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Folasade Owoeye: What Poverty Smells Like



Nobody wants to be poor. No one has a fascination with poverty. There is nothing idyllic or romantic about being poor. I could describe what poverty feels like in many words and still come up short to a lot of people. It really is undefinable. I once heard someone describe poverty as lack of options.

It feels like hunger. Not just the need to eat for satiety, but a strong craving for a particular delicacy that remains forever out of reach.

Poverty also comes in different shades and varies in intensity; and in a country like Nigeria where the boundaries between the poor and the middle class are blurred, the experience of poverty becomes subjective. One man’s description of poverty becomes the aspiration of another. The middle-class man living in Abule-Egba, suddenly becomes poor in Ikoyi.

People across different economic strata relate to poverty in unique ways. Poor people hate themselves for being poor. Their friends and families hate them for being poor as well. The rich on the other hand, have varying reactions to poverty. Some are gravely afraid of being poor and recoil when confronted with the realities of poverty as though it is a highly contagious infection. Others are empathetic to the poor and reach out in acts of benevolence, while some just can’t relate to poverty.

Perhaps, the most empathetic to the poor are the middle class. They live in a constant reminder that they could easily fall to the other side of the divide by the slightest stroke of misfortune and are often more grateful for the little comforts and privileges enjoyed in life.

So what does poverty smell like? Poverty smells like a mix of desperation and unwashed sweat. It is the desperate cry of the middle-aged woman in the week-long church crusade binding all the forces of poverty from her father’s lineage whilst ignoring the cries of the toddler clutching frantically at her wrapper.

Poverty smells like anxiety and cheap bar soaps. It is the clean threadbare shirt on the back of a warehouse security guard, who sits at the hospital reception staring at his son’s medical bill in his hands. He pulls off the handkerchief placed on the collar of his shirt to prevent the collar from being coated with grime and wipes his face repeatedly even though he isn’t sweating.

Poverty smells like optimism and damp clothes. It’s a false hope that makes a young woman and her two sons unwrap the decorative Christmas gift boxes under the Falomo bridge on a rainy Tuesday evening, with the hope that, just maybe by a random act of benevolence, there is a gift inside. It’s the old woman who walks up to the counter in the neighborhood eatery with an empty bowl in one hand and a worn 50 naira note in another. She looks intently at the
young girl at the counter, hoping to make eye contact and ask for a small wrap of eba with egusi soup with no meat for just 50 naira, but it seems the girl is bent on avoiding her gaze today.

Sometimes poverty smells like determination and flooded gutters. It’s the grim look on the face of a 9- year-old boy walking briskly to school. The untarred road from his house leading to the main road is flooded again from the rains. Without thinking, he stops by the side of the road to take off his rubber sandals and his treasured white socks and slips on his sandals again. He cautiously hops on the large stones placed across the flooded street and makes his way to the drier part of the road.

Poverty smells like a mixture of disbelief, smoke and fish oil. It’s the young fish hawker sitting at her makeshift stand in front of a major supermarket. She stares absent-mindedly at shoppers making their way in and out of the supermarket until a young female shopper catches her eyes. The woman walks in a measured gait ahead of a shop assistant pushing a large trolley to her car. She tips the assistant and throws away a crumpled receipt on the ground. The young fish hawker waits till the car has pulled out of the car park and picks up the receipt of curiosity. The items listed on the receipt are incomprehensible but their prices are clear. Her limited reading skills unmistakably pick out two words. “Ice-cream”. She traces the amount… N5,200. She reads it again wondering if there was a mistake as she mentally calculates the value of the smoked fish on her still full tray and wonders in what lifetime she would be able to spend a whole day’s hawking proceeds on a cup of ice-cream. She shrugs to herself…rich people.

Poverty could smell like frustration and metal coins. It’s the repetitive counting of coins and notes by the African immigrant selling souvenirs at the base of a construction site close to the Eiffel tower. He sits on a cold sidewalk with his goods spread on a dusty blanket and he runs his fingers over the few notes and coins in his hands while looking intently at passing tourists. If only he could get them to buy more souvenirs.

Poverty smells like embarrassment and leftover food. It’s the uninvited guest at the wedding reception. She has mastered the art of slipping into reception venues just before the party starts to wind down and the security guards are less aggressive. She deftly swipes the food she is served into a large bowl in a sack under the table and clears the table of every unopened bottle of drinks and water. She moves to another table hoping to get a second serving. However, her luck runs out this time under the watchful eyes of the caterer. She decides to brave it. She can’t afford to go home empty handed so she walks to the back of the event hall where the cleaners are already clearing leftover food and washing plates. She gently asks one of the plate washers if she could pack some of the leftovers and he points her to his supervisor. She winces inwardly as he mindlessly upturns an untouched plate of jollof rice, chicken and moinmoin into the rising mound of leftover food. The supervisor curtly tells her no and asks her to leave the venue immediately. She is tempted to beg again, but something holds her back. She quietly leaves the party and heads towards another reception venue down the road.

Reading through these individual experiences you could say that these scenarios barely scratch the surface of what poverty truly feels like. However, it is only a gentle reminder that whatever you have, wherever you are, there is someone out there in the world who is praying to have the version of life you are living now.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime


  1. Daphne_647

    April 23, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    I love this write-up. Keep it coming

  2. Sanmi O

    April 23, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    those first lines were like knock out punches. stirring the right impressions and guiding one’s mind to an appropriate perception of the idea.

    …Poverty smells like embarrassment and leftover food. interesting read

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks Sanmi!

  3. Dust

    April 23, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Another article describing the european version of “poverty” and “been poor”…
    the writer is still living in a “brainwashed” mentality…

    the comparison between Abule-Egba and Ikoyi is foolish, not every rich “Nigerian” lives in Lagos…

    one of the major differences between a low-income and high-income neighborhood IN AFRICA is in its cleanliness bcos “wealthy” people can afford to do what the govt is meant do which is keep the environment clean.. “poor” people are nonchalant towards their environment..

    A person living a materialistic lifestyle may not be wealthy.

    e:uropeans give themselves higher exchange rates (higher purchasing power) , create an illusion in the media that they better than everyone else, try to impose their culture on everyone else e.t.c but most importantly make sure their environment is clean and try their best to “DISGUISE” their own poverty..

    Lack of money is not poverty. It just means your purchasing power is weak.

    Lack of money is only poverty to those trying to live in “CONCRETE” cities and trying to “buy” a better lifestyle.

    don’t forget everything used to be free before the e:uropeans came and there was a “SHARING MENTALITY” amongst Africans.

    your MENTALITY is the most important part of your life.

    improve your MENTALITY improve your FUTURE..

    • Olu-lo-lu-lo

      April 24, 2018 at 10:51 am

      You must have forgotten to take ur european medicine today. Take them and go and sleep.

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 4:56 pm

      I actually laughed when I read this comment and I take absolutely no offence.
      See poverty is relative. Its not universal. The Abule Egba and Ikoyi comparison is merely based on our society’s (lagos, Nigeria to be precise) perception of where the truly wealthy stay. Ok maybe I should have have said Banana Island and Maroko and the message becomes stark.
      Note that this article doesn’t touch on the topic of civilization. Then we can say its white washed. The Saan tribe in Southern Africa who still live in their huts, hunt in the wild etc .. cannot be considered poor because their perception of wealth is way different from ours.
      So we good?

  4. Asake

    April 23, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    …this scares me to death…”Poverty smells like embarrassment and leftover food” Gosh!! I refuse to be poor IJN! I can relate to this, sometimes last week, I was a bit buoyant and had to ask a friend to raise me with some cash between 10-20k. He then asked; “what do you need it for”? this got me kinda embarrassed, but then; he wouldn’t be asking what i needed 20k for if i hadn’t beg from him. so, i concluded never to ask anybody for money again. Poverty is really scary!! Which is why I work 9am-7pm job as a P,A, I am a Beautician (Makeup Artistry) and also a Fashion Designer; to avoid been poor for my child and his siblings yet unborn. So help me God!

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 5:50 pm

      Amen! lol.
      But please don’t be afraid of poverty… That statement reminds me of Okonkwo’s fear of failure in “Things Fall Apart”

    • Sussy

      April 26, 2018 at 3:01 am

      Excuse me, I don’t care the caliber of who asks me for money, I will like to know what it will be used for. It’s not too belittle the borrower, it’s to measure the probability of getting the money back versus how much I can actually afford to dash if not. Even bank will ask you the reason for a loan. Why do you find the question offensive?

  5. Jux

    April 23, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    It Smells like a unpampered, unkept Vagina, like a choice!

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 4:56 pm


  6. zainab

    April 24, 2018 at 12:31 am

    Lovely read. I was captivated from the very first sentence. @ Dust, not having the money to pay your bills is termed being poor. Poverty is very real. It is indeed, being unable to pay for your medical bills or feeding your family without begging. I remember having to borrow money from my sister when i got pregnant shortly after my wedding. I had complications and me and my husbands incomes could not cover the medical bills. My sister told me to learn how to close my legs after this baby. I felt humiliated.

    • Dust

      April 24, 2018 at 7:38 pm

      You are seeing things from an “I need money” to be okay point of view… there was a time when medical expenses were affordable or free for low income earners…

      the way Nigeria is going… “Low income earners” won’t have access to quality services.

      Everything is going out of reach for “low income earners” and it all bcos the society depends on money.

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 4:58 pm

      Ouch this really hurts.
      But its just a phase and you will surely come out of it.

  7. Sayitasitis

    April 24, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Oversabi! can’t you just read and keep it moving and yes the comparison between Abule Egba and Ikoyi might have seemed baseless to you but what the writer was doing was giving you two different scenarios

    Before you start ranting about the Europeans and bla bla remember that the message the writer is trying to pass across is the fact that people all over are in dire situations; hence be grateful for what you have.Haven’t you seen the difference between Queens,Bronx and Manhattan or Hyde Park,St.John”s Wood and Peckham or Champ Elysses and Corbeil Essonnes?

    Please try to appreciate when a deep message is been passed across.You’ve never been nor tried to reach out to people so don’t judge abeg

    And I pray you don’t get silly trying to reply else I’ll drag you by your horns #dropsmic

    • Dust

      April 24, 2018 at 7:55 pm

      the difference is in the MENTALITY…

      the places you listed still have better aesthetics than “poor” places in Nigeria.. At least, those places have welfare and other govt social benefits unlike Nigeria.

  8. Tri.

    April 24, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Hmm… Profound. Her descriptive style is similar to that of Ayi Kwei Armah, author of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 25, 2018 at 4:47 pm

      Thanks a lot! Ayi Kwei Armah, that’s a huge compliment!

  9. Ruhamah

    April 24, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    This is apt and very captivating. Poverty truly has different shades. well done Folashade

  10. Zainab Fadile

    April 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    ***feels like an empathetic Indian movie. Poverty smells like disbelief, smoke, and disappointment. When you shrug at a rich kid’s vacation budget *smh* rich people , *hiss* how can one be so wasteful. – Nice write, Thank you Shade.

  11. Bim

    April 25, 2018 at 5:31 pm

    Keep going darling, this is, awesome!

  12. Ope C.

    April 25, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    @ Dust

    “Criticism is easy, art is difficult”

    I hope you understand that someday!

  13. Oshiole G. IMOESI-ALIU

    April 25, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    Wow! ? Didn’t see that coming

  14. Isk

    April 25, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    I’m mighty proud of u gurl!!! Brilliant piece

  15. Fatima Umar

    April 25, 2018 at 8:55 pm

    Wow! Good read. Very apt and relatable.. You just opened my mind to unique and unimaginable experiences.
    Keep it coming Shade! Thank you

  16. Nonso

    April 25, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    Amazing write up Folasade!. So insightful. In love with it.

  17. DAO

    April 26, 2018 at 7:25 am

    I can so identify with this.. A young chap came to me to ask for my leftover food at the beach recently. He had hung around long enough till I was almost done eating.. I could barely hold back my tears as I handed him the plate of food..
    Big Ups Sade!
    Can’t wait to read your first book. You have many of them hidden in you, you just need to churn them out

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 27, 2018 at 10:22 am

      Thanks DAO. I’m glad you could relate to this article.
      We are slowly, but surely working on that book 🙂

  18. Half Man Half Amazing

    April 26, 2018 at 9:13 am

    Welldone Folasade. You can imagine or relate well with poverty. At least my own kind of poverty. There are worse I cannot imagine because i never live it. The only room for improvement is the picture of that cute girl. It does not depict poverty i humbly think. Great write-up.

  19. Uchechukwu Ifediniru-Onuakalusi

    April 26, 2018 at 10:53 am

    Wow! Deep and soul stirring.

    Nigeria is teetering on the brink of having no middle class. The emphaty that used to characterise the African nature is seemingly whittling away. Why would a caterer throw away uneaten food at a party when there are people willing to have it? People have this sense of superiority in one small position and always want to ‘flex muscle’. People are consciously defensive of ‘beggars’ so much so it’s just so Sad. I do agree we have people who beg for no reason but still…

    Beautifully written ‘Sade. This one deserves all thumbs up! ???? ????

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 27, 2018 at 10:21 am

      Thanks Sis!

  20. Basil Monwe

    April 26, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    Did not know you have this other side too, a general affairs writer

  21. Olamide Adeshoye

    April 26, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    This is the best I’ve read from you Sade, I really liked the one about friends but I love this more. I have been thinking about this a lot, the disappearing middle class, I live close to Abule-Egba and work in Ikoyi. Everyday I wake up at 4.30a.m to leave home at 5a.m and I usually arrive when Ikoyi is still asleep. Your beautiful mainland car is a jalopy on the Island, your salary for an entire month is someone else’s telephone bill for a week.
    The difference is obvious, but we are all casualties of a failed system that has exposed so many of its hardworking citizens to poverty. These days (even today) when I drive by the Ikoyi passport office, the reality of an ongoing exodus of the middle class cannot be denied. Poverty is very bad. Proverbs 10:15 says ” The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, the destruction of the poor is their poverty”.
    Poverty is weakness and inability to do what you need to do. May the Lord favour our feet to lead us where our blessings dwell. Please, let us all try to reach out and touch someone in need as often as we can. We cannot afford to be poor in empathy too.

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 27, 2018 at 10:18 am

      Wow this is quite deep and I am glad you could relate with the Abule-egba /Ikoyi narrative.
      I honestly also believe that being poor and having a poor mindset are two different things entirely.
      ” May the Lord favour our feet to lead us where our blessings dwell. Please, let us all try to reach out and touch someone in need as often as we can. We cannot afford to be poor in empathy too.”
      Amen to that.

  22. Manny

    April 26, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    Hey Fola,
    This was very well written. I like this – {So what does poverty smell like? Poverty smells like a mix of desperation and unwashed sweat. It is the desperate cry of the middle-aged woman in the week-long church crusade binding all the forces of poverty from her father’s lineage whilst ignoring the cries of the toddler clutching frantically at her wrapper.}

    This is why it hurts me when pastors take advantage of the flock

    • Fola Owoeye

      April 27, 2018 at 10:20 am

      Hmm that topic is an entire ball game on its own. I can already picture the article: “the role of the church in nation building”

  23. WunmCee

    April 26, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    Beautiful and deep. I believe that stealing all you can and seating on the can is also a poverty mindset, therefore many of our politicians that steal with reckless abandon have a terrible poverty mentality. It’s deep rooted in them.

  24. Dayo

    April 27, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Yet somehow the “poor’ manages to have twice and thrice as much children than anyone else…

  25. Linda

    May 16, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Beautifully prosed! Deep, poetic, and articulate. Too many home truths here…

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