Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beggars and Choosers

I’m jetlagged. It’s 2:46 am and there is thunder out across the lake. 2:46 am is only 7:46 pm in my Christmas time zone. 7:47 pm now. But I have work in 5 hours and 13 minutes. Sleep is a necessity. Argh.

Maybe philosophizing about a moral quandary will help quiet my mind. Specifically: when (if) to give to beggars. I have been revisiting my previous conclusions about this subject recently and have been meaning to sit down and truly think it out, but I haven’t had time. I guess 2:53 am is as good a time as any.

(What insane luxury to be lying in a warm bed with a roof over my head and a computer on my lap, debating this – to be on the “giving” side of the beggar divide and not the “asking”.)

When I was a child, a woman beggar sat many days on the street two blocks away from mine, holding out a cup in her hands. Sometimes at night when I walked to the ice cream shop with my parents, my dad would give me a quarter to give to her, and I understood from him that it was important to share with people, even strangers. But I am 28 years old now and this woman is still there, on the same street. I suppose that she is happy enough with her life, as she doesn’t seem to have attempted to change her status quo in the last quarter century. But there is more to life than finding your own happiness; there is a responsibility to support the vulnerable in your society. This responsibility should fall on her shoulders, too. I have trouble respecting this woman. The way she asks for money in a high whine; the way her skin is bloated; the way her face changes when she sees someone approaching whom she thinks will give money – like she pulls on a mask of self-pity and need. I have watched her for over two decades. I have never had a long conversation with her, but she has watched me grow up and I have watched her grow prematurely old. If she is truly unable to care for herself, then I would rather give money to an organization that can help her than directly to her. But if she just doesn’t care enough about her society to try to pull her life together, then I would also rather give money to an organization.

When I first moved to this huge and diverse continent, I lived in Senegal for two months (early 2007). Senegal has talibé. Talibé are students. They are young boys who are sent to live with marabouts to learn math, writing, Islam, humility, and how to be strong men when they grow up. Unfortunately, (as I was told the history, and as I remember it three years later) since the big drought in the 1970s resulted in widespread hunger and poverty, the young boys were sent out to beg more and more and kept in class less and less. Since the drought, the culture of excessive begging has remained. This is obviously not true for all daara and many marabout are caring teachers who do not beat their children for not bringing home enough coins in the evening. However, when you walk at night in Senegal you will come across plenty of kids still out, caring around their red tomato paste cans (for some reason, this is the signature begging cup for talibé), scared to go back to their schools to sleep. In Dakar, I knew an ex-pat girl who was a Ba’hai. On the day to break her fast, she and I celebrated by buying sweet muffins and walking through our neighborhood, distributing them to talibé. I remember one little boy, sitting in the sand against a crumble wall with his head in the crook of his elbow. I shook his arm to hand him a muffin. He looked at me, took it, stuffed it up the sleeve of his shirt and put his head back down. He didn’t even smile and his eyes looked so old. I remember another kid, no older than three, snotty-faced, who stumbled up to me on Gorée Island, holding up a tomato paste can. Imagine the sting of pebbles launched from slingshots at your back and legs by tired, angry nine year olds, out alone at night. It really hurts. So – giving a coin to one of these little boys at night might allow him to go home to sleep without being beaten – but what about the next night? This wasn’t a system that I felt I could support. Instead, shouldn’t one give money and time to a local organization that could work to provide a sustainable solution for these boys?

(Side note: At the NGO I interned at, I had colleagues who were once talibé – but in good daara with responsible caretakers. And these colleagues would sometimes give coins to the beggar boys, in accordance with the pillar of Islam that dictates alms be given. But first, before giving coins, my colleagues would quiz the boys in Arabic on Quran verses or in French on school work. When they got satisfactory answers, they were assured that the boys were attending a strong, valid daara and would give the boys coins to reward their humility and hard work.)

In The Gambia, I lived back and forth between the far east of the country, Basse Santu Su, a vibrant market town right on the river which I loved, and a resort town in the west, Kololi, right outside the capital and on the Atlantic Ocean. Kololi has a serious problem with tourism. Prostitution is rampant (most visible are the men, called bumsters, who pick up or are picked up by European females for a week of fun, sex and drugs). And then there are the plentiful tourists who come down with bags of clothes and toys and hand them out to children on the beach. They lie on their towels at their resorts beneath their umbrellas in their knock-off D&G sunglasses and brag about their good deeds, envisioning themselves Santa Claus or a philanthropist, Carnegie maybe, or maybe an old explorer/colonialist, from those romantic times, offering tokens of civilization to the helpless African children. (I would spend hours searching for sand dollars on the beach and I heard so many of these stories). The situation is so bad and ridiculous that children actually skip school to go hang out at the beach and get candies, barrettes, and tee-shirts from the tourists. Besides missing out on education, the poorest of these children then take the candies they are given and sell them to shopkeepers for the coins, so they can offer them up to their caretakers and not be beaten. It’s a terrible system that the tourists partially create and fully exacerbate. It makes you never want to give out money and instead support an organization that will work to change the status quo.

When the children in The Gambia and later in Uganda chased me to ask me for gifts I would make a point of stopping, shaking their hands, looking them in the eye, letting them practice their English, and leaving them with just that – the attention of an adult and the smile of a woman – and no coins or foods or material goods.

In northern Uganda, one of my first times in the IDP camps, my four Ugandan colleagues, one Mauritanian colleague and I were wrapping up a focus group session. We thanked people for their time and participation by giving them soaps. Because I didn’t speak Acholi (and because my Mauritanian colleague, who also didn’t speak Acholi, was awful), I found myself being the sole distributor of soaps while my Ugandan colleagues asked wrap-up questions of the contributors. I freaked out. Here I was, the one white person around, and I was the one passing out items. I told my colleagues in our little rented car on the way back to Kitgum town that I absolutely never wanted that to happen again. I don’t think any of them understood why I was upset. They agreed easily, because they liked me, but with confused looks on their faces – I think they thought I wasn’t making sense, or maybe that I was indulging my “white guilt” and thus would be lengthening our future stays in the camps by not helping with the little task. I don’t know. I just pictured those tourists and their bags of handouts and couldn’t do it. Not that I had any issues with the soap distribution itself – I just didn’t feel comfortable being the face of the handouts.

So – all of these stories combine and melt into the back story of my life, and bring us to here: Goma, Eastern Congo. Here, where I have two ex-pat colleagues, both of whom I like and respect, who have bought soccer balls for the neighborhood youths; who hand out bread to the beggars in front of the Western grocery store. I just can’t grasp this entirely, but it has made me think a lot about the issue.

And this is what I wonder – despite all the stories and their conclusions which I have written above, I wonder if still the main reason I refuse to hand out coins or bread or soaps isn’t because my morals don’t allow me too – but because I feel so uncomfortable with my place as one of the “Haves” in the world. Maybe I have made good points above. But maybe, partially, I just want to ignore the divisions that are there, when I am face-to-face with them without the buffer of an NGO. I want to shake hands, make friends, sweep the divisions under the rug, hide them behind a curtain, pretend. I have never gone hungry for lack of access to food, and I have never been forced to sleep without a roof over my head. Those facts do separate me from something like 80% of the other humans on this earth.

I’m a firm believer that serious sustainable changes need to be made to the way we have organized our societies. But does it really do harm to give a soccer ball to kids who are kicking around bound up rags? Does it teach them to beg or does it help them learn generosity and sportsmanship? I’m just not sure. (Why am I the one in the position to make these decisions?) If you can give coins to stop one boy from being hit and kicked by his caretaker for one night, even if it doesn’t fix the system, even if it strengthens the system, one child has not gotten beat up one night. What is that worth? How can you measure the worth of that?

It’s 4:27 am. I need to be asleep.