Their shabby appearance is the reason you have no choice but drop something into their outstretched dirty palms. Their sad faces melt even the hardest of hearts. People who have built a reputation for stinginess become generous in an attempt to be right with God! A strong urge to help spurs you on. Their presence is like a drumbeat whose sound you instinctively respond to. Welcome to street psychology!
Whoever thought psychology is only taught in schools would be disappointed to learn that street children have mastered psychology to the point of getting water out of stone. In case you thought street children are headless, mindless and clueless, you better read on. Street children are not as dumb as they look. They are intelligent and smart upstairs. In fact, much smarter than you ever thought.
They know what you know—first impressions last. Your undivided attention is their target. From the outset children on the street strive to create a picture of destitution, hopelessness and outright despair. This is their working capital. It means presenting themselves in the most pitiful way in order to get to the emotional base of their target. Their rules of engagement are not learnt in schools but borne out of necessity. Desperation can encourage dangerous ingenuity even amongst vulnerable little boys along city streets.
If and when their outward appearance fails to invoke the much sought after sympathy, they know it is time to engage an extra gear. They then come up with some ‘easily believable’ stories from mars! Stories about being left all alone in this wretched world. They convince you no one is alive either from the maternal or paternal side.
Strangely, the travelling public easily accept such claims. It must be stated that Malawi has never been through genocide hence negating the likelihood of having no family. The many stories you hear about having no one to look up to are absolutely untrue. While there are few children out there who are looking after their siblings, the majority have a family or at least some semblance of it. There are always some irresponsible parents or guardians that needs talking to.
Alms giving continues to thrive because it rides on the back of the world’s biggest religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Christians know that blessed is the hand that gives than the one that takes. Muslims hold high their alms giving or zakat, one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam. Dana is a term that applies to both Buddhism and Hinduism as the practice of cultivating generosity, assisting people in need.
Talking about giving a blind eye to that beggar on the street might sound like practising witchcraft to many believers. But that is what you need to do because alms giving breeds violence. Each time you give you are actually financing the perfection of young boys and girls into criminal behaviour. The longer one stays on the street, the more bad behaviour one acquires.
Whilst on the street, these innocent souls are also emotionally wounded, physically abused, sexually exploited, spiritually scarred and educationally deprived. In their young minds, they want something that would benefit them here and now–K200 to buy doughnuts and not a teacher marked paper they cannot eat!
Children on the street favour handouts as opposed to transformational programmes which tackle issues like family reunion and empowerment through grants, education support and child rights issues. The social welfare department and organisations like St John of God, Chisomo Children’s Club, The Samaritan Trust, Onesimus, Step Kids Awareness, Tikondane Youth Care and others are there for them.
So next time, you see a child on the street do not fall prey to their psychological game. That would be the time for you to fight the urge to give. Cultivating a no alms giving culture would make these innocent souls realise they have no choice but respond to different interventions meant for their safe and secure future.
The author is Centre Manager for Chisomo Children’s Club, a local NGO working with street and other vulnerable children