Saturday, 6 August 2016

Feasting on the sick: Nigerians who use ill, disabled people to make money

These men beg for money on behalf of the disabled persons they are pushing around. Oftentimes, the care givers end up exploiting the disabled persons’ plights. Photos: Odutayo
Odusanya and file

A dark-complexioned middle-aged woman carrying a baby on her back approached our correspondent on a sunny afternoon last Thursday at a motor park in Iyana-Ipaja, Lagos. In her left hand was an A4-size brown envelope with an inscription, “Motherless babies’ home,” while on her right hand was a church-like offering bag. It contained a few naira notes.

After some moments of eye contact, she finally asked our correspondent, “Wouldn’t you also give our sick children some money? They need your support; anything you have, please give them. They need to be taken to the hospital for treatment. I am one of the women taking care of them and we have been going out to solicit for funds to give better life to the kids.”

After discovering our correspondent wouldn’t budge, she intensified her sermon. She obviously wasn’t going to give up.

Due to her persuasion, our correspondent asked whether she could give the address of the motherless babies’ home she was representing for a possible assistance in the future.

At this juncture, her morale dropped.

“But why asking for an address when there is an opportunity for you to give? There is really no need for you to come. Just give to the children and you will see what God will do in your life. We are not asking for much; give any amount you have now. These children need support urgently,” she said, now turning aggressive.

Seeing that her appeal was yielding no fruit, she left, on to another passenger.

Few minutes later, a man pushed a young girl to the park in a wheelbarrow. The girl was apparently ill, a part of her face covered with bandage. She was paralysed, couldn’t utter a word, except that she gestured with her hands.

The man carrying her wore a crumpled brown shirt and a white ‘Damanga’ cap, with a white badge which read that the girl he was pushing was suffering from paralysis and she needed help.

Though the girl got some help that day from some compassionate passengers, it was in the pocket of the man pushing her that the money went in; unfortunately, the girl looked too frail to demand any form of accountability from him.

Eventually, the money might not be used for the purpose for which it was collected, according to Saturday PUNCH findings.

The findings showed that when sick people such as the girl make some money while begging, they are usually being ripped off in the end by the people who carry them about.

Our correspondent also learned that oftentimes, the guardians of the sick people are the ones who enter into a partnership with the care assistants to carry their sick people around and any money made in the process would be shared between them.
                                 A woman displays twins, seeking for alms from passers-by

With more than 70 per cent of Nigerians living below $2 (N600) per day, according to World Bank statistics and in the face of hard times, this strategy seems logical to the people who have taken to exploiting the sick or physically challenged to make money for themselves.

An aid worker with a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation which caters to orphans, Mrs. Abiola Olabisi, said it was pathetic that the sick had become prey to some “greedy” people in the country.

In her over 10 years working as an aid officer, she said it was unfortunate that the practice had taken a new level, especially in cities where people feel money could easily be made.

She said, “In my working as an aid officer, I have discovered that people always invent new strategies of exploiting others. Most beggars are a set of greedy people. Now some of them have seen that people are not giving them alms again. So they look for sick people, either from their hometown or neighbourhood and offer to assist them.
 The #SaveMayowa campaign has been controversial over allegations that ovarian cancer patient Mayowa’s (left) family took advantage of her plight to raise money from the public despite the fact that doctors said her ailment could not be treated

“They move those sick people around as if they are helping them. I also used to think so. But it was one day that I found out that those sick people are being exploited. They are not being helped. The guardians of the sick people are the main culprits. They enter into a form of partnership with the care assistants, seek for alms on behalf of the sick person, but end up sharing the money between themselves, while leaving the sick person out.

“Oftentimes, the sick person gets only a meagre of the money being made. They are not taken anywhere for treatment. Meanwhile, when you come across them in the street, they beg in the guise that they want to take the sick person to the hospital for treatment. They are tricksters.”

According to Olabisi, she witnessed a case whereby a disabled person engaged in a hot disagreement with his care assistant over the latter keeping big denomination naira notes and giving him (the disabled person) small denomination notes.
                           A girl is assisted by a woman to beg for money from passers-by

The women who indulge in this practice do so because they perhaps know that the display of the sick babies — on pedestrian bridges and by the roadsides — would likely attract compassionate looks from passers-by.

Some of the babies, wrapped in unkempt clothes, do blink their eyes, sneeze, due to dust they are exposed to in the open place and shriek sometimes to express their feeling of pain under the condition to which they are subjected to.

Their care assistants usually sit on bare floor, singing for them and soliciting for alms.

A child rights activist with the Child Protection Network in Lagos, Mr. Ebenezer Omejalile, said there was no indication in most cases that the babies belong to the women who display them publicly.

He said the organisation had found out that most of the women who engage in the act were not the true mothers of the babies and that their aim was mainly to exploit the often-sick babies to make money for themselves.

He said, “There are indications that those women are not the true mothers of the babies. They collect the babies from their real mothers and exhibit them in order to attract public sympathy. Their aim is never to give the kids good life. They exploit the babies’ innocence to make money for themselves. We have found out that they have a syndicate. They belong to an association.

“Of course, there may be genuine cases, but from our findings, they are very rare. It is definitely because they are poor. We have also interviewed some of them recently and they would tell us different fables. We tried to empower some of them vocationally but they rejected. They are content with begging. If you see them at a location today, go there tomorrow, they are no longer there. They move around.

“They are making money by exploiting the innocence of babies. Normally, when people see babies displayed like that, they are emotionally moved to give them money. We have also found out that when they are given money, there is somebody somewhere watching how people give them money and how much they’re given. Soon, the fellow shows up and they give him or her the money.

“This trend started around five years ago in Lagos and we have tried to arrest some of them in the past, but before we got there, they would have left. We are working with the government now to arrest these women because they are definitely not the mothers of the babies.

“There was one particular case in Benin City, Edo State. We saw the women and we felt like helping her, so we contacted the centre for women empowerment there. Before they could trace her to the location, she was gone. It’s a syndicate and we are working with the government towards ridding the streets of these criminals.”

 Controversial #SaveMayowa campaign

In July 2016, a Nollywood actress, Toyin Aimakhu, initiated a social media campaign, tagged “#SaveMayowa,” requesting her colleagues and members of the public to raise money to save the life of an ovarian cancer patient named Mayowa Ahmed.

The campaign was initiated to raise funds for the victim to undergo surgery in a foreign hospital.

Soon after the campaign started on an online crowdfunding platform, gofundme.com, several Nigerians started responding so as to save the life of the victim, with donations reaching over $100,000 (N30m) within few days.

However, there were reports that the #SaveMayowa campaign was allegedly a scam after Aimakhu said she got to know that Mayowa’s case was beyond treatment.

Aimakhu alleged that the patient’s family were using the victim’s condition to defraud the members of the public, thus sparking a controversy on the social media.

According to reports, Aimakhu said she got to know that doctors at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital who were handling Mayowa’s case had said they refused to give the family a referral for treatment abroad as no hospital could save her because her cancer was already at stage four.

The LUTH officials reportedly told the family not to bother to go for further treatment as it was not necessary.

The campaign added a new twist after the founder of Lifestake Foundation, Aramide Kasumu, who was involved in the fundraise, alleged that the family of the victim lied that only N30m had been raised while indeed around N85m had been raised.

Kasumu, in a video posted online on his social media page, also accused the victim’s family of deceiving the public.

Following the controversy, Aimakhu alleged Mayowa’s family were using her bad state of health to defraud Nigerians.

She also accused the family of cutting everyone off after the money was raised.

Toyin said “When I got wind of Mayowa’s sickness, I was moved to tears and immediately sought to know how I could help, hence my on-the-spot video which went viral as my genuine intervention.

“Indeed, I was overwhelmed by the quick response of well-meaning Nigerians to whom I will forever owe a debt of gratitude. But all this changed yesterday, Thursday, July 28, 2016 when I went to the hospital in the morning to check as well as follow up on Mayowa. Her brother had told everyone to leave them alone because they wanted privacy.

“Although I was shocked at the sudden change in attitude, especially the tone of communication, I still did not suspect anything was amiss. However, on my way out, I received a call from one Aramide Kasumu of Life Stake Foundation, who would later claim the whole Mayowa Ahmed fundraiser was a scam. Importantly, she wanted to know the extent of my involvement and in her words, ‘so that when they were giving their reports, I would not be roped into it.’

“She went further to state that the family deceived everyone in the first place by raising funds for Mayowa despite the fact that her case was helpless and the hope of her survival was near impossible. She seemed to know so much, I reckoned.

“Upon hearing this, I was appalled and in a bid to clear my name, I went back to the hospital in palpable anger and demanded explanations from all concerned. Perhaps, I overreacted when I went into a rage of anger over the matter with the Chief Security Officer. I then alerted the police, who invited the parties involved to the police command.”

However, Mayowa’s family also accused Aimakhu of demanding for part of the money and requesting they foot her bills to fly abroad with Mayowa, alleging that their refusal was what enraged the actress.

The family said they didn’t want to give up on their daughter and had contacted some doctors in Dubai for treatment.

They said Mayowa had been misdiagnosed by many hospitals in the country and they had sought funds for an alternative and better diagnosis abroad.

They said, “The funds raised are solely for Mayowa’s treatment and for no other reason. We await her visa to commence the journey as we are in touch with the doctors abroad and they are awaiting her arrival. We appreciate the contributions made by Nigerians on this journey.

“We have been misled by the so-called top hospitals in Nigeria which have only helped to make the issue worse. We require every support to help to give our dear Mayowa another attempt to regain her life and leave the remaining as God has ordained.”

Meanwhile, the hospital management said they would investigate the controversy surrounding Mayowa’s case, while the Lagos State Police Command, on learning about the issue, had frozen the bank account opened to raise money for the victim pending when investigations are concluded.

The command’s spokesperson, Dolapo Badmos, said in a statement that the state police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, “directed full investigation into the report that the ‘Save Mayowa Campaign’ is a fraud” and that the report of the investigation will be made public.”

The statement added that Kasumu and two members of Ahmed family – Mr. Iwaloye Seun and Mrs. Zaneen Ahmed – had earlier been invited to the command’s headquarters for questioning.

It said in part, “…subsequently, the command has placed a red alert on the bank account opened in the name of Mayowa as it has been frozen while effort is ongoing to contact the managers of Gofundme online account so as to ensure funds raised through that platform is not fraudulently diverted.

“Investigation will be extended to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, where the patient is currently undergoing treatment.

The allegations surrounding the case are that doctors at LUTH had told the Ahmed family that Mayowa’s ailment had reached a terminal stage and therefore could not be treated, but that the family had continued to raise money in spite of that.”

She said, “I was driving along the Ikosi Road, Ketu, Lagos sometime ago when I saw the two of them shouting at each other. I guess they were Hausas because that was the language they were speaking. I understand Hausa and that was why I got to know what their argument was all about. The boy being wheeled about was tackling his care assistant to stop giving him small denomination naira notes while he (the care assistant) keeps the big denomination naira notes.

“I was in traffic and that allowed me to get a full gist of what they were discussing. It got to a stage when the sick guy felt like jumping out of the wheelchair to face his care assistant, but he couldn’t do so. There are some younger sick or disabled people who wouldn’t be able to express their grievance that way. They are being feasted upon because of their condition.”

Saturday PUNCH found out that people who take advantage of the sick or physically challenged because of their condition abound in almost every city in the country — from Lagos, to Ibadan (Oyo State), to Osogbo (Osun State), to Benin (Edo State) and Abeokuta (Ogun State).

“I see many of them in my street every day. They have no other job than to push the sick and disabled people around — of course, for their financial gain,” said Thomas Adeogun, a teacher in Ketu, Lagos.

Adding her own views, a Lagos-based sociologist, Dr. (Mrs.) Gloria Bamidele, said in the midst of poverty, “people do all sorts of things to survive. It is desperation, but it is not right. People who exploit the plight of the sick or disabled persons to enrich themselves are wicked.”

Some of the “tricksters” Olabisi described go as far as displaying sick babies — sometimes twins — by the roadside, exploiting the innocence of such babies to beg from pedestrians and motorists.


Credits: PUNCH

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