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16 January 2006updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Trickle-down economics

Returning to Nigeria and a life of privilege, the novelist Uzodinma Iweala learns a lesson at the ro

By Uzodinma Iweala

I come back to Nigeria after graduating from college. I have been to Abuja, the capital, a couple of times, but that was before my mother was appointed minis-ter of finance. Two weeks into my stay, on a rare occasion when my mother has time to chat, I tell her that I’m bored. Her response: “Here are the car keys. Go and buy some fruit.” Overjoyed, I jump into the car, salute the heavily armed security at the gate and speed off in search of – fruit.

The young boy sees me, or rather he sees the car first – a silver BMW – and quickly springs up from his spot under a small tree, eager to sell his bunches of bananas and bottles of roasted peanuts. His dingy shirt hangs low over too-short shorts. His sucked-in cheeks and puckered lips suggest that, although he appears to be about 12, he already knows the sourness of life.

By the time I stop the car he is at the passenger door, grunting: “Banana 300 naira [roughly $2]. Groundnut 200 naira. Sah!” I look sceptically at his black-striped bananas and bargain him down to 200 total for the fruit and nuts. When he agrees, I reach for my wallet and hand him a crisp 500-naira note. He doesn’t have change, so I tell him not to worry. He is grateful and smiles a row of perfect teeth.

When, two weeks later, I see this same boy again, I am more aware of my position in Nigerian society. Security people at the house have told me: “You are the son of a minister! Kai! You should enjoy this country!”

But it’s hard to find enjoyment in a place where it’s not that rare to see a little boy who should be in school standing on the corner selling fruit in the intense heat. My parents have raised me and my three siblings to be aware of the privilege we have been afforded and the responsibility it brings. “To whom much is given . . .” my grandfather always says. And I have been given much, from education at the best schools in the United States to this car and its 12 speakers, which have changed the way I listen to music. But I worry about what is expected of me.

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I pull over and wind down my window. He wears the same shirt and shorts, and has a bunch of bananas and a bottle of peanuts ready. I wave them away. “What’s up?” I ask him. He answers in broken English: “I dey, oh. But I no get money to buy book for school.” I reach into my wallet and pull out two fresh 500-naira notes. “Will this help?” I ask. He looks around nervously before sticking his hand into the car to take the bills. One thousand naira is a lot of money to someone whose family probably makes about 50,000 naira ($380) or less each year. “Thank you, sah,” he says. “Thank you very much, oh!”

Later, I say to my mother: “That’s the way it works? He doesn’t have any money so I dash him some. Trickle-down economics, right?” My mother winces when anyone speaks of the slow progress of the economic reforms. “No, I’m trying to better his situation first,” she says.

The next morning the Secret Service officers caution me, “Sometimes in this place, when you give a little, people think you are a fountain of opportunity.”

It’s true that people will take advantage of you in Nigeria, but this happens everywhere in the world. I wonder if my little friend actually used the money for schoolbooks. What if he’s a fraud? And then I wonder about my own motives. Did I give to alleviate my own guilt? Am I using him? Later, I realise that I don’t know his name or the least bit about him, nor did I think to ask.

Over the next six months, I am busy working in a refugee camp in northern Nigeria, biking across France and Spain, and writing. Some time after I return, I go for a drive and I see the boy standing on the road next to a man who sells exotic birds. He jumps up and down to get my attention and has a big smile ready when I roll down the window.

“Oga sah!” he says. “Long time.”

“Are you in school now?” I ask.

He nods.

“That’s good,” I say. A silence falls as we look at each other, and then I realise what he wants. “Here,” I hold out a 500-naira note. “Take this.”

He shakes his head vigorously and steps back as if offended. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “It’s a gift.”

He shakes his head again and brings his hand from behind his back. His face glistens with sweat. He drops a bunch of bananas and a bottle of peanuts in the front seat before he says, “I’ve been waiting to give these to you.”

Uzodinma Iweala is the author of Beasts of No Nation, published by John Murray (£12.99)