Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Three Stories

So, it's dusk, and you're in a busy street in a souq, somewhere in the Middle East. Sitting quietly amidst the crowds is an old woman, begging.  There she is - do you see her?

You come closer, you see she's too old to work, and she's shaking with some disease. The local stallholders are chatting with her, and one of them has given her a chair. What is her story? . Do you give her money?

A little way further on, you cross a footbridge across a main road. A little girl aged about four sits on the ground, and you nearly trip over her in the dark, Her head is hidden, but her hand is raised, shaking a tray of matches at heedless passers by.  What is her story? Do you buy her matches, do you give her some money?

You walk on a bit further, and reach a Western style shopping centre, full of Christian Dior and Mulberry, Chanel and Hermes. Outside, where the rich people go in and out,  is a woman carrying a baby. She has four other children, aged  between about four and ten. They're lively, cheerful kids and they're selling cheap teatowels, running around in the crowds, pestering people to buy.  The woman looks worn, but she is keeping an eye on her kids, and speaks kindly to them.  What is their story?   Do you buy their teatowels or give them some extra cash?

It's always a dilemma, one which is also dealt with here (in a slightly different way) in Nomadic Notes blog.

When I encountered the above three cases - they're true stories -  this is what happened.

I gave money to the old woman, and she gave me a dignified "bless you" sign.

I did not give the child money. I was with a local who told me that organised gangs run children like this, and teach them to look pitiful, and take the money they make, and that they should not be encouraged to find this lucrative. He actually pulled me away.  I worried about it for days afterwards, and even went back to try and find the child again, but I never did. I think he is right. Children do not look sad merely because they are poor - poverty doesn't depress their spirits; it's other things that do that.  The little girl was probably, as my friend said, trained to act in a pitiful way.  But I still see her poor little form sitting on the dusty ground, in my mind.

I bought teatowels off one of the boys for much more than they were worth. He whooped with joy, and so did his brothers and sister.  Then the rest of them tried to get me to buy their teatowels too, and chased me half way down the road, but they were cheery, enthusiastic kids and did not annoy me. 

So what do you do about beggars and hawkers, in a country where there is no social safety net, where a widow left with small children and no income must find a way to feed them? Where an old woman who cannot work chooses to sit in the market and solicit alms in the name of Allah? Where ruthless people leave small children alone and at risk to get a few pennies?

I should say that I don't know what the truth was in any case - that's just how it seemed to me. But it made me think again about the ethical dilemma of giving to beggars and hawkers.  I don't have a rule of thumb, I go by what I feel like when deciding what and if to give. 

I do have a few rules about people I don't give to, though.   I don't give to people who traipse around looking pitiful and carrying small children  who are apparently deeply "asleep" -  those children are generally drugged.     I am sorry to say that I don't give to gypsies. this is for entirely practical (not racist) reasons, because I have several times been threatened by gypsies in various countries when they see I have money, and sometimes it's been very scary.  I continue to wrestle with the problem of how to respond to children who are deliberately abused or left alone and vulnerable in order to incite pity. In a country where you don't speak the language, and it's nobody's responsibility to care, what exactly can you do? I feel like just taking them away to somewhere safe, of course, but for the child, being taken by a stranger would be even more petrifying.  Sometimes you can buy them food, but that doesn't solve anything.  You can give to charities, but the charity may not exist, or if it does, it may not find that particular child.

I'm glad that in England we don't usually have to consider these issues as starkly as in less developed countries.  Of course there is poverty here, and there are beggars, but there are systems in place which are supposed to help and there are many charities for children and the homeless. They are far from perfect, of course, but unless the homeless person actually chooses not to use the help, it is never a question of literally having to beg or eat.

This got me to thinking of all those nice ordinary people I know trying to live their lives and being engulfed in bloodshed and unrest, or else suffering the rule of greedy dictatorial elites who have no interest in the peoples' welfare, and would rather grab money for themselves, to buy those Dior handbags, than even try to alleviate terrible social evils.

It certainly reminds me not to be too sorry for my own problems.

I've been slow to respond to blogs etc. lately but I've mostly caught up and hope to be back to normal soon!


  1. A very thought provoking post. I am like you and give money sometimes and depending on how I feel. Which is not an answer I suppose. The only places abroad I have seen begging is cities in France-paticularly Marseilles-very depressing blind and sometimes limbless people which people don't even seem to see. Though I am not very well travelled!
    The people that get on the tube trains in London are a difficult dilemma-I am afraid I have not ever given money to them as it is such a horrible experience, and everyone puts their heads down in a very determined way.
    I once had an Eastern European boy join my class-his family were gypsies-and I don't remembe where from. I had a still life of fruit set up on one of the tables for the children to paint, and as soon as he sat down he grabbed the apple and devoured it. He was only in the school a very short time. He was seen on the tube begging by one of the other teachers. It is a very depressing world we live in. But, as you say, at least in this country we have systems to help. Or we do at the moment!

  2. This is a very compelling topic. It would be so hard. I am thankful that we, in America, also have other ways to help the needy. I could not make choices in the above cases without feeling guilt or remorse of some sort.

    You are a kind person.

  3. Once on a cruise to the Bahamas, we were advised that Haitian women would want to braid our hair for money. We were advised that they were "not clean" and we would be sorry that they touched our hair. Sure enough when we got off the ship, there was one waiting for us. I just took one look into the woman's eyes and then I looked at her clean hands. She braided my hair with beads and it looked wonderful. I usually don't go against what I am told to do, but that time, I am glad that I did.

  4. As other commentators say, this post makes me think about what is happening. Already two decades ago I visted Paris and I saw on a metro street a little boy holding a card "J'ai faim". I'm so surprised because there are beggars in Japan, too, but no children.I lost my word and I could not do anything, and it is yet hanging on my mind.

  5. well...the same scene can be seen here in our country as well...and daily i face the same dilemma and after watching many reports of organized begging, i usually do not give anything to them...the most i would do will be to buy them something that i am eating at that time or a coldrink or anything but no cash...and you are right...if you show your wallet or cash, you are inviting trouble...

  6. I am glad I haven't had to deal with people begging in the street. I give clothes and food to charity. I don't know what I would do walking that street. It all breaks my heart.

  7. Now that I'm noticed about the organized begging, I wouldn't give cash in such cases. By reading your post and commentators' opinions, I think I learned how to act. In my country, even the homeless don't beg mostly. What I'm cautious about is those who are asking donation nicely on the street in the name of charity because there are cases we don't know where the collected money go.

  8. I never give to street beggars in the US. They are intrusive, and everywhere, and however inadequate, there are some services for most of them.

    When I was in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and saw women entirely veiled sitting on a curb with just a gloved hand up, I always put some money in their hand. I don't quite know why.

    In Boston, I always threw some cash in open cases for decent street musicians, considering it a Voluntary Public Music Tax.

  9. EXCELLENT post!


    And I'm exactly the same as you....

    "I don't have a rule of thumb, I go by what I feel like when deciding what and if to give."

    I live in a city with a huge amount of beggars within our streets. And I am totally compassionate to those who are sincere and genuine about needing help, and will give to them. But after a while you begin to notice the ones who are genuinely sincere about needing help, and those who are merely peddling for drugs.

    You begin to develope a 'sixth sense.'

    And I follow it.

    Again, great post!

  10. Especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are so many causes competing for our attention and, of course, our money - it is impossible to help all of them, and one has a tendency towards getting numb with it all.
    When my husband died 2 years ago, I thought about how very different my life as a (then) 41-year-old widow would be if I happened to live in, say, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. Here, I am still in the middle of everything, with so many options for me to choose from; there, it could very well mean the end of my life as well.
    Now, I am not rich, I work hard to keep the roof above my head and a bit of food in the fridge; I can not even afford a car, but I try to help in practical ways in my immediate surroundings.
    For instance, a friend of mine got divorced from her alcoholic, gambling husband; she now raises her two daughters on her own, working part-time. I gave her one of the computers my husband used, so that she could give her old computer to the girls for their school projects and such.
    And I think if everyone looks to help in their vicinity first, then everyone's vicinity means in the end that help reaches everywhere. I know this won't happen and it may appear naive of me to think that way, but I simply can not help everyone - and I will not support organised begging, which sadly is usually the case behind a child (but not only with children) begging, because what child would go begging on his or her own initiative? None, I am sure.

  11. So thought provoking. I think I probably would have tried to help each in my own way. Social change does not come easy but it can only happen when all involved want it to.

    Happy thanksgiving.

  12. These are such interesting and varied comments, we ought to all meet up with a few bottles of wine :) Yes, @Sara, it's so hard when people are deformed. It makes me sick to learn that sometimes they are mutilated by their parents as children (although I doubt this happens in Marseilles). I don't give to the people on the tube, they're deliberately embarrassing everyone so they can get lost, imho! My guess is that these people are organised groups. Heartbreaking story about the gypsy boy. They often look so deprived, and probably are. But the reason I don't give is just a practical one, i.e. not being involved. I am amazed @KayG that the person on your cruise ship could be so racist, thank goodness you had more sense. @Haricot, you probably feel like I did with the poor little girl on the bridge. Hard to forget, all these people are individuals. @Mohammad Israr, it is helpful to give them food and if there are many of them you are right, showing your wallet is crazy. @stardust, my feeling is that if well dressed people are prepared to stand out in the cold for ages to collect pennies, then they are probably real charity collectors, because there are many easier and more comfortable ways to get not much money. Often too the charities have printed tins with their name, and there are official badges, and the police allow them to collect in certain places. @Zhoen, no kidding I would give all the begging women in Saudi Arabia some money as they probably aren't allowed to have any of their own anyway. OTOH it could be that they too are "run" by gangs. @Ron, you are so right, sixth sense is to be depended on. A lot of it is experience, isn't it. Having said this, I do sometimes give money to an old rascal of an elderly lady who sits outside our local shop with her dog chatting to people she knows and asking passers by for cash to buy a cup of tea. I'm SURE she gets a pension and has somewhere to live, I think she'd just rather do that than sit at home watching TV :) and she isn't grateful but I admire her for getting out of the house! @Librarian, your comments are really true and very compassionate, and I am sorry that they come from such sad experience. It is very true that actually we cannot solve all the world's problems, but have to do good where we can, as you say. I don't know if I agree about children going begging of their own initiative. Not in our affluent Western countries, perhaps, but sometimes they have no parents ...when I'm outside my own comfort zone, I feel very much at sea.

  13. Interesting post, this.

    When I was in India I was very careful - I was on my own, and often it didn't feel very safe grovelling in a purse. But an old man in Mysore, with leprosy - so his fingers had gone and you could see the shape of the bones of his arms - sat on his own outside a museum and I passed him most days, so have him something. He may well have had a beggermaster, but I did give him something.

    And I met a woman who said she always gives to old women - there are safely nets and organisations supporting younger people and children, but there is nothing for India for older women, especially if there is no man to care for them.

    In Cambodia there is no safety net for anyone. But I did find NGOs to support (for instance a tiny organisation which offers a home to children scavenging on the dump site).

    In this country - I try to follow the mantra of looking at a beggar's shoes. If they are held together with string, or so full of holes there is no hope of anyone keeping dry feet, then I'm more likely to give something. Can't give to everyone - so this gives me a criterion of sorts.

    Given the current economic situation, this isn't going to go away.

  14. A very interesting and though provoking post. I've been thinking about this all day and trying to think what I'd do in those situations, but I really don't know. It is so sad.

  15. Better not to give to anyone begging in the street.

    We all know about the organised groups begging in London and other countries on the continent. Children are trained and used to make you react just as you did.

    If you buy anything you will have whole gangs of other hawkers following you in Eastern and Indian cities, also not a good idea.

    Give to relevant charities, to the ones you know exist, like Oxfam.

    I am not saying all beggars are organised or undeserving; if I see somebody in the UK who is obviously desperate, like kids on the streets, I'll give them money, although I have a fair idea where it ends up. I once gave to a boy on the embankment and then went to a pub for a drink. Guess whom I met there?

  16. This is such a real dilemma. I grew up in a third-world country where children are run by gangs. The sad part is that, organized or not, they are living pitiful lives. I thought of your encounter with the child and immediately thought of H.C. Andersen's "Little Match Girl". You almost hope some of them have somewhat "happy" endings like that story.

    Do you think you'll continue with your journey? I have had scary encounters with the Gypsies in Spain. But perhaps, the only other scary encounter I had with poverty was in Mexico. We were "well-dressed" travelers, while at the same time there was an uprising in the region (and the city we were in) against bankers, rich Americans & Europeans, and the like. My husband and I skirted the March onto the city square!

    Loved your autumn photos from your previous post too, and that Hopper reference did seem apt!

  17. I actually lived in Middle East for almost one and a half year before (work related). I can so much relate to you about this. I encountered some where they actually ask for the minimum amount they accept when I gave them less than they expected. From that then on, I never give anything really. Just trying to avoid beggars flocking around me when they found out I gave some money to one of them. I simply say "Maafi fuulus" (no money) nicely, they just go away or sometimes get a disgust look :/

  18. Interesting post and view, Jenny.

    I am usually torn too when it comes to handing out help (in this cash) to them.

  19. God it's a hard question. I prefer to give sweets, pens or whatever to the kids - but then, even if they are a front for someone else, aren't they going to get in trouble if they don't get money?
    And the points above about the older women are especially true.

  20. In the UK I never give to beggars. The best 'spots' make lots of cash and these are all controlled by gangsters. Sometimes the conscience can be salved by carrying a 'Mars' bar or some such, drunks refuse it as they need cash but others will respond.
    Abroad you just have to accept this goes on. If a suitable charity is available support it but individual cases are difficult. They play on your conscience, and Islamic giving of 'alms' but head must rule heart. Difficult where children are concerned mind.

  21. I never give to beggars except old people if they ask for money. i think it is a disgrace that they should have to do this, society doesn't work. As for the others, they are organised in mafia bands mostly coming from east Europe since we opened our borders. A real plague! I spent most of my life in Asia and am used to not feel guilty as real charity commitment has always been high on my priorities. I think we have to dissociate those really in need from those who are trying to abuse us by playing with our guilt and have to put everything in perspective!

  22. I have enough problems with the beggars on our own (in my case UK because I've not been aware of them in New Zealand) streets to be concerned with the beggars in other countries. I've never thought of this as being parochial before but I guess it is.

  23. Very thoughtful post. I am not traveling outside the US much these days. We do have people here who are begging but I'm not sure I've ever seen a child involved (thankfully). I like to give to small local places like women's shelters and our food banks instead of giving a handfull of coins to an individual.


  24. sympathetically written. lovely

  25. That sort of situation is very hard to respond to. You just never know whether the people begging are genuine or part of some lucrative racket. Like you, I tend to play it by ear, sometimes I give and sometimes I have my doubts so I pass on by.

  26. We have beggars herein New York and also in Nigeria, where I am originally from. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Since I came to know I was so gullible and easily trust others, though I haven't got into big trouble for that, I decided not to give any contribution personally but to reliable charity.
    I think those beggars, organized or genuine ones, surely show the poverty of people and their country but at least they are somehow in action. I sincerely hope those who really need the help are not invisible and ignored under the dysfunctional society system.

  28. Like others I find this a very thougt provoking post. During a visit to Indonesia I was acquainted with the "cartels" of children selling goods, if not begging, at major intersections.When there is no state relief in the form practised by western countries, I suspect these children were expected to contribute to the family economy in this wày. I also recall getting lost during a visit to Thailand and seeing another side to life there away from the tourist track. I wonder what 'aid means. If it implies a sort of neocolonialism, that is, an imposition of western forms of doing good, or improvement what is the cost to famiies who have, in their own way sorted out something that works. It is a tricky business.

  29. I never know what to do. I never give when I feel threatened. I go with my guts but I have to admit that sometimes I don't know whether my money helps or not!

  30. What an interesting comment, Jo. I hadn't thought of elderly women being left out, but htey are - even in the charities I can think of here, there's nothing specially for them. It must be even worse in countries where women are discriminated against and thought to have no value. @Foolish Aesthete, I so agree with you, and a lot of the sadness is that it takes a huge amount of help and investment to help even one of those pitiful children. My pennies are neither here nor there. I don't konw if I'll continue with the trip. I'll decide in a couple of weeks. @Christine. I certainly felt the little boys selling tea towels were doing a job to help support their families. A few people mentioned the way that some beggars ask for a minimum amount - I do agree there. I feel when I think of this subject that echoes of Victorian thunderings about "deserving and undeserving poor" ... and of course this is still the issue.
    Really hard. What a lot of interesting comments, though.

  31. Very interesting post and I think the same dilemma is on everyone's mind. I hear about the same type of beggars in other countries who use children to lure people to giving them money. Once you give to one, others will harass you. I guess when going to these locations, you have to prepare yourself for such situations.


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