The first time I heard the word “maga” I thought David, my aunt’s brother-in-law, had wanted to say mugu or, rather, that he intentionally mispronounced the word to indicate variations of stupidity. I have always thought mugu to mean a stupid person in the local Nigerian parlance we call Pidgin or Broken English. The Urban Dictionary gives a first definition for mugu as: ‘a term used by African scam artists (specifically of the spam variety) to describe the people they get money from. Literally translated, it means something like “big idiot”.’
So I asked David what, exactly, he meant by calling someone a maga, not a mugu? Was he trying to invent some new word?
‘Ha, they don’t mean the same thing oh! A maga is someone who all these Yahoo-Yahoo boys use to fool, now. All those people that 419ers usually dupe and collect their money, especially those white people,’ he said. When writing this article, I also learnt that a maga may be someone who spent their money recklessly or, quite contrarily, may also mean someone who’s a good pal.
‘Oh, really,’ I said. ‘I thought it meant the same thing as mugu.’
‘No oh, haba! A maga is a mugu that has been duped by all these 419ers.’ David’s definition.
Two words, almost synonyms, barely homonyms — in the etymology of the word maga, I bet it must have originated from mugu.
The word maga came home to me in Kelly Handsome’s Maga Don Pay with its Alleluia chorus. But I never had to think about it much till one day as I commuted from work. I will condense this story for our benefit. I sat in the BRT bus, from Eko Hotel to Obalende, somewhere in the middle, by the window, listening to songs on my iPod. Then a man came in, and sat beside me. I didn’t take notice of him, at first. I hummed silently and watched the shoreline of the Bar Beach, which I can never get enough of. Suddenly, he spoke to me.
‘Sorry, this Finbank, is it the same thing as First Inland Bank?’
I looked at him, then across the aisle, to the window opposite mine; we had just passed a FinBank branch office.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘I know there was a merger, but I don’t think there’s anything like First Inland Bank now. Just FinBank.’
He thanked me, and the journey continued.
Then he spoke again. This time he brought out a mobile phone which looked like an out dated version of a model of the Blackberry. The screen of the phone had on it the image of an English football team. I’m not sure if it was Manchester United or Liverpool but it had a red background and seemed painted on the screen. He tapped on the screen, repeatedly, as he spoke.
‘Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you. I just came back from London recently, and I’ve not been able to activate my phone…’ continued tapping ‘…so I don’t know if you can help me. Let me borrow your phone to make a quick call.’
I looked at his phone. It seemed lifeless, no network coverage, no lively icon, just like a plastic screen. He must have thought I was either blind or stupid.
‘Sorry, I hope you don’t mind, but I’d rather not. I don’t really give out my phone to strangers. I hope you understand,’ I said, as nicely as I could. It would have been easier to lie that I had no air time but something in me wanted this man to know that I simply did not want to give him my phone. Surprisingly, I felt sorry for him after I rejected his request.
‘It’s just a quick call,’ he said, still tapping the screen.
‘Sorry.’ I shook my head.
He said okay and nodded his head. I thought I was free as I plugged my earphones into my ears. A few minutes later, there was another tap on my arm.
‘You are coming back from work?’ he said.
Obviously. ‘Yes I am,’ I said.
‘Where do you work?’ he asked.
‘Somewhere on the Island,’ I said. Before I could put on my earphones, he asked me, with a smile in his voice: ‘You don’t want to tell me?’
I was stunned, and bothered, by this sense of familiarity and I turned to look at him, with a smile still on his face. Where do I start to describe how he looked? Let me try, as concisely as I can: I was sure this man had never been to London.
I told him, sorry, that I didn’t want to tell him, the office was on the Island. Simple. He said okay, no problem. We rode on for a while before he tapped me, again, and asked if I loved my job. I wasn’t so sure what was happening, but I started seeing red flags everywhere.
‘Yes, I do,’ I said. Why all this forwardness?
Then he began to talk, at length, about the conglomerate he worked for in the UK, and how they were starting up a business in Lagos, and how it was going to be a big opportunity for Nigerians. Big plans involving big money and big benefits. He asked if I was interested.
All the while he spoke, I started to wonder if I was dreaming. This encounter was the stuff of jokes and dreams and anonymous email scams. I did not believe anyone would have the boldness, in broad daylight, to carry out such a plan. His act began to dawn on me: I was supposed to be the maga. Fall for this rosy opportunity and never remain the same. I began to shed my politeness, a little.
‘Sorry, I love my job. I’m not interested,’ I said gently, but firmly.
He persisted, and I resisted. He noticed the difference in my tone, and he said, ‘you don’t know who you are talking to.’
Oh yes I do. I’m talking to an amateur conman who doesn’t have the common sense to dress smart and do his sleazy job very well. ‘No I don’t,’ I said, ‘but I’ve told you, I’m not interested.’
He shook his head, and repeated: you don’t know who you are talking to. Is that supposed to scare me? Too bad, I am not falling for that. I continued listening to my music but my mind was far away in wonder.
We rode in silence. Right before we got to Obalende, he tapped my arm, yet again, and asked me if I knew where any office for UPS (United parcel Service) was located. I told him I didn’t. By the time we got to the final stop we parted with hesitant good-byes. As he stood to leave, I had the opportunity to take a very good look at him. He wore a navy blue suit (with visible off-white thread running all over the seams), ash trousers, a purple corporate shirt, and a tie I’m not sure which colour it was, and brown worn-out shoes.
This was the stuff of make-believe. I could not fathom what gave this man the boldness to play up the Londoner card with such attire, the audacity to try out the 419 business, openly, without proper research and training. Even I would have made a better swindler. I thought it might be either one of these:
- He had a mental condition.
- He was into the fraud business, and wanted to use my phone. Nothing to track him.
- He thought I looked very naïve and gullible. Great qualities for a potential maga.
- He needed it bad. Desperate situations call for desperate measures.
- He was still learning the ropes of “four-one-nining”.
As Nigerians, our notoriety for fraud is astonishing. Fostered by the internet, under the cloak of anonymity, anybody can be anything. These days, it’s going even more live. I’m not one to stereotype a people, but this incident, and many others, got me thinking about why this has to be common with Nigerians. Our collective identity has suffered because of this “trait”. We can defend ourselves to no end that we are Good People from a Great Nation but, let’s be honest here, this is real, and it’s bad news, and somehow it does affect us all. Somehow.
Our antennas need to be up. It’s okay to politely refuse awkward requests from strangers, to reject unwarranted familiarity, to research in-depth before dealing with people and businesses, especially when it involves money, to trust with caution, to protect our passwords and PINs, and to teach these to our children, too.
To beat someone at their game, you have to become smarter than they are. Of course, if the maga’s aren’t paying, no one would be shouting some kind of Alleluia somewhere.