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Begging for a living: The life of Accra’s street beggars

BY: Edmund Smith-Asante & Dominic Moses Awiah

It is a common feature to see beggars, who are mostly blind, tugging the arms of relations as they move from vehicle to vehicle, pleading for mercy and asking for alms, no matter how little, on many streets in major cities.

Some are also pushed in wheelchairs while others wheel themselves, dangerously weaving through traffic at noted intersections. They are mostly unkempt and sometimes wear tattered clothes, or have festering wounds or amputated limbs, which they show because they believe this will stir the emotions of prospective benefactors.

Singing sorrowful Christian songs and begging ‘in the name of God’, the beggars are often able to draw sympathy from the public, especially commuters, who part with some money.

But is that a life they have chosen for themselves; to always do lala-su-lala, as begging is described in Ghanaian parlance?

Lucy’s story

In a chat, 57-year-old Auntie Lucy, a visually impaired beggar at the Tetteh Quarshie interchange area, told the Daily Graphic that she had been in the begging business for two years.

“Although it’s not profitable and it’s very demeaning, I have no option but to beg for alms to take care of myself. When I lost my sight two years ago, I had no choice but to look for ways to survive. I used to sell consumables such as biscuits and cola drinks but with my sight gone, I couldn’t hold on to the business because my creditors thought i was not worth working with,” she narrated.

According to Lucy, some of her creditors assumed that she would use the returns on the goods to seek solutions to her sight problem.
She recalled an instance when one of her longtime creditors told her, “Lucy, I’m so sorry I can no longer give you goods because I do not think you can pay back on time.”

“I was devastated and shocked because apart from her being my creditor, she (creditor) had been my friend for over a decade. After living on my small savings for six months, I was left with nothing; hence, my decision to beg for a living,” Lucy said.

Rebecca Adotey, a beggar with an amputated limb who operates at the First Light Junction, close to Kaneshie in Accra, said, “My husband drove me out of his house because he claimed I’m a witch and I used my magic to get him sacked from his job. Every day when I am on the street begging, I shed tears because of that accusation.”

Helen Keller’s example

Rebecca, like many other beggars, sees begging as the only way for her to eke out a living, but Helen Keller, a deaf and blind American author, political activist, and lecturer who died in 1968, saw things differently. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In one of her notable quotes, she said: "If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation."

Being an optimist, she stated: “It has been said that life has treated me harshly, and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me…if much has been denied me, much, very much, has been given me…”

A beggar’s wish

It is often quoted that a beggar has no choice, but what if the beggar thinks otherwise?

At one of the spots in front of the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, a young male beggar, believed to be in his late 40s, rejected a 20 pesewa gift from a man who was driving a 2014 Range Rover.

As soon as the coin dropped into his plastic bowl, the beggar, who had his right hand amputated, took it with his left and threw it back at the Range Rover driver who was then caught up in the traffic.

He quickly walked to the car, knocked on the windscreen and began to rain insults on the man.

Official response

Speaking to the Daily Graphic on the menace of begging on the streets, Mr Lawrence Ofori Addo, a retired deputy Director of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, said attempts had been made to convince and work out packages for the visually impaired and other handicapped persons begging on the streets to leave but they had not been successful.

He added that “the beggars have adopted a culture where they make quick money on the street and, therefore, getting them to go back and try to reorganise themselves becomes problematic.”

He disclosed that a fund was established about 10 years ago by the late Governor of the Bank of Ghana, Mr Ashiagbor, which enabled the Department of Social Welfare to register the beggars and give them some packages ranging from deep freezers to cement so that they could go into different ventures.

“But lo and behold, by the time we could say Jack, quite a number of them had returned,” he lamented.

Mr Ofori Addo said it was the attitude of the families of the beggars that pushed them to the streets, adding that instead of encouraging beneficiaries of the different packages to use them to make ends meet, some families had rather used such facilities for their own ends and thus frustrated them.

He said in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection had initiated a programme called “Inclusive Education” to build a network of support for the visually impaired, which was working very well.

He indicated that although an allocation of two per cent of the District Assemblies Common Fund (DACF) had been made towards the upkeep of persons with disabilities (PWDs), some of the PWDs had formed elite groups that had hijacked the funds from the DACF.
“There are some elite among them. They don’t sit around Circle and those places. They go to very lucrative places such as around the airport, the State House, the Arts Centre where the expatriates go to buy artefacts and other places like that.

“Because of that, there are colonies. If you don’t belong to that colony, you will not be allowed to go there. They will not allow you. You have to be pushed to places such as Kaneshie. So if you are somebody who has come from the hinterlands to do this kind of business, there is no place for you to go,” he divulged.

According to Mr Ofori Addo, although there was an NLC decree (Destitutes and Beggars Decree) that banned begging of that nature, implementing it had been a problem because “if you arrest any person doing that, the police has to prepare the person for court and the court will then provide the remedies; and usually the remedies provided are that they should go­ to the Department of Social Welfare.”

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