to beg

Some people say that beggars make a lot of money without doing anything. I would argue that begging itself is not a job in the traditional sense (just like writing isn’t) but it’s a job nonetheless. Street beggars  take the guilt of the middle and upper class of the society living in a poor, developing country. The exchange of a little bit of guilt for a fraction of a cantim; I consider that a service by itself. Forget guilt, it’s also our religions that these beggars are helping us be ‘better’ at. We live in a very religious country. Islam and Christianity both require us to help the poor. So whether it is the zakah (2.5% of income that Muslims are obligated to give away) or the money Orthodox Christians give away every Sunday morning on their way to church, street beggars make things extremely convenient for us by being right there on the street. And people still would rather not give them the full change. They would drop change on the beggar’s carpet and take change from the beggar’s change. Yes, they’d do something like drop 50 canteem and take three 10 cantims from the existing pool of donations so they can distribute it to other beggars.

My psychology teacher once asked why we give beggars money and whether we actually believe that our cantims will benefit the beggars in any way. There was a not-so-brief silence in the class (like what usually happens in the classes I’ve attended whenever the teacher poses any remotely philosophical question). A bunch of broken, half-confident responses followed. We said that the money adds up. At the end of the day, the accumulated amount adds up to something. But that we started adding up, it’d be inevitable to really start doing the math here (though I really hate math). Now, how much could the poorest person in Addis Ababa survive on?

Okay. So here’s the cheapest food I can think of:

A small pack of peanuts= 1 birr

Bread= 1.50 birr (so it can’t even make it to my list of things to buy for less than 1 E.T.B***).

Biscuits (plain, flavoured)= 2.5 birr

The total amount will add up to 5 birr/day. ) I read on The Reporter that children who work in the streets rent very cheap crowded motels. I’m thinking if the beggars don’t sleep on the streets-like many do-they would go for that option too. Then there is water. And possibly even transportation. That’s not going to sum up to a comfortable life at all- but it’s a life nonetheless. People survive. The depressing part is the inflation. Bread used to be like 1.40 birr when I first came here. Ten cantims might not add up to much for most of you reading this but if you’re a beggar who’s used to receiving little fractions of people’s change, pulling out three birr for two pieces of bread instead of 2.80 birr would be really annoying. (If I was a beggar with some knowledge about basic economics and how inflation works, I’d be like: woe be to the rich folk importing fancy cars and devaluing this currency day by day. Woe to them eating up my twenty cantim. Them waste-of-oxygen people better give me back my coins on the streets tomorrow.)

Some of you might find this article had become a little insensitive. I probably should have said this in the beginning of the article. But yeah.

Some of you might ask: but how can a beggar know basic economics? To which I’d reply: have you ever met a multi-lingual street beggar?

I have.

My point is street beggars can be smart. For example, there is this blind man that I find almost every day on my way to my house. Usually, when I pass by him, I have no change in my pocket and I am too lazy to take out my backpack for change so I creep up as noiselessly as I can so the blind man wouldn’t hear me. You would often find this guy in the middle of a conversation with random people from the neighbourhood. You’d hear him speak Amharic with one, Tigriniya (a Northern Ethiopian/Eritrean language) with another, Arabic (or Somali?) with yet another one. God knows whether this guy picked up on some French too. Or English maybe. Apparently, I’m not the only one who’d developed some respect for this guy. I once found a young man apologize to him for not having change. I offered to help in the little situation. I mean, I had just bought fries and I had change on me. Ethiopia has a big fraction of Ethiopian Orthodoxy followers and almost every other day is a day dedicated to celebrating any one of the celebrated saints. So like most beggars, this man calls on the saint of the day to prompt pedestrians to give him money. That’s not all you see him do all day though. You can find him chatting and laughing with other street beggars or making small-talk with different members of the neighbourhood in anyone of those aforementioned languages. Sometimes, you’d find him sleeping in a very uncomfortable position; you’d know the nap was not planned (during which one better walk extra slowly because like most blind men, the guy has an extra sharp sense of hearing). At sunset he gathers up his belongings in this cloth-blanket-bag and leaves somewhere. I don’t know where, may never know.

Here, we decide whether to give beggars money when we see that they have some sort of visible disability- or a child. But there are the unique beggars that know they would not score high on the public’s pity scale so they’d resort to the only other open alternative: threats.

My point is street beggars can be dangerous.

My cousin once told us the story of a guy holding up a gejera (a large Ethiopian sword), loudly saying one of the saint’s names, scaring people. People did not just hand out cantims; they threw him ten birr notes in fear for their lives. Apparently, this new style had worked.

Sometimes, when one sees them gathered for lunch, having coffee together with the street vendors under a bridge, one remembers how like us they are. Life gets broken sometimes. Things can fall apart all at once. You might want to argue that a lot of them got themselves into the drugs, and the smoking habit and the huge debts. But a lot of us non-beggars had also gotten into drugs ad smoking habits and huge debts. The difference is there was a safety net to save us. They didn’t have any safety nets. So when they fell, they fell all the way down, between the cracks of society. And Ethiopia might be too poor to give its citizens second chances but maybe we (I mean those with safety nets) can try to help, or at least listen.

My point is that street beggars can be truly interesting human beings. Unlike most of us, to be honest.




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