassment to us as a people and not only does it contribute to littering our roads, luring our kids out of school etc. it also endangers the lives of these hawkers on those highways and in my opinion, this disorderliness, chaos and pollution only captures in reality, the current state of affairs in the country today, Alas! The same people that we have denied the ‘dividends of democracy’ have become a nuisance and an embarrassment to us; this is one of the consequences of our neglect and corruption.
But then there are several factors that fuel street hawking;
1) We are generally lawless and have no compunction about breaking the law.
2) Only grinding poverty and unemployment will cause people to go out in the sun and rain just to trade handkerchiefs and cutleries.
3) Hawkers thrive on roads that are bad and ridden with traffic gridlock.
4.) Hawkers feel motivated by the idea that they are better off hawking participating in other criminal enterprises.
5.) Road users (and I hate to admit that I am included) have come to appreciate their darling hawkers for always making various commodities available to them when they are in need on the road.
6.) People would rather buy from hawkers than from supermarkets as they sell at ridiculously cheap prices.(I have been there too).
7.) Parents subject their children to hawking even against the children’s wishes.
It is clear that poverty is at the root of this menace. People are hungry, homeless and the only way out is to address the cause and not the effect. Addressing the effect alone is by punishing ‘offenders’ using laws like section 35(1) of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board(AEPB) Act No. 10 of 1997, but after chasing them off the streets, they later boomerang on us through their involvement in other social vices.
An educated and self-sufficient person who has better opportunities will never risk his life chasing after a vehicle to sell off a handkerchief worth just N50.
I personally want to see the Government rid our streets of these ‘miscreants’ and ‘nuisances’, but something in me also wants them to remain to serve as a stigma and a reminder for us until we address the root of this issue. Only then will sanity and order be restored to our society.
John Offiong [SAVVY]