Begging, hawking

We’ve empowered women in our own way — Commissioner

By Marie-Therese Nanlong, Jos

THOSE who are familiar with the Terminus area of Jos, Plateau State, would recall the popular sculpture of the famous woman known as “Mama Tapgun” with slippers on her feet, several babies strapped to her back and a big basin laden with groceries on her head, hawking.

The stature was erected in 1992 by the Fidelis Tapgun administration to depict and demonstrate the resilience and industry of typical Plateau women who try to defy all odds to cater for their families. According to Katdapba Gobum, a former State Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, “the effigy showed that the spirit of a Plateau woman cannot be dampened despite challenging circumstances, as they always strive to fend for themselves using legitimate means to survive.” 

The symbol is, however, more typical of women from the Miango and Kwall districts of the Irigwe Chiefdom, Bassa Local Government Area of the State who defy all odds, sometimes with pregnancy or babies on their backs to hawk yams, fruits, vegetables and other edibles on the streets of Jos. However, what the Tapgun regime saw as a bold symbol of womanhood and the can-do-spirit of entrepreneurship was seen from a negative perspective by the administration of former Governor Jonah Jang, who saw it as demeaning to womanhood and a portrayal of poverty and squalor in the state capital. He quickly pulled it down.

To justify the destruction of the figurine and appease women in the state, the Jang administration declared a state of emergency in education and urged young girls to embrace formal education as a means of lifting them out of poverty and to achieve their set goals in life. But as the government did not do much to push the agenda to a logical conclusion, many women could not get access to the promised education. As a result, the disdainful tradition of women strapping their babies on their backs and hawking groceries is still active and booming in the agrarian state.

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As a result of the persistence of the primitive tradition, it is a common sight to see women along major streets and busy areas like markets, motor parks and petrol stations carrying tubers of yam on their heads, walking the length and breadth of Jos, seeking out buyers. They seem to be immune to the elements as they defy intense heat and biting cold, with tired-looking babies strapped to their backs to sell their wares. Women in the past might have ‘enjoyed’ street hawking to fend for their families but today’s women are uncomfortable with this and seek a better deal.

Patience Barry, in her 30s and with basic education, told Arewa Voice that she learnt the practice of street hawking at a tender age from her mother as they used to hawk anything that was available in each season. But she confessed that she was fed up with the demeaning trade and that it was time to take up something more dignifying and less stressful to her and her family. She said: “I used to come from Miango to Jos with my mother so that we could hawk anything in season – be it yam, banana, waterleaf, pepper, tomatoes, pawpaw or anything that could to help feed the family. It was a difficult life but we had to survive. My mother was not educated. I only passed through primary school but I have six children, including four girls; some of them are in secondary school. I train them from the proceeds of hawking but this is not the life I want for my children.

“Although I go with my girls during holidays, I do not want them to end up this way and I encourage them to do well in school. My mother died not making any significant progress; I am still struggling but I know that if my girls excel in school, they will end this cycle.” 

Precious Agah, however, blamed her lot on lack of care from political leaders, saying: “Hawking is a tedious work anytime but we have no support from anywhere. Even those with husbands are not having their needs met as the people in government do not care if we live or die. Thus, rather than stealing or prostituting, we hawk to survive. For some of us there is no shame but our major problems have to do with fatigue and accumulating debts from those who buy on credit and will not pay.

“Another problem we encounter is the potential buyers’ attitude. They sometimes price the goods below the cost price and when we do not find any buyer we sell at discounted rate thereby incurring serious debts just to have relief from carrying the perishable goods about. I believe if government officials who see us in the streets and sometimes buy from us can empower us; this stress of moving about will be greatly reduced.”

However, the State Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Development, Rebecca Sambo, has argued that the state government is doing its best to empower women in the State. Her words, “We have offices that deal with women in terms of empowerment; the SIP and PLASMIDA are helping women and youths in that aspect.

“The office of the First Lady is also giving empowerment to women and training to young girls in our Ministry and we have been empowering women even with intervention from the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. The wife of the President too also intervened at a time to lift Plateau women. What this means is that if a particular woman or women group did not benefit from these intervention schemes, it cannot be said that it is neglect on the part of the state government.”        

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