Walking home from work one day I saw a man up ahead, at a sort of makeshift station, outside the building where my family lives. I know him now as Aliyu, and I greet him semi regularly, but I think I’m the exception in this way, as most people either hand him some money and walk on, or simply walk right past him.
His dark skin is really smooth and his head always shiny without a single hair. He’s crippled, or disabled, or as my boyfriend would say, “he has a disability,” and the little stand where I see him is where he begs.
The man I met online about eight months ago, the man I’ll one day marry if our plans do not fail us, also has a disability–was born with it, in fact–Arthrogryposis. I looked it up, and you can, too, if you’re interested.
Growing up, my dreams of finding Mr. Right never hinted that he would be in a wheelchair. But I think that’s a fault of our culture. For whatever reason, if you have a disability here you are going to have to beg. That will be your living. As I told my partner in life, they do quite well, paying their rent and even sending their kids to college on their “earnings.” Nobody thinks twice about it, really.
Admission: I’ve never given Aliyu any money–though I was nearly guilted into doing so once when another passed him a Naira note right in front of me…LOL! By the time I met the man on the street, I had already come to know the man who lives in my little phone quite well, right down to exactly what he can and cannot do because of his disability. More than that, though, I already knew how he feels about things, about life, and what his aspirations are and what troubles him.
Big surprise: he has the same feelings, hopes and frustrations as anyone not in a wheelchair! If anything, he may be more sensitive than most, more attentive, but I think that’s just who he is, not his disability.
My point is, even though society has set certain expectations for “these people”, and many of them fall into their roles willingly enough (and why not!), I know from my interaction with my boyfriend that Aliyu is a real person, a man like any other on the inside where it counts. And I was happy that it had occurred to me to interact with him more naturally than I saw others do.
I did ask my boyfriend if he thought it was wrong I’d never given the beggar any money–”after all, that’s why he’s out there.” Rather than answering, he asked a question of his own–as is his frustratingly sweet nature!
“Does he or does he not seem delighted when he sees you?”
“He does”, I answered, “In fact, just today I joked, ‘What are you smiling away at?’”
He was right, too. I say hello to him. I hold out my hand for him to shake. Yet he is more visibly elated at my arrival than when he receives money from people passing by.
“You, my love, are giving him what he REALLY needs: human interaction, and his smile is his way of repaying you in what he yet believes is the only way he can. You are an oasis of humanity, treating him as you should, like a real person, despite the station in life that society has relegated him to”, he said.
Most days, I believe him. He does know what he’s talking about. On some other days, I do still feel like giving him some money despite what he said.
Aliyah’s legs seem messed up, but his arms and hands are fine. There is surely real work that he could do, a way for him to earn the value of his place on Earth–even here in Nigeria! But…that’s just not the way it works here, I guess–not yet, anyway.