Given this plight, the swarm of mendicants is growing in the streets, at the beach fronts, in front of mosques and churches, at banks and ATMs, at naming or wedding ceremonies, in front of restaurants, around the EFSTH mortuary, at funerals, or around any place where the sympathy or the largess of the affluent few could be netted. The average beggar is no longer the blind, the paraplegic, or the very old, instead, he or she is the able-bodied, portraying rightly or wrongly to be forced into destitute by conditions beyond control.
Griots have always existed in our society, practising open and accepted form of wheedling, based on culture and tradition. Griots normally practise their artistic overtures during community gatherings, including child-naming or wedding ceremonies, when they are at liberty to sing the praises of anyone they choose, by reciting the brave or magnanimous deeds, albeit dubious, of the ancestry of their subjects, who are obliged to compensate with their generosity. The practising griots are usually professional musicians, singers, orators, and oral historians, quite adept and effective in what they do. It’s not anyone who could be griot; one is born into the caste, which unfortunately is stigmatised as being in the lower rung of an archaic traditional system. However, most so-called griots do not practice the trade, and importantly, the most acclaimed and internationally renowned musicians in the regions of Senegambia, Mali, and Guinea belong to the griot caste. The artistic prowess of Jaliba Kuyateh of The Gambia, Youssou N’Dour, Fatou Guewel, and Thione Seck of Senegal, and Salif Keita of Mali, is unquestionable. While griotism in practice may have some elements of fawning, the more significant aspect of it is art and its expression in music and oratory. Nonetheless, many times, the griot’s art easily becomes perfidious and decays into sycophancy, especially around the rich or the ruling class.
In this country, family networks are common to find with members who are completely dependent for their livelihood on regular hand-outs from the networks. It is equally common to find in such networks, able-bodied loafers who would not bother to find work, yet live freely in a house, have three meals a day, wear clean clothes, and have enough money to indulge in expensive habits, such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, or even having kids outside wedlock, or from polygamous relationships. Many of such lay-backs even claim inalienable rights to whatever welfare coming their way, and would vilify their benefactors if the dole was slow to come by, or was absent for any reason. We all probably know of a 40-year old laggard of a relative who still lives in the family compound, and who could be heard, on any day, raving and ranting in the compound that a maid delayed to deliver his breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and if the loafer is challenged to justify his behaviour, he retorted unequivocally in self-centered and deluded tantrums.
Then there are the so-called bumsters, a special breed of supplicants, growing in number with the advent of tourism; they are mostly looking for a way out of the country, and they mostly target westerners, usually tourists, many of whom are quite old and some looking for sexual thrills. During off-season, which is most months of the year, most of these bumsters, including the gigolos, are on the beach fronts, running, swimming, and playing soccer, between interludes of smoking marijuana and drinking attaya. Bumsters are normally looking for sponsors or spouses, however old, to take them to “Babylon.” It is always painful to watch these forlorn youths obsequiously soliciting for friendship with apprehensive or reluctant tourists. Many would succeed in their quests, but many would abscond from their bogus relationships within few months in Babylon, to become drug pushers, and eventually ending up behind bars.
But the most insidious and disturbing form of pan-handling, by far these days, is practiced by some members of the security forces, especially in the police. The open soliciting in the traffic for bribery, thinly disguised as mendicancy, could have been more tolerable if it were not forced indiscriminately on the vulnerable and innocent motorists, who are routinely forced to move in long and very slow bumper-to-bumper traffic, sometimes a mile or two long. Even though most private motorists are driving licensed, fully insured, and well maintained cars, they are constantly frustrated in their rush after important errands or appointments, being constantly harassed at road blocks, manned by gaudy looking policemen, who would beg them finally for attaya money. At times there are three or more stops on the Badala Highway of this kind, for instance, the last checkpoint manned by Immigration Officers, claiming to be checking for illegal aliens without residence permits. Try explaining to these pathetic officers, openly spoiling the name of their institutions, that they are engaged in profiling, discrimination, and targeting innocent people, and they take offense, charging you of public nuisance, holding you on the side road as long as they feel, or until you profusely apologise, or give them money.
All said, however, mendicancy is a travesty of life for the beggars, a burden for the concerned extended families, and a canker for the country at large. As noted, many of such beggars are unproductive and yet are consumers, and in effect they represent a gross wastage of resources, especially if they are able-bodied. The growing number of beggars in the country, loafers, bumsters, and policemen alike, is mainly the combined result of a large number of uneducated and unskilled youths, a high unemployment rate, and extremely lowly paid public servants, which are mutually feeding each other. But what the authorities should realise and consider seriously, as lesson from the senseless 1981 carnage in this country, is that mendicancy is non-violent looting, and that it could easily decay into violent anarchy, once it reaches a critical mass of misery. The canker should be given serious consideration and meaningful curative policy action, especially under the poverty alleviation programmes, to stem its upsurge and revert its trend before it becomes too late.
Bai Lamin Jobe of Kerr Serign Njagga is an engineer, international consultant, and a zealot advocate of poverty eradication everywhere, and in particular, Africa.]]>