Too many beggars on the streets? Don’t drown them, give them loans

Monday March 1 2010


A rumour that has been doing the rounds in Dar es Salaam for a couple of weeks now, has had the strangest effect on the city’s life.

According to the rumour, a lady was driving her posh car along the busy Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road when she slowed down at Selander Bridge due to heavy traffic.

Out of her window, she spotted a disfigured male beggar and instinctively reached for some change to give him.

He accepted the money and, as she withdrew her hand, she screamed in shock, for it was covered with thick, black fur.

The story continues that the beggar told the lady that if she wanted the fur to go away, she had to kiss him on the lips.

The poor woman reportedly stepped out of the car and bent and kissed the deformed beggar.

And, as is bound to happen in a spooky story, the two immediately vanished.

Traffic started moving again, but the woman’s car remained stationary as there was nobody to drive it.

The interesting thing about the story is that, while everyone in Dar es Salaam is dismissing it as nonsensical, no women are taking any chances.

Women drivers are winding up their windows whenever they approach the spot a beggar is expected to lurk. Pedestrians are keeping a wide berth, too.

Nobody wishes to grow thick fur in such a hot environment as Dar, and if the cure is to disappear with a disfigured beggar, then prevention is certainly better than cure.

Whoever started the rumour knew that women are beggars’ main donors, and wanted them to drop the habit.

The effect was interesting — the number of beggars in the Dar streets fell sharply.

Women beggars stayed on, however, on the assumption that it was their male colleagues who had a problem.

Then Part B of the rumour started — that the male beggars are disguising themselves as women.

So, generally, business is bad for the poor alms-seekers of Dar.

Another ingenious way to deal with beggars worked even more productively in Kenya.

Fifty of them came together in 1999 and formed a microfinance institution in Nairobi.

Ten years later, their number has grown to 130,000, operating as the Jamii Bora Trust.

They have given out loans amounting to millions of shillings, and bought some 300 acres of land outside Nairobi on which to build 2,000 housing units.

The beggars are performing better than some national governments and their housing ministries have done in five decades of independence.

Uganda, too, had a quick solution to the begging menace.

In 1975, an Organisation of African Unity summit was approaching, and the government did not want the important visitors to see such misery on Kampala’s streets.

So the beggars were told they were going to be treated to a lavish party. Tipper trucks were sent to collect them. They climbed or were helped aboard.

The vehicles made several trips, and beggars were not seen in Kampala for a long time afterwards.

It is said the tippers made trips to the “boiling” rapids of River Nile to the east of Kampala…

Joachim Buwembo is a Knight International fellow for development journalism; [email protected]