There are few universals in the world, and unfortunately inequality is one of them. No matter what country one is in, developed or developing, one can always expect to see inequality starting them in the eyes, subtle or overt. Just look around, you’ll find it. Often times one of the most overt symptoms of inequality is the phenomenon of the beggar. It is a phenomenon that can be found in most moderate to large cities in the world and is tends to be one of the most distressing manifestations of inequality in our societies.
Take a walk through almost any Indian town or city and you will more than likely be approached to provide money to someone in need. It is a heart wrenching situation, but one that is ubiquitous throughout the country. The same can be found in many other developing countries around the world, often simply just a final act while in the clutches of poverty. However, don’t think that this is limited just to developing nations, as anyone who has visited a large city in a developed country will more than be confronted by this most unfortunate solicitation of desperation. All of this is to say that a case can be made that begging is one of the few universals in the world, and a most unfortunate one at that.
However, an exception to this apparent truth has been found right here in Kenya. There are many things to do and see in the Town of Kakamega, located in western Kenya. Being the third largest city in the country, with a populations of 1.6 million, it is a bustling city to say the least. However, despite all of the many things to do and see in this city, there is one thing that you will not find: Beggars. If you take a walk around the downtown center, often the epicenter of this kind of solicitation, you would be hard pressed to find an example of this anywhere. Period. Now, why is it that beggars can be found in seemingly ever major city in the world, but none in Kakamega?
The answer to this question is beyond the understanding of this author, being in a foreign country, a foreign culture, one that is not yet understood. However, this question was recently presented a class of 47 brilliant, enthusiastic grade 10 students who were more than happy to share their ideas. Forty-seven papers were received that covered a wide range of possible explanations, and thus the following synthesis was created.
One of the most common explanations for this questions was that, put simply, it is just not something that is done in Kakamega society, arguably Kenyan society in general. There tends to be a kind of culturally driven attitude against it, making people more inclined to give a greater effort to work hard and to makes one’s living, rather than resort to begging for money. As well, these cultural attitudes seem to have remained in tact despite the rapid growth of Kakamega, something that would appear to be unique to Kakamega
Compare that to a city like Nairobi, where one can find a huge population and a huge amount of begging. It had been said by some students that a huge population is often highly correlated with inequality, where one can find a huge divide between the rich and the poor, the have’s and the have not’s. Some students mentioned how this kind of divide creates an atmosphere that is more positive towards begging, more accepting of it.
It is interesting how the stigma in Kakamega against begging comes from its citizens and is not something that is hidden from the people. In a city such as Toronto, often people try to avoid beggars altogether, rather embracing a kind of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ approach. Compare that to Kakamega, where apparently one aspect of the societal rejection of such behavior, one that has been mentioned by a number of students, is that it can manifest in outright verbal aggression towards the beggars. Here, it has been said that locals only respect those who work hard for their money, and don’t hesitate to show their disdain to those who try to get money for free. The people’s attitude is not hidden at all, but out in the open for all to see
It has also been mentioned that in this city there isn’t as much of a divide between the rich and the poor, with nobody really flashing their great wealth around. Thus, another layer of shame is added, as nobody wants to appear to be impoverished in front of their peers. So it can be said that people who are thinking of begging in Kakamega are sandwiched by the self imposed embarrassment of looking impoverished and that of the vocal hostility from others.
Before we fully accept these ideas, it should be mentioned that some students had a slightly different perspective. It had been mentioned by a student that you CAN find beggars, but they typically stay in the shadows. It was suggested to simply go for a walk in Mulino Gardens and you will likely find a number of people asking for money. It was also mentioned by a student that while you might not find begging in the city center, all you have to do is explore further out of the city where this might not be the case. For example, it was suggested to visit what is called ‘Torky’s area’, where you will find children with worn, tattered clothes that will likely ask you for money.
Now, apparently it isn’t as though these impoverished people are without any help at all. It has been mentioned by many students that the government has different programs to help these people obtain some sort of a job. Whether it be construction work, street cleaning, manual work, ect, there are a number of ways that the government can help find an income, small at that, for these people. As well, many students mentioned how the farm work in this area employs a huge number of people, with many jobs yet to be filled. The sugar cane fields alone offer many jobs for those that want it, as well as the maize, beans, yam, millet, sorghum and potato farms.
Should that not be of interest for a person, many students mentioned the fact that there is a plethora of banks and organizations that provide microfinance loans to the budding entrepreneur. The small sums of money that these people obtain are often used to fund small scale businesses as hawkers, boda boda riders, bottle sellers, ect. All of this is to say that these people are not simply left to their own demise, but rather have a number of different ways to find either a job or small capital to create their own.
All of these ideas seem spot-on and insightful. Like any issue in the social sciences, there are likely many possible answers for this and one can be safe to assume that they all play a role in one way or another. What is important is for people to take time to consider these problems or situations and to try and understand them as best they can, for the only way to one day understand it and solve it will be to discuss it as a society. Asante sana!