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The Beggar Children
We ten interns had more or less just landed in Uganda. We had stayed a night in the capital city of Kampala, had driven in excruciatingly slow traffic to Jinja, and had been attending cultural orientation for several days. It was Day Three, and we were touring Jinja on foot.
Imagine. A parade of mzungus meandering around downtown, fingers pointing, and heads on swivels. With stomachs full of matooke and rice, we took our time digesting as we strolled along the broken sidewalk. Shopkeepers called out, hoping that their wares could draw our attention. Boda-boda drivers offered us rides on their bicycles or mopeds. A third group called us too. Three small children, around five or seven years old, quietly implored, “Sirs, 100?” They were asking for a meager 100 shillings, and we had just spent 8000 on lunch. Surely we could spare the equivalent of 6 American cents.
Before we could respond, our program director shooed them away in their native language. Many were heartbroken. I know I was. Here is a little kid, malnourished and poorly clothed, and all he wanted was a nickel. That’s not too much to ask. I could have tossed him the coin and moved on.
But, as our program director explained, it is not about the amount of money. It is the principle. FSD teaches that you can only effect serious change by striving for sustainability. What will that boy do when we leave? Who will care for him then?
It was only the third day, and I was already being taught how to rationalize away the most vulnerable members of society.
Causes, Direct and Indirect
As an aside, I would like to present a brief summary of some history that has been imparted on me by a few Ugandan friends.
There is a region in the northeast of Uganda called Karamoja. For several years, it has been stricken by famine, destroying crops and driving families from their farms. Many families fled from their hunger and came to stay in Jinja.
For almost 20 years, President Yoweri Musevini’s army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force, has been fighting rebels in the North, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA has, over recent years, lost popular support. As a result, they have resorted to abducting children as soldiers. Rather than risk abduction, many families have taken their children south, and some too have taken up residence in Jinja.
Due to the myriad of issues that arise when one doesn’t know the language or the layout of a new region, many adults had trouble finding reliable work. Many of them went to the streets to beg for help.
The beggars who had children with them were given more money than those without children. The children who were without an adult received even more. Some adults, recognizing this, sent their children into town to do the begging while they farmed at home. The beggar children were born.
Not too much later, a lady from Switzerland was in Jinja to do some work and she too was heartbroken by the position that these children were in. She understood that you cannot simply give money to the little kids, so instead, she decided to feed them. Every day, she bought them a simple lunch and fed the kids.
However, what originally appeared beneficial proved to be harmful. More children heard about this and came into town. They skipped school to get the free lunch, and they begged the rest of the day. Unwittingly, this well-meaning woman had made the situation worse. It got so bad, in fact, that several local NGOs grouped together and asked her to stop buying the lunches. She stopped.
Is it sustainable?
Sustainable development is the very center of FSD’s mission. With every action, we must ask ourselves if we are promoting something that is sustainable. What incentives are we creating in our aid efforts? If we do something that encourages less local involvement, less accountability, or less empowerment, we are doing our jobs wrong.
When I first saw those beggar children downtown, I wanted to give them money. I wanted to buy them food. But I know that I won’t always be here to do that, and they will be right back where they started.
What is the sustainable approach to getting these kids off of the street? Get them into school? Economically empower their parents? I am not sure I could tell you.
But maybe the first step is to really pay attention to them. Tossing money at them and hoping that they disappear is the exact opposite of actually paying attention to them. Instead, I’ve been trying to talk to them. To make them feel valued for something other than their sad situation. To at least put a smile on their face. After all, they are only kids.