Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Plight of Beggars, Atonement & The Millennium Truth and Reconciliation Commission

By Mogus Degoyae Mochena

The recent Associated Press report about beggars being rounded up and sent to their villages brought back memories of my experience when I visited Addis Ababa four years ago. In one of the articles I wrote at the time, “In Addis, The Nouveaux Riches Sip Their Caffeine in Range Rovers”, I began the article by spilling out my feelings as follows:

“It was my first day in Addis Ababa, and I had just survived nerve-racking rides through chaotic streets of Addis Ababa with utter trepidation: near misses, jolting swerves, sparring jerks at intersections without traffic lights as contending cars vie for the right of way, speeding busses, rickety old taxis and “wuyiyit” (minibuses) sneaking in and out of traffic, all scaring the hell out of me. At one stop light, seeing a beggar without limbs shoving himself on his belly and two others, with one limb each, hopping between cars as they seek for sympathetic eyes was too much to take on first day.”

How wretched life is for some of our fellow citizens! It is just beyond the pale. The problem of poverty is universal, but the degree of deprivation immensely varies and is relative to the ambient economy. In a country where the average annual income has stubbornly remained stuck at $100 per year for years, it is just too hard to understand how millions of ordinary Ethiopians make it from day to day. And quite a few resort to begging. Yet, the population is growing by leaps and bounds and is currently estimated at 81 million. And the cost of living is skyrocketing: 100 kilos of teff costs around $90 and 17 kilos (one farasulla) of ground pepper costs around $130 at this writing in a country where the average annual income is $100. Everything is so expensive and out of reach for the ordinary Ethiopians that they have dubbed the Millennium as “Minim Yelem (There is nothing)”. What is there to celebrate?

The organizers of the ballyhooed upcoming Ethiopian millennium are trying their best to project a very happy, partying Ethiopia to their foreign guests who will be visiting Addis Ababa for the festivities, especially in the wake of the recent political debacle that has tarnished the image of the current government irreparably. But certain embarrassing realities of Addis Ababa would be just too much to hide during the fleeting celebration - the tawdry, superficial partying in the midst of abject poverty.

According to one arrogant conservative political thinker from American Enterprise Institute: one must provide for beggars because they become eyesores and leave you in moral quandary as they beg. According to the AP report, the eyesores in Addis Ababa are being removed from the eyesight of the millennium party revelers.

Well, society should take care of its most vulnerable members and give them a helping hand. Relocation to one’s own village can be one of the options to solve the problem of urban beggars. This, however, must be done out of moral obligation and commonsense economic policy, not out of concern for dampening the mood of party revelers.

The millennium rather must be an occasion for reflecting why we continue to have millions of our citizens living in abominable poverty at the dawn of the twenty first century and how we can come together as a nation to lift our poor people out of the degrading poverty? If we reflect upon the images of the limbless and hopping beggars in front of us and put their interests ahead of ours, we could compromise, narrow our differences and bring about a lasting peace and economic prosperity to this ancient country to lift millions from misery.

First, however, we must atone for our ineptitude, pettiness, shortsightedness, and complete failure in recent decades before we usher in the new millennium. Then, with humility and contrition, to meet collectively the formidable challenges of poverty and instability, let us establish a Millennium Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brings the country together after the recent political fiasco. Let us wash away our dirty linen and begin afresh.

1 comment:

enset said...

Elshadai, the group that is attempting to remove beggars off the streets of Addis Ababa on the eve of the Ethiopian millennium celebrations, has strongly objected to the AP story. The group claims that this project was "launched three years ago with a full intention to help disadvantaged and marginalized people" and for the last three years the group "has been involved in thoroughly researching the underlying causes, working with the direct stakeholders as well as mobilizing the support of faith groups, organizations, elders and concerned citizens".

This group should be complemented on its effort to help the poorest of the poor. However, it will be difficult for them to convince skeptics like me that removal of the beggars at this particular time has no relations to the celebrations of the millennium. Besides, in spite of their claim to be in this business for three years, there is no record which shows that the group has attempted to remove the beggars off Addis Ababa streets, voluntarily or not, at any time prior to the last few weeks or months. So, as far as I am concerned, their protest of the AP story is not convincing.

I also happened to visit Ethiopia four years ago and was shocked to see so many beggars on the streets of Addis Ababa. Their numbers seem to have increased by 10 fold in the last couple of decades and they all seem to have come from places north of Addis Ababa. I understand that Ethiopia's economic woes has a lot to do with this phenomenon. But why is it that the beggars of Addis Ababa come from the nothern regions, especially Tigray, in numbers that are disproportional to their population? And why is it that Ethiopians seem to tolerate this culture of begging?