Heart of Arts


Toyin Falola


In the past few months, I have introduced characters from the street and the internet to provide discourse analyses that outline the wisdom locked in the linguistic properties of Nigerian informal conversations. Slangs are how society points out its circumstantial experience and, to a great extent, the state of things in a nation. Despite the colloquial, informalities, and general unseriousness attached to most slang, they are identities of mutual and aggregate feelings and people’s experiences; therefore, they become an effective way to understand the sociological, political, and economic standpoint of Nigerian society. On the street, they know Sapa, Las Las, Japa, God When, Bobo and Zobo, as well as many other expressions that help relate well and probably downplay the extent of the effects of many of the country’s social problems. Again, based on this importance, I bring you to Nigeria’s streets and social media and make you understand Nigerian society as Nigerians see it. I will show you the different ways in which people have seen shege.

The word shege was initially developed from the Hausa description of a “bastard”. When I was young, we added barawo to make it sound better: shege barawo, combining a bastard with a thief, too loaded for comfort. Your crime: you took a pin-size piece from my small plate of beans. Bear in mind I was counting the number of legumes before putting three or four into my mouth!

Today, shege has become an interethnic usage that has attracted different semantics. It now depicts hardship, inconvenience, travails, and agonies resulting from perpetual sapa and people’s general unpleasant circumstances or experiences. Interestingly, The Malachi from Urbandictionary.com defines it as “Shege (Sh) is the unit for measuring Sapa at a point in time;” however, the word’s usage extends beyond poverty. How can you move from a shege to a barawo, and your life becomes a unit to measure sapa? “Are you normal?” Mr. Macaroni will ask!

After a long day at work and terrible traffic on the way home, one could say, “my eyes saw shege.” It is true! I have seen this shege on Lagos-Ibadan road where I once spent 5 hours in the traffic. After a substantial struggle in the university, sleepless nights of studying, possible carryovers, long ASUU strikes that extended education periods, and much more stress after graduation, one could say one passed through or saw shege. All Nigerian students in public universities have seen shege, along with their teachers.

I am not a shege collector. Thus, I will limit myself to a few shege. Bearing in mind the diversity of its applicability, the discussion of shege in this piece will focus on the treatment of labour, workers and unimaginable remunerations accruable to them. Here comes Mr. Shege Ambassador!

Right now, it seems that not only is the labour of our heroes past in vain, but the toils of workers, who are the heroes of the present economy and society, are burning in their faces. When they say your rewards are in heaven, Nigerian workers in the private and public sectors, realise that it is not just a figurative expression but a pinching into the consciousness of your reality. Besides the low remunerations compared to the amount of labour, these workers also do not have ideal working conditions. In 2019, the government increased the minimum wage to N30,000. Unfortunately, an individual’s average monthly cost of living is about N43,200, and that of a family is about N137,600. With the current economic hardship and the increasing prices of basic commodities, these costs would have increased substantially. The average salary is not something everyone observes; it appears to be only a rule for the public sector, even though it is far lower than the average wage regulations. Egunje to the rescue! And when you collect egunje, the giver has received shege, the transfer of cash for emotional agonies and unequal trade by barter.

Compared to the public sector, the private sectors in Nigeria show workers more shege. These are places where people collect ridiculous salaries and do unspeakable hard jobs. They see shege at work, and life still shows them shege as they cannot afford basic things. Ironically, even if all government and private sectors pay the minimum wage, an average Nigerian will still see shege because of inflation and the rising cost of living. Your landlord will give you shege; Mama Put will give you shege; and Idris, the Okada driver, will give you shege. Three shege in one day make over a hundred shege in a month: 3 x 30 is more than 90 in real life.

Back in the day, the combination of bread and beans was called the labourers’ food because they believed it was affordable and gave strength. Before the shege Nigerians are facing presently, a labourer could buy N50 Agege bread, N30 ewa aganyin, N20 Naira piece of beef or ponmo, and two sachets of pure water. Do you know why that food combo is good? The labourer gets between N800 and N1000 per day, so if he spends about N110 or N120 on the bread and beans combo, he is good till the end of the day when he returns home to eat or buys dinner for the same amount. At the end of each day, he still has about N400 or more, and he saves some of it with the local alajo. From it, he can carry out major projects like building a modest home for his family or sending his children to a federal university. Unfortunately, societal shege has changed everything. To eat the same quantity of the labourer’s N110 or N120 meal now, one will spend at least N800 from a 2K (N2000) hustle. Arithmetic is another shege, as you must calculate to the last kobo.

Construction sites are where hard labour and shege, in all its imaginable and unimaginable forms, occur: you work against the clock, carrying pans of mixed cement from the ground floor to the top floor, just to collect N2000 per day, while the bricklayers get around N4000 to N5000. At least N500 Naira would be spent on pain relief drugs, while the remaining would not be enough for a meal for you and your family. Unfortunately, the pay seems like the better way out, and, as such, you will have to resume at the site by 7 a.m. the next day. Many of these labourers are older women who have seen so much shege that sapa has become their way of life. The most painful part of this shege is that many women have to give their bodies to contractors or even bricklayers before they are assigned to the next day’s job. It is sad, but it is what it is on the streets: people see shege.

Well, you may argue that most of those suffering are “illiterate” folks trying to survive, but wait till you hear and see the sheges of the literates. The nation’s unemployment rate is about 40 per cent in 2022. A considerable percentage of those with jobs are gravely underemployed, earning peanuts as salaries and subjected to workplace shege. After failing to find gainful employment, a graduate is sometimes “condemned” to teach in privately-owned nurseries and primary schools, where he or she slaves away. After the shege of teaching various subjects across different classes, he or she is paid about N20,000 Naira, if lucky. Depending on the school, some teachers get as much as N50,000 and some as little as N15,000, not to mention the many deductions (fines for lateness, not completing lesson notes, and the like) from the meagre salary. Whichever way, it is both physical and financial shege. Maybe the rewards of a teacher are truly in heaven, but do they spend naira in heaven? Peter collects dollars at Heaven’s Gate, and Satan collects euros in hell.

The shege is better in public secondary schools but far from being good compared to other climes. The salary of a public secondary school teacher depends on his level. At some point, a Grade 8 Step 2 Education Officer takes N688,504 per annum, which is about N57,000 Naira monthly. The salary scale of lecturers in tertiary institutions is also not encouraging, with a Lecturer II working for about N140,000, depending on the institution. The sad stories of ridiculous salary scales continue. What about lawyers who, after the shege they passed through for five years at the university and one-year intensive studies at Law School, come back to a ridiculous N30,000 salary? Medical doctors study for over seven years in Nigeria and, in most cases, do not get employment opportunities in government-owned hospitals. They are then subjected to a N50,000 salary in a private hospital. What about bank cashiers who do not get the value of the work done despite the stressful shege-filled day that requires drugs for aching backbones from a long time of sitting?

We should also talk about many other underpaid employees in the corporate world. A company secretary gets N50,000, a storekeeper is paid N18,000, a driver is paid N20,000, and security guards get about N20,000. These may not be their exact salaries, but while many are paid less than that, those earning more than the above stipulated are few and far between. Shege Salary Structure!

In 2020, the #EndSARS protest put a pause on the nation, asking that adequate attention be given to police brutality. While police brutality is a genuine situation, I remember that the cliché about a hungry man being an angry man must not be forgotten in the case of police officers. Before the 20 per cent salary increment for the Police in December 2021, a police Constable only earned about N43,000, while a Sergeant received about N83,000. After the increment, they get N51,000 and N99,000, respectively. I must say that the nation is still joking with security if government pays such pittances to officers who risk their lives every day while in pursuit of the enemies of the nation, people who keep society safe while we all go about our businesses expecting the utmost professionalism and effectiveness from them. Brothers and sisters, should a kidnapper be richer than a police officer? O ti su mi!

A Yoruba adage says, “Inu didun lo ma n mu ori ya,” that is, happiness motivates. The ridiculous welfare provisions for police officers, lack of ammunition that increases risk, and rigorous work ethics are enough reasons for the disgraceful acts of some police officers. Although this is not a justification for the overwhelming corruption and inefficiency in the police force, taking definitive action could help the nation worry about preventive rather than curative efforts.

Another matter of concern is the unchecked circumstances surrounding human resources and labour agencies. The world is moving toward outsourcing services and hiring service workers without direct contracts with the company. Sadly, these companies make cheaper bids to outsmart other contractors and to the detriment of potential workers who will be shown hot shege. Workers under these conditions, especially in factories, get injured or wounded in the process, and the damages accruable to them and their families are often nothing. With the fear of losing contracts, these outsourced HR companies take their eyes off the suffering of their employees and the cycle of shege continues. Shege takes different forms, and the issue of toxic bosses and workplaces must be investigated. There is a need to set general but non-encroaching regulations on service conditions. In addition, this is a clarion call for trade and labour unions to take up their primary duties and stop being busybodies lurking around politicians and fighting for the union of their pockets rather than their members.

The system has refused to acknowledge that underpaying workers is a big challenge to the nation’s economy and security. Poverty results in the desperation to acquire anything by any means, which explains why many of the criminals in Nigeria are often impoverished people. The country needs to do something about low salary scales, particularly in private sectors and security agencies. It is important to ensure that all employers of labour observe the minimum wage regulation, with punishment meted out to defaulters. Also, the legislature must take action and pass laws to regulate underemployment. It is also necessary to make legislation on outsourced services and human capital engagements to ensure that employees’ interests are not sacrificed for the interests of the agency and the company in need of the service.

Importantly, business owners and, indeed, everyone must realise that the rights and well-being of workers are as important as the business itself. Workers do not have to see shege before employers or jobs can be taken seriously. Let us put an end to showing people shege in workplaces; let us stop shege anywhere. I have taken Panadol for your headache, sharing your shege with you.

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