HUYE IS known as Rwanda’s cultural town on account of being the custodian of the nation’s heritage that is preserved and stored at the National Ethnographical Museum. However, something alien to Rwandan culture—begging—is creeping in the town.
From scores of children claiming to be abandoned by their parents to smartly dressed men and women claiming to seeking helpto clear medical bills, beggars are all over town.
The phenomenon has forced district authorities to create small business-cooperatives for the beggars as a way to get them off the streets and earn their own living. Similar interventions are being done for prostitutes and street vendors.
Eugene Muzuka, the Mayor, said the initiative was taken mainly to help get rid the habit of begging in the town.
“We found out that most of them said that they beg because they lack means. That is why we formed cooperatives depending on their areas of interest to help them get some daily income so that they could make their lives better,” Muzuka said.
Four cooperatives of approximately 30 people each have been created. They are cleaning, pottery and two vegetable-selling cooperatives.
In addition, the district partnered with the Catholic Church and formed a centre for children, “Irebero”, where nuns look after children removed from streets. The mayor said the district spends about Rwf 10 million per year on such children.
However, one month after the start of the programme, able-bodied men, mothers carrying babies on their barks and children are still on the streets begging.
“I live on daily handouts, how will I survive when I join the cooperative now? I do not think I can make money from cooperative,” said Rosalie Nyiranzeyimana, a 25-year-old mother of twins.
Nyiranzeyimana’s situation seems to be shared by several others who find it hard to quit begging immediately.
According to Dr. Simeon Wiehler, the head of social science department at University of Rwanda , begging is a complex social problem that can be explained by his theory, “The Cycle of Poverty.”
“It focuses on how the poor –in this case beggars—are trapped at the bottom. They have little education, no capital, no access to credit, no way of pushing themselves up. They adopt behaviors that are unhealthy or socially unacceptable (prostitution, stealing, poor nutrition, laziness, dependence etc.). So they remain desperately poor and dependent on begging. Their children will almost certainly face the same conditions, and so the cycle continues,” he said.
He considers government programs for development such as free education, micro-finance, low-income housing as the solutions and he also sees that NGOs can play a significant role at the point.
But why does the phenomenon persists in spite of government and non-government in interventions?
“Structural functionalists look at the interrelationship between the parts of society that end up supporting and enabling begging. One significant part that does this is religion. We are taught that it is good to help beggars. Islam instructs followers to give as a central tenet of obedience to God,” he said.
He added that human sympathy is another social function that supports begging. “So, beggars perform a function to the rest of society of allowing us to feel that we are doing something good, or fulfilling God's commands,” Wiehler added.
He suggested that a solution to the problem might be in creating public awareness to stop people giving to beggars.
The don said that the “Economic Niche Theory” that he developed shows that beggars make money.
“If there was no money in it, they would look elsewhere for survival. I developed this theory to explain the persistence of street children, but it works just as well for beggars. The economic niche is the profitability space which allows for beggars to survive. As an economy grows, this space grows too, pulling more beggars into the begging niche” Wiehler added.
As the government continues to enact more programs focusing on the poor, it is public awareness campaigns to stop begging and to take children of the streets that will permanently solve the problem.