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Monday, 26 February 2024 05:35

[OPINION] Breasts on Fire! - Toyin Falola

I am in trouble!

I have placed my breasts on a kindled lantern.

Help me! 

Fire is burning me.
 

If the title misleads you into thinking that this is about mastalgia, please stop reading. What follows is a tale of agony: GBỌ́MÚ LÉ LANTERN! This is the story of a creditor and a debtor. This is about Lapo, a situation where many campus girls find themselves forced to engage in undesirable activities, such as having sex with Okada boys for a meagre sum of N3,000. This occurrence highlights how individuals lose their freedom, how wives become concubines, and how souls are sold. Be strong-hearted.

The last time I was in Ibadan, I visited the Bodija market, a popular food market in the city. The market is in a crowded suburb, which serves as a base for various businesses that cater mostly for foodstuffs and groceries. As I navigated my way through the market, I noticed a crowd gathered around a woman. Initially intending to pass by and mind my own business, but then I heard a loud cry: “Ẹ̀yin èèyàn, ẹ sàánú mi, iná lantern jó mi!”, translated as, “Please, have mercy on me; the fire from a lantern is burning me.” Out of curiosity, I turned to witness the source of the outcry. Before me stood an elderly woman writhing in agony, her cries echoing through the market. Tears streamed down her face as she danced and shook with pain. You could tell she was in distress, her desperate gestures conveying the severity of her predicament. As I observed her plight, I could not help but feel a sense of pity for her unfortunate circumstances.

Curiosity got the best of me, so I approached a trader to inquire about the cause of her calamity. Had she suffered the loss of a child? With no sign of fire in sight, I wondered what could have happened. The trader shared the heartbreaking story of the woman’s misfortune. According to him, the woman had borrowed N150,000 to start her palm oil and rice business, and she was expected to pay back a certain percentage every week. Unfortunately, some thieves burgled her shop during the night and cleared out the entire shop. She got to the market to resume sales as usual, only to find her shop looted and empty. The timing could not have been worse, as it was the day she was due to make her weekly loan repayment. Barely making any sales that week, she found herself in a dire situation. I now understand why she almost stripped herself naked, crying as if he had lost a child.

As she lamented her loss, the loan officers arrived to collect their weekly refund. Seeing the calamity that befell the woman, one would think that these loan officers would understand and, at least, give her some consideration. Instead, they did not even budge. That was her problem to solve, not theirs. They made it clear that they expected their money, regardless of her circumstances. Threatening her with dire consequences if she failed to meet their demands, they left her with no choice but to cry out in despair:
“Ẹ̀yin èyàn, ẹ sàánú mi, mo ti gbọ́mú lé lantern!”

Please help me,

I have placed my breasts on a hot lantern!

 

Gbọ́mú lé lantern is a common slang among borrowers of microcredit loans in Nigeria, expressing how excruciating their agonies can be. These loans come with risky terms and conditions, akin to placing one’s breast on a hot lantern – a pain difficult to fathom, let alone endure. Yet, this is the reality for many market men and women, petty traders, and local artisans, who are the major recipients of these microcredit loan schemes. This group of individuals suffer shame and anxiety, driven to depression. The consequences of defaulting on these payments are severe: borrowers risk being locked up in toilets, escorted to beg for alms, having their goods confiscated, or facing various forms of public shame and harassment.

The trader who shared this insight with me revealed that such money-lending schemes are often the only way for traders to kickstart their businesses. The agreement entails making weekly payments, necessitating individuals to generate sufficient income to meet their targets. Failure to do so results in a dreadful day for such individuals whenever the loan officers arrive to collect their dues. This day was better imagined than experienced. The trader recounted his own experience as a credible beneficiary of the loan scheme for about three years, until recently when he stood as a guarantor for a friend who defaulted on his payment. He suffered the consequences alongside his friend, enduring harassment and ridicule from loan officers who would gather in front of their shops, singing mocking songs and ringing bells on their heads. They were labelled derogatory names like onígbèsè, meaning debtor. He even mentioned how they recently incorporated a viral TikTok song into their taunts, amplifying the humiliation faced by defaulters. The song goes thus:

Ó yáwó LÁPÒ,

Ó lọ fi sayé,

Ó yáwó Palmpay, ó lọ fi mọtí.

You took a loan from LAPO. You are using it to flex.

You took a loan from Palmpay,

You are using it to buy alcohol.

This implies that the loan obtained from these officers should be strictly used for business purposes, and you do not dare mess with them. They believe that public humiliation is a more effective means of recovering loans than arrests. Arresting defaulters would prevent them from engaging in business activities to repay the loan, providing them with more excuses for delayed payment. Therefore, they resort to public shaming and embarrassment, knowing that defaulters will experience it in the presence of their loved ones, friends, and fellow traders, who are unlikely to stand their loved ones facing such embarrassment and might decide to save them from the shame.

Nevertheless, loan officers will stop at nothing to retrieve their money. Those who sell perishable goods can be somewhat unlucky because of the nature of their goods. If sales are slow, they may end up with losses as the goods may spoil. The trader also shared how a particular fish hawker had been unlucky with the loan scheme twice. On the first occasion, she was locked up in an unlivable space with human waste until a relation came to pay the weekly due. Seven more days, her agony would be repeated. The second time, she was forced to dance around the market as she hawked her fish while the loan sharks sang harassing songs and rang a bell on her head before a good Samaritan bailed her out of their hands. How pathetic!

There is an evident tension that erupts and the expression that signals pain and hardship on the faces of traders and other clients of these microcredit loans at the mention of LAPO (Lift Above Poverty Organization) or SEAP (Self-Reliance Economic Advancement Programme), amongst other loan schemes. The credit officers who work for these microcredit schemes go to the extreme to ensure loan repayment, as any outstanding amount is deducted from their monthly salary, and they suffer other unfair treatment over defaulted loans. This is the motivation for their crude harassment of defaulters.

Involving the police to recover small loans could be a bit stressful for them as it could cost more than the loan itself, so they turn themselves into loan sharks, move in groups to publicly disgrace their clients as a way of ensuring that by all means necessary, the loan is recovered, else, they suffer the consequences too. Sometimes, credit officers are not to be blamed for their treatment of some defaulters because why would someone throw a lavish party to ‘turn the body’ of their great-great-great grandfather, who passed away before Lord Lugard was born? What sense does it make to borrow money to buy Aso-ebi for a party that is not your business? Na ment?

The prevailing economic hardship in our country often leaves many with no alternative aside from these Gbọ́mú lé lanterns, leaving them indebted and living in constant fear of these loan sharks branded as microfinance loan schemes, with detrimental effects on their health. The thought of the embarrassment one is doomed to face if payment is defaulted is enough to take sleep away from one’s eyes for days. There is perhaps no faster route to hypertension and high blood pressure than to be indebted to these so-called microfinance loan schemes.

Imagine running from pillar to post, robbing Peter to pay Paul, having sleepless nights, lacking peace of mind, and experiencing a health crisis just to pay N20,000. Naturally, being in debt is rarely conducive to peace of mind, but for those who fall prey to these loan schemes, it is not merely the debt itself that poses a problem but rather the draconian consequences of defaulting on repayment and the unforgiving methods employed to recoup funds. Borrowing N50,000 and ending up repaying double is the grim reality for many. While we may say that a lack of adequate information and illiteracy is what pushes people into the nets of these loan sharks, often, people who patronize them feel like they have no other choice than to agree to such enormous interests and outrageous repayment methods. Imagine being faced with the looming deadline for your child’s school fee or the dire request from a hospital that demands payment for life-saving treatment. In such dire circumstances, the choice between risking one’s financial future and securing immediate relief becomes agonizingly clear. For many grassroots men and women, the perceived absence of viable alternatives compels them to risk everything by placing their metaphorical breasts on a searing hot lantern – the all-too-familiar symbol of microfinance loan schemes.

In today’s technologically advanced world, the proliferation of loan apps like OKASH, Fair Money, etc., poses significant risks for borrowers. These apps gain access to sensitive personal information, including bank details like the BVN, NIN, and phone contacts, which they leverage to pursue defaulters. Since there is no privilege of face-to-face contact, they do not physically harass defaulters like the microfinance loan officers do; instead, they harass defaulters by incessantly calling and sending embarrassing text messages to the defaulter’s contact list. If you have ever received a call or text that reads thus: ‘Your contact, Mr Sule, with telephone number *** is a debtor and fraudster who took a loan from our company and has refused to pay. Please compel him to pay, unfriendly measures will be taken as this will be considered a fraudulent act.’ then you are familiar with their tactics. Some will not stop at just calling or texting the people on the defaulter’s contact list but will go to the extent of announcing a defaulter’s obituary. Àwọn wèrè!

Corporate banks have, over the years, rendered most small and medium business owners helpless when it comes to giving out loans. With no hope of financial assistance from regular banks, small-scale business owners turn to microfinance banks who generously give out loans with little or no stress. However, despite the prevalence of loan defaults, it is crucial for loan companies to adopt more humane methods of correcting defaulters rather than resorting to extreme measures such as confinement in pit toilets, public begging, and other notorious methods of loan recovery.

Additionally, borrowers must carefully assess their ability to repay loans before taking on debt, recognizing that failure to do so can lead to severe consequences akin to placing one’s hand in a blazing fire.

Modáràn o!

Mo ti gbọ́mú lé lantern.

Ẹ gbà mí!

Iná jó mi o!

 
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