By Minega Isibo
I take exception to Ambrose Gahene’s article, (‘Not all beggars are paupers’ June 16, 2007). Anyone who chooses a target as easy as the beggars on our streets indicates lack of compassion that is sadly quite commonplace in our society today.
The tone is set very early in the article with the writer calling begging ‘a dirty business’ and asserting that it is ‘a shameful act contrary to Rwandan cultural norms’ before calling for it to be condemned in the strongest terms possible.
It may be easy to pontificate and pass judgment from where he is sitting but it does not take a great leap of the imagination to figure out why we have beggars on our streets. Begging is a symptom of the poverty in this country- that may seem like an obvious point but it’s a point that many people miss when they attack the beggars.
Does Gahene think it has become some kind of cool fashionable activity? If it is indeed so, then I plead ignorance. What I see when I walk out on the street are people who are either physically deformed or too old to even contemplate working elsewhere as well as little kids in filthy rags.
They are not out there because they like to sit out in the sun and watch the people go by and they have not taken up begging because they take a perverse pleasure in challenging cultural norms. Can you even contemplate what it does to your dignity to sit out in the street and beg pitifully from everyone who walks by you?
The writer then goes on to cite able-bodied people who pretend to be blind but that is hardly the norm unless there is some detailed sociological experiment that was carried out on the issue which I don’t know about. If perhaps Gahene had chosen to focus his attack on these people, then perhaps he would have been on safer ground. As it stands, the entire article is one big broadside against beggars even though the title- ‘not all beggars are paupers’- suggests an even handedness and awareness of nuance that never materializes in the article.
There is even an attack on those with no limbs or arms who are castigated for sometimes being rude. Evidently rudeness is not a trait that is monopolized by beggars, but at the end of the day, a few rude beggars is nowhere near the core issue. The questions we should be asking ourselves are: How did they get to this? How can we help them get off the street? Dwelling on their manners seems like a pointless exercise in the greater scheme of things.
The writer then discusses the dangers of falling down when dodging beggars as if this is the real problem. Instead of wondering how to constructively tackle begging and how to address its root causes, the writers’ paramount concern is to make sure we able-bodied people who are financially comfortable should not be exposed to the risk of falling down! Jonathan Swift would have approved.
The writer also discusses a new breed of people who go around Kigali claiming to have sick relatives and no money to go back home or pay for those medical bills. However these are not beggars, but conmen. The fact that they are using the methods of the less-fortunate does not mean they should be discussed in the same context. There might indeed be a ‘well co-ordinated network’ of these people in the city as he claims but again this has no bearing on the situation of the ‘real’ beggars. These conmen should be treated as common criminals. There would be something tremendously wrong with a society that treats conmen and beggars in the same way.
As for his claim that beggars are used to sell drugs in African cities, this may indeed be true but to the best of my knowledge this is not done in Kigali. If indeed there is a network of beggars being used as a cover to sell drugs then I stand corrected but using the example of some other African countries merely makes this claim sound alarmist.
Many of us can never know what life is like on the street and that’s because we have been lucky enough to be born in a more fortunate position. The writer might take some time out to contemplate the genetic lottery of life that ensured he right now has a comfortable life and is not fretting about where his next meal will come from. To call for international and national laws to prohibit the act of begging is astonishingly misguided.
We should remind ourselves that the real scandal here is not the act of begging in itself but the fact that we have people so poor that this is quite often their only alternative. It is a sad testament to our society that someone can look at them and be offended not by the abject poverty but by the very act that this person is begging.
How can you talk about society morals and breeding laziness to the limbless man on the corner or the frail old woman near the roundabout? We should indeed try to find a solution to begging, but draconian laws are the worst possible solution. We have to address the root causes and find other immediate alternative methods but in doing so we have to treat these people with compassion. This will require many- like the writer- to climb off their high-horses and bring more constructive solutions to the table.