Multipartism in Malawi has been blamed for a myriad of social challenges the country has experienced, not least of all deepening poverty. No factor illustrates deepening levels of poverty more than the scourge that is street begging.
However, not everyone believes that the ubiquitous presence of street beggars in the country’s town and cities is reflective of the country’s soaring poverty levels as incomes dwindle in response to unfavourable economic conditions. That group points to an attitude of laziness and lack of initiative as the reason.
From a time when the majority of the beggars were those with physical infirmities, the country has now witnessed a wave of a heterogeneous group of beggars that includes children under the age of 10 and the elderly. Lately, able-bodied men and women have joined the bandwagon of chasing after people for alms.
With current food deficits, the country has witnessed a new wave of beggars on its streets.
Some of the beggars are using tricks to hoodwink unsuspecting people into giving them alms that are as common as they are absurd. Some will claim they have just been released from hospital and have no means to travel back home, while others still will plead that they—or their child—have an ailment for which they need urgent specialised treatment. Or that they were visiting a relation who has moved houses and they are stranded.
But Minister of Gender, Children Affairs, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati on Monday blamed unpatriotic attitudes among some Malawians for the situation.
“The problem of street begging has reached intolerable levels because, as Malawians, we seem to have forgotten our core values of hard work and ‘brother-keeping’ in society. As much as government has been trying to deal with this problem, the numbers are still not coming down.
“Unless we change our mindsets that poverty cannot be dealt with by receiving free things, it will take us a long time to develop. Not even 25 percent of the beggars qualify to be on the streets,” she said.
Kaliati pointed out that her ministry has engaged various stakeholders to implement a holistic approach to deal with the scourge of begging in cities and towns.
“If we are to deal with laziness where people don’t want to do simple piecework then we must engage other stakeholders such as traditional leaders, local councils, the faith community and civil society. You tend to wonder why able-bodied men and women are busy begging in the street when some people with disabilities are working hard to earn a living. This is pathetic! We should not allow the reputation of our country to continue being tarnished as a nation of beggars,” she added.
But executive director for Federation for Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma) Action Amosi insisted that poverty remains at the core of the swelling numbers of street beggars.
“Because it is not only people with disabilities who are begging, it means the problem is bigger. Now that calls for government to start addressing the root causes by coming up with sustainable initiatives to empower its most vulnerable citizens. Unfortunately, this is costly to our economy too,” he said.
However, Amosi demanded a tightening of controls to begging, citing cases where the rights of children of parents with disabilities are denied opportunities to develop.
“So many times parents take advantage of these children and use them into handlers as they go about begging. But these children were supposed to be in school so that they can secure their future to become independent; they might even help their parents in future. This is against all local and international child rights protocols. Such exploitation must stop,” he said.
Some Malawians such as Geoffrey Kathumba of Malomo Trading Centre in Ntchisi concurred with Kaliati, saying the government through local councils should put up measures to control street begging.
“Some candidates in the local government elections were telling Malawians that they would sanitise towns and cities once elected. This is one area they needed to have worked on with speed by putting up bye-laws that regulate begging. Otherwise it is too chaotic as it is now. Beggars are not only a public nuisance but are also a threat to road safety, among other problems,” he said.
On the question of laziness, executive director for Eye of the Child Maxwell Matewere dwelt on the gaps in the public order legislation as stipulated by the Local Government Act.
“The problem is that the current system has created chaos. As a result these people take advantage of the present scenario. Sadly, children are just scattered all over the place where they are exposed to bad influences while some suffer abuses in the streets.
“This should not have happened if our laws were strong enough followed by enforcement of the same. You can see that there are common trends in the way this issue is being mismanaged if you compare it with that of street vending,” he said.
With the situation as dicey as it is, Kaliati calls for drastic measures to ensure that sanity prevails.
“Poverty is not a new phenomenon and should not be used as an excuse for acting improperly.
“Let councils get organised to create opportunities for unskilled people apart tightening the legislative part of it. Attitudes must change that we should be able to understand that we must work with our hands and not always expect free things,” she said.