Expat View – Begging

Botswana, like many other countries, has issues with poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor is quite large. I was brought up in the UK and the media would show Africa as a predominantly poor continent. Africa’s poverty-stricken reputation was so well documented that popular British musicians pulled together, along with Sir Bob Geldof and U2’s Bono, releasing singles, and staged events such as LIVE AID and COMIC RELIEF to raise money for “starving children in Africa”.

So when you touch down on African soil, you can be forgiven for thinking you will be greeted by a wave of desperate children as soon as you step off the plane. The streets and malls would be lined with people hopelessly begging for food and money, but nothing could be further from the truth in Botswana. Batswana are very proud and industrious people, they do not beg. Admittedly there is generally a poor work ethic in Botswana, but there’s a work ethic and the few who do have a strong work ethic are exceptional.

Botswana is not like in the UK where there is a safety net for people who fall on hard times. The UK benefit system provides income/financial support for the unemployed and those unable to work; unfortunately there are millions of Britons choosing the benefit system as a lifestyle. In Botswana there is no comparable benefit system, although there is a government initiative – Ipelegeng (a poverty eradication program) geared at the poorest of the poor. This program is aimed at short-term employment support and relief whilst at the same time carrying out essential development projects. The key is people have to turn up and work in order to be paid a small allowance.

Although, not every one is involved in the program, so you would expect to see vagabonds on every street corner, but you don’t. In the few years I have been here, I have seen two beggars. One of them is a lady with a mental illness, although she manages to wash and dress herself every day, so I’m assuming her illness isn’t severe. She’s actually a mini celebrity and every one knows her – she’s been begging for years. You see, begging is that non-existent in Botswana, that a beggar can become well known.

Another aspect of “begging” in the UK that started to irritate me, were the number of charities taking to the streets with an army of paid “sales executives”. There was a time when you knew most of the official UK charities and those who worked for the charity were predominantly voluntary workers. They could be housewives or retired people who had a means of income and wanted to do some good with their spare time. However, the charity market seems to have exploded and now charities are a business.

Countless unknown organisations have taken the fight to the streets with questionable tactics. Women are harassed by nauseatingly charming men and men are harassed by nauseatingly charming women with opening lines you would normally hear in dodgy nightclubs. These guys are on the payroll and earning a reasonable salary to walk around annoying the public, getting them to sign up and donate a few pounds a month to some mysterious charity.

There are worthwhile charities in Botswana and they do a lot of good work in the communities. BUT they do not harass people in the streets. I find it quite surprising really. When you compare the level of poverty in the UK to Botswana, no one in the UK is truly poor, but I guess it’s relative. The poor and charities in Botswana have every reason to beg, but they choose not to and will find some form of work to get by. I’ve found this very inspiring.

12 months ago

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