By Biruktayet Bihon
September 2, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- Begging is a common sight in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The moment you stop your car at a traffic red light, you will see a woman with a child in her arms running towards you, or a little boy banging your car window, or a handicapped man lying on side streets asking for changes.
You will find many of these people around the junctions, traffic lights, taxi stops, in churches and mosques, and so many other popular places.
At times you see people giving them a change or two out of humanity and social norms, or, more commonly, due to religious beliefs. At other times, you will see people shooing them away out of frustration.
To many, begging is one of the most serious social issues in Addis Ababa. Despite Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth, it is still a poor country, even by African standards. The growth of beggars in the country is testimony to that situation.
It is believed that most of the beggars come from rural areas. In some cases, one can find an entire family moving to the capital Addis Ababa for the purpose of begging. Usually, children of such families must do the begging because their family’s income is not enough to feed the entire family.
In some cases, families move from the regions to Addis Ababa during certain times of the year. Such beggars typically come during off-harvest season of the year to make extra money in Addis Ababa before they go back home. They do this every year, according to some reports.
Poverty is certainly the biggest reason for such a situation. For many migrants coming to Addis Ababa, finding a job and a place to stay is not easy. As a result, young ladies resort to prostitution and others to begging.
Although most of the beggars in Addis Ababa are peaceful and differential to the public, some beggars may become anti-social elements. With time, some get into drugs and slowly graduate to pickpocketing and then into scams, robbing and violent crimes.
The situation has gotten worse through time, which has forced residents, particularly some in the diplomatic community, to raise the issue with city administration.
That is why the city council has finally decided to adopt serious measures including a total ban on all forms of begging in public places. This includes on roads and streets, traffic lights, sidewalks, balconies, and shops.
Even though the city officials plan to hold further discussions on the draft legislation with religious and community leaders before putting it to a vote, the document is said to be fully drafted.
During a press conference given weeks earlier, the mayor’s office in Addis Ababa indicated that the draft legislation aims to clean up the image of the capital and the country.
According to the mayor’s office, there are about 50,000 beggars in Addis Ababa, showing the worsening social problem in the city of around 3 million residents.
Before the new law goes into effect, city officials plan to hold orientation activities to the beggars. The details are clear at this point.
Taking the drafted legislation in mind, I was wondering about the awareness and understandings of the draft legislation among Addis Ababa beggars. So, I decided to go around some areas of the city popular for beggars.
I started in the Gerji area, near my home. While I was looking for a beggar to approach, one was already standing in front of me asking for a change. That was a good chance for me to ask him about what I had on my note.
He said his name was Belay Goshum. From the shawl on his shoulder and his accent, I could tell he was from the regions.
I asked him how he ended up here. ‘When you can’t manage on your own, life is surely difficult,” Belay said. “You lose all your pride and become strange even to yourself.”
‘The area I came from is not very good for cultivation. But I have children to raise and family to support. Lack of choice drove me here,” added Belay, softly responded to my questions while pulsating his eyes awkwardly.
Belay Goshum further said he is not aware of the draft legislation under consideration. He said, he might move to nearby cities if the law is indeed enforced. ‘Well, I will wait and see on what God decides for me,’ he said.
Looking further in the Bole area, I found a few other beggars, including Shemeles, who gave me defeatist response like Belay. He expressed his unwillingness to move back to his home town, which he said is difficult to survive in.
“After 1985, my family lost everything we owned, like cattle and fertile land. Only dry soil remains with no means of raising food. That is what drove us to search for another home. Of course, I still don’t have a permanent place in Addis Ababa to call it my home,” said as Shemeles, sharing his story.
Most of the beggars I met so far have neither the awareness of the draft legislation that bans begging, nor the willingness to stop it.
Walking under one of Bole bridges, I saw plenty of street kids no older than 16 years old. They were sitting together asking passerby for money. In between, I noticed they were sniffing something from a plastic bottle tucked inside their shirts. I understood that the kids were sniffing glue, an industrial drying adhesive. In these area, it is common to see kids abusing solvent that is meant for shoe repair and upholstery.
I offered to buy them Sambusa (a stuffed pastry). However two of the boys refused, saying they preferred the money. The trader selling the sambusa told me not to bother with the kids, since they were all intoxicated with the glue.
I also observed that most of the boys seem to be quite aggressive and too much intoxicated, and it was harded to communicate with them.
On my way to Mexico (one of city centers), I meet Yerachush who carried a year-old child. Like the other beggars, I asked her about what she heard about the law banning beggars. Yerachush was not aware about the draft legislation.
She blamed the government for falsely accusing all rural people coming to Addis Ababa to beg. ‘It is only poor people like me who come to Addis Ababa. The rich in my region stay at home. Who would come here to suffer when he/she have necessities? The government’s claim is false,’’ Yerachush added.
She was referring to recent claim by Addis Ababa Mayor during a recent press conference that some rural people with assets are coming to Addis Ababa to beg. This claim seems to be supported by many residents of Addis Ababa I met to interview. According to these people, some of the beggars come mostly between the periods of planting and harvest.
Whether the draft legislation will realize its intended goal of cleaning Addis Ababa without causing social fission, only time will tell. However, the draft law seems to be supported by many people in the capital, including the diplomatic community.
Given the dearth of employment opportunities for many of these people, however, the solution may not be a piece of legislation. These people will have to live somewhere. Given the lack of any safety net or social assistance in Ethiopia, the streets are the logical homes for these people. For a better chance of success, therefore, the government would be wise to consider other options to help such people go off the streets. Talking to religious establishments, civil societies and other non-governmental organizations is a good start.
Biruktayet Bihon is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. She can be reached through this form.
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