Africa: Begging 101

Reading time 7 min.

I am sure there are a lot of people who think that begging needs no training, all you have to do is look miserly (which you will look if reduced to that state of starvation and stress or anxiety anyway), roll your eyes, and beg. How wrong they are! Begging is an art like all other such callings, it needs training and expertise and the recent report that in one Indian village such a beggars’ school exists has highlighted the necessity of stopping the amateur beggars in Africa, a continent known for its ultra professional beggars.

In the good old days you could just beg (have pity on me oh passer by, I am starving!) and tug at he hearts of otherwise disinterested citizens. Modern times have hardened the ordinary human being; pity is a scarce commodity, giving help turned into a business unto itself. Consider the number of charity organizations and NGOs around the world (more than seventy in Addis Ababa dealing with the thriving business of child adoption) and the point becomes clear. Begging has become a competitive business, cut throat all the way, very capitalist. You can’t have the millionaire without the beggar. One begs the other, the contrast is all. Beggars have to be professional, modern, savvy– the times require this. In Egypt, India, Ethiopia and other places professionalism has reached the level where a beggar can rent a child for a day; organize an open bleeding wound to expose to appear pitiable and very wretched. The hard hearts need shocks, in the Indian school of begging children are taught how to sound and appear miserable while in places like Ethiopia there is really no need of training for this–we are very miserable.

Professional begging has now become as African as cassava, foufou. matoke, ugali and Injera. Any African tyrant worthy of this name is first of all a beggar par excellence, the only difference he has with the beggar on the street is that he lives in the palace or State House. Those who refused to beg from the Mau Mau, to the “NO” man Sekou Toure, the Amilcar Cabrals, Netos and Machels–where are they now? Those who opted beg had a better end—some ruled for long like Houphet or Bongo senior, Mobutu or Kamuzu. They had the art of begging down to a capital B. One of the main tenets of professional begging is for the beggar not to exhibit inferiority. The assertive beggar is the successful one. The begging tyrant hoards millions, drives posh cars, lives in palaces and yet treks to the West to beg.

But, before such pilgrimages and hajjes are made there is a dangerous animal to kill and it is called humiliation. The beggar should never feel this thing called humiliation. The people may be starving, the capital city may be stinking to the seven plus heavens, the oil millions may have disappeared down into the tyrant’s secret bank accounts abroad and hundreds of thousands of starving children may be sleeping on the streets but, as we say in Ethiopia, he must wash his eye with salt and beg. The beggar artist called Meles Zenawi for example begged the West for food aid for the famine stricken millions by boldly accusing the West of not delivering food aid in time.

If the young African girl called Dambisa Mayo riles against foreign aid, the fruit of begging, it is because she knew not poverty and the need to beg as she came from a well to do family. The artist beggar must be adept at spinning captivating stories–extending the palm and wailing for help is of no use. Have a story line, drama and suspense, falling down the ladder, endurance and suffering and spin it with good presentation skills. Make the donor part of the operation–give and you shall receive. That is why donors give our tyrants money after money and take back quite a big part of it back while the tyrant gets a considerable sum to add to his coffers. Why should the World Bank give Meles Zenawi and other dictator millions?

Surely, it is not because they tell the Bank grim tales of human rights violations, broad daylight massacres, concentration camps and war mongering. The World Bank and the IMF, or the donors in general, do like cruel dictators but they do not like to be told of this in public. They want lying beggars. I once saw in one American city a homeless person with a begging bowl in front of him and a written sign which stated “No need to lie: it’s for the drinks”. Many a kind elderly person passed him by, angry. Few donors want the truth. Likewise, the tyrant beggar cannot openly claim I am begging for money to steal or to buy arms with. He must spin a convincing story of worth, combining arrogance (make them feel guilty with neo colonial and imperialism references if need be) with a we are going to perish like flies if you do not fork some millions over and he must convince the donors who instinctively wonder “what is in it for us.” The beggar must learn to share.

No country is FOB (Free of Beggars) and one of the countries teeming with beggars, India, is trying to use repressive measures to clean Delhi from its thousands of beggars before the October 2010 Commonwealth games. This country touted as a democracy and still practicing the caste system that has rendered millions untouchable and without rights is using courts in vans and trucks to send beggars to detention centers and prisons. Such a round up was also tried by Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, Arap Moi in Kenya and their attempt to monopolize begging by eliminating the street beggars has failed miserably. If the top man begs the white man the ordinary folk can beg from the black man or woman.

It is a desperate situation and in downtown Nairobi enterprising street kids cover themselves with human excrement and threaten office going women to throw some at them unless they give them a few shillings. This aggressive begging has proved effective. Meles Zenawi at the G20 meetings tried to look as one of the donors or the big countries giving us a good example of the professional beggar without any notion of humility. Profitable as it is, begging has branched out and become a nation wide profession. Some expose their wounds and deformities as in the past while others perform, sing or stand as stone statues to beg. The latter do get more money but begging 101 also comes along with teaching stealing expertise as our tyrants have taught us over the years. Beg and steal go together–show me an African tyrant who begs for help from the West but does not steal from it or the people. The tyrants are so in it that they steal elections and innocent lives too.

The beggar is a pauper who has no money and begs for it. And the beggar is also the one who takes the money that is not his and in this definition we can bring in the tyrants and the corrupt ministers like the British MPs who were actors of the recent scandal of appropriating public money fraudulently and illegally. They really do not need money but they cannot kick the begging monkey off their back. Mobutu, Bongo, Meles, Moi, the list is long of those who have become rich by begging and stealing but still continue to beg. They have so crowded the field that the paupers and poor people in need of help are edged out, rounded up, harassed and jailed. It is a tough world out there. The beggar’s school in India teaches how to overcome this and survive in the face of big and voracious beggars called ministers and leaders. The millions of beggars in Africa do need such a school. Can India help instead of taking over our lands and riches just like China and the West?

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Hama Tuma
Hama Tuma, Ethiopian author, poet and journalist, has been active in the political and human rights struggle in Ethiopia and Africa since the sixties. His satirical essays under the general title of African Absurdities have gained support from many quarters. Some of his books (English and Amharic) have been translated to French, Italian and Hebrew.
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