TOURISM Dealing with beggars
The outstretched hand
When tourists find themselves surrounded by beggars their first impulse is to try and escape. So they never find out much about the people they give money to. We asked New Internationalist correspondents in India, Kenya and the United Kingdom to talk to beggars and down-and-outs and try and find out why they were in this position.
‘Foreigners get flustered, they rarely give’
Begging may seem a last desperate alternative - the only way to survive when
all else fails. But, as Dexter Tiranti found when he talked to Muthu in Trivandrum
in South India, there are worse alternatives. Begging does at least keep
you in Contact with the rest of the world.
Photo: Dexter Tiranti
The heat of the day was still too strong for there to be much trade - the hot wind raising puffballs of dust and snatching at the litter around the temple steps.
More devotees would come in the cool of the evening. And they would have to run the gauntlet of beggars who sat two-by-two on the steps with palms outstretched or tinkling their tin cups.
Muthu drew peevishly on his bidi. The smoke drifting around his face, past his blind eye and then being whirled away by the wind.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked him. ‘Can’t you get a job?’
‘This is my job.’ The bidi glowed again. ‘It’s a profession. I used to be a plumber, but then I caught this arthritis. It’s difficult to work with water now.’
Arthritis? I looked at his feet as they shifted in the dirt. Toes were missing. I looked at his hands. There was only the stump of an index finger nursing that bidi. And what about his blind eye? Muthu was a leprosy victim. My Indian friends had said they objected to giving money to such people - they should go to a special colony, they argued. Shouldn’t you be in a colony, I asked? You don’t have to sit on these steps all day being roasted by the sun.
‘Who wants to live in one of those places?’ he snapped. ‘They’re out in the middle of nowhere and you live like a prisoner. No, I’d rather be mixing with people, seeing the action on the streets. And on a good day you can make 25 rupees*. Who would want to live in such a colony? Would you?’
He gathered his dirty saffron cloth around him and shifted on his buttocks. He was speaking in Malayalam and to me the babble of his voice seemed to rise and fall in sympathy with the waves of heat. His son, he said, was a rickshaw driver. And his wife lived with his daughter who was a typist. But he never saw them now. They had had a row and he would never go back.
I asked if this was where he always came.
‘No, but it’s one of my favourite spots. I might spend a couple of days or a couple of weeks at the same place. It’s best in front of the churches, mosques and temples. People feel pious then and you can make a steady income. If things get tough you can always knock on a Brahmin’s door: they will give you a good feed.’
A middle-class family passed quickly up the steps and through the temple door. Everyone had been too bored, too distracted or sleepy to take advantage of them. They had left their sandals in the car so there was not even a tip for the temple gate-keeper who looked after the shoes. Muthu grunted with annoyance at their receding backs. But he was soon in full flow again.
‘Of course, what the public looks for most in beggars is an affliction. You make far more money if you’re old or crippled, preferably both. So I score well there. I suppose they think that if you’re young and healthy you should be doing something else.’
‘It’s different with the foreigners. Mostly they look through you, pretend not to see. But they get flustered - and, though they rarely give, when they do it can be big. Indians give coins, not more than a rupee. Foreigners give notes.
There were now a few people washing themselves in the stagnant green water of the temple tank. This water cleanses the devout both physically and spiritually and the occasional high-caste Brahmin performs his ablutions there. But generally it is a free bath for Trivandrum’s poor.
‘It’s my Karma,’ said Muthu, ‘that’s why I’m here. And that’s why people give to me. In the next life or in one of our past existences our roles could have been reversed. If they refuse me charity now they might find themselves sitting in my place and being refused the next time round.’
He paused for a while. And there was silence, apart from the cawing of the crows.
‘Last month I tried my luck in Quilon.’
That’s a long way off - at least a hundred miles. How did he manage to travel around?
‘By train. It’s a good service and we are treated like VIPs. When you appear dirty and poor the ticket collector just looks the other way. No-one asks for cash - mind you, it’s usually Third Class.
‘But I had to leave Quilon. Well, I was warned to get out. There was some man, who looked a bit like me they said, and who was catching boys. I imagine he was going to blind them, or break their legs and then set them begging for him. The police started asking me questions so I thought it best to get out. Pity, it’s a nice town.
He looked in his pocket to see how much money he had collected so far. It seemed quite a bit, I thought, even if it was all in small change.
‘The trouble is the shops and the stalls won’t take all these coins - the 10 and 20 paise ones. It’s two or three rupees for a meal but they won’t wait for us to count it all out. Mind you they’re not too happy about us collecting around their shops either - they say it puts off the other customers. Sometimes they won’t even take a dirty one-rupee note.
‘So we have to go to the money changers and they charge 30 paise for every rupee 5 worth of coins we collect.’
Couldn’t he get his money changed in a bank?
‘Can you see me going into a bank? In any case they won’t do it on the spot. It takes a couple of weeks and then they would have to write and tell you when the fresh notes had come in. Where would they write to me? On these steps?’
How clean was the five-rupee note that I had scrunched up in my hand, I wondered? Perspiration had turned it to damp blotting paper - but I gave it to him anyway.
He cocked his head to one side to look at the note with his good eye. Then the money disappeared quickly into his pocket. But a dozen pairs of eyes had seen it and knew that old Muthu had been in luck with this foreigner.
*1$ = 15 rupees
‘It would be a better world
if people could sit and talk’
Visitors from the Third World can be disturbed by the poverty they
find even when they travel in Western countries. We asked Caribbean
visitor Shawn Perry for her impressions of London’s ‘bag ladies’.
ENGLAND’s summer of 1984 matched any that I have enjoyed in the Caribbean. Brilliant sunshine and bold blue skies prompted a colourful influx of tourists onto London’s streets. Crispy cotton was paraded in vivid colours, yellows, pinks, magentas and oranges: an explosive kaleidoscope. Punks posed self-consciously for foreign cameras, turning this way and that so that their stiff, colourful mohawk ridges could be viewed from the best angles. It was easy to enjoy the sunshine, the colours, the food that flowed everywhere.
But soon I grew aware too of the darker colours of London’s less celebrated minority: depressed dirty browns, patched black and faded blue. Lonely, deranged people shuffled softly around the edges of the summer. They stepped around the crowds, heads lowered into grimy collars, careful to avoid too much attention.
Theirs was an underworld which pushed them out on the city’s streets in the morning and folded them back into its darkness at night. They chose park benches in the shadow, away from the sunlight, away from the tanned limbs of the younger and happier.
Down-and-outs exist in every country. What makes them stand out in a Western city like London is that provision is made for the homeless, the needy and the old. Yet there is an endless daily parade of unkempt, unwashed men and women haunting the streets. Many wear long overcoats even in the middle of the summer. A majority of the women carry old carrier bags loaded with all their possessions - the ‘bag ladies’. They spend their days in favourite haunts: park benches and sidewalks, never staying too long in any one place. Theirs is the restless need to keep on the move.
Just a few weeks after my arrival I was approached by a bag lady. She came and sat next to me, on a public bench near a bus-stop. She had been walking for some time and was exhausted. I was struck by her furtive expression: darting brown eyes almost hidden in a face creased and lined with age. Her teeth were crooked and stained brown. She wore her hair carelessly pushed under an old knitted brown hat which allowed some stray tendrils to stray freely around her ears and temples.
She assured me that she liked coloured folk, they were alright by her. Of course she knew lots of people who didn’t, who thought themselves better off, who gave themselves airs and graces but she never stood for this sort of thing. After all we must have been put here for some purpose and the sooner we could learn to get along together, the better. She did not believe in calling coloured folks by those terrible names what you hear some people calling them by. It was no wonder then that the coloureds didn’t like the whites. You couldn’t blame them, could you? After all it was the whites who started it first, wasn’t it? It was so good to be able to talk to people like myself, though. I understood. I didn’t take offence. She could see that I was different, just as she was different. The world would be a much better place if more people could sit and talk like we were doing …
She continued in this vein. I began to pay less and less attention to the actual words as they droned on and on. I was caught more by her appearance; the dirt under the jagged fingernails, the thick, torn, flesh-coloured stockings, worn brown plimsolls and blotched hands which nervously clutched at each other as she spoke.
Who was this woman? Her ceaseless chatter afforded me little space to question her. She wanted to hear her own voice. I was a mere sounding board.
Her three carrier bags were bursting at the seams with old clothing, shoes, a mug, bits and pieces of wrapped newspaper and string. Yes, she would have a hard time finding someone to talk to. Just as suddenly as she had arrived she left, still talking as she walked down the street.
She had talked until the unease bad been settled in her mind and then she walked away without a goodbye or backward glance. She was the writer and actress of a one-woman play.
Questioning other unfortunates about their lives produced no such flow of information, attitudes or opinions. The down-and-outs I came across were confined to a world made tinier by their own fears and suspicions. They feel free to approach outsiders to ask for cigarettes or beg for money to buy a cup of tea - neither of these things take them out of their world. They are not so easily persuaded to enter into conversation with a stranger.
One day I grabbed a bag-lunch from a wayside cafe and set off for the sunshine in Embankment Gardens. One woman stood out because she kept circling a particular area over and over again. She was tall and well-built with straggly shoulder-length brown hair and she focussed on the ground as she walked as if searching for something which she had lost, pausing occasionally to examine some find. She moved like a beaver, long overcoat trailing, quietly, noiselessly.
She made her way over to a set of garbage cans and began digging through them. As she rummaged through she held up some things closer for inspection then continued endlessly digging and examining.
I walked to the cans to dispose of the remains of my lunch. I took my time getting rid of the bits of food, the wrappers and the bag so as to catch her attention but she carried on digging with the same steady rhythm. Her head seemed in danger of disappearing into the garbage can. I spoke gently to her trying to nudge a reply, spark off conversation. She did not respond. I persisted. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me: a vulnerable defiance tinged with fear. I continued talking to her. She just looked at me, her eyes etched with the discoloration of poor-health and neglect. I could see the same kind of mental confusion in them that I had seen in the gaze of my bus-stop friend.
Many more meetings of this kind followed in parks, churchyards, in the benched areas hugging city sidewalks. They repeated the cycle of silence, incoherence, fear and withdrawal. The incoherent gabble, where it occurred, was much more frightening than the preserved silence. These women had travelled far beyond my world into a space and time of their own. They could offer no admission into their private hells.
‘I never thought I would come to this’
Family structures are breaking down in the Third World so the weaker members
can easily become destitute. Lindsey Hilsum talks to Gertrude Awor, a widow in
Kenya who now has to ask the tounsts for help.
Photo: Lindsey Hilsum.
ERTRUDE AWOR has no-one who cares - no family and no friends. She came last year to Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, and has taken to begging as a final desperate attempt at survival. ‘Now I am just waiting to die.’
‘Where I grew up, in Kano Plains, we had plenty of land. We grew maize and millet
and there was always enough to eat. I went to school until Standard Three and learned to read a bit though I’ve forgotten it all now.’
Gertrude was 14 when she got married and moved to her husband’s village. That was when her problems began. She discovered that she was barren. Her husband’s family were so enraged they urged him to send Gertrude back home.
‘He refused to do this but when I was 30 years old he died - and then his family chased me away.’
In the tradition of the Luo, the ethnic group here, a widow does not inherit her late husband’s land. If there arc sons, they will inherit if not the man’s brothers will claim the land. The family might still invite her to stay - but, if not, she is expected to return to her place of’ birth.
‘In fact,’ she says, ‘I think they killed him just to get rid of me.
Sometimes, however, the woman’s own family will not accept her either. The path through the park in Kisumu is lined with such destitute widows. They are caught in the no - mans s - land between two cultures. The traditional system of looking after old people within the extended family is breaking down - but it has not been replaced by a Western model of Institutional care.
Gertrude did go back to her family at first. Her mother had died but her father was still living. When he died, though, she bad to seek help from ber brother. He was willing to take her in but eventually the brother’s wife, who did not like her being dependent on them, told Gertrude she would have to leave. She had no alternative but to come to Kisumu and beg.
Gertrude and the rest of the widows are at
the mercy of the people who pass through the park. A large number of these are tourists who are en route for Lake Victoria. Indeed the beggars are becoming increasingly dependent on the tourist, who have much more money to give than the locals.
‘I started off sitting in the market’ she says ‘but the council moved me over here to the park. On a good day I get maybe five shillings. On a bad day it’s only three. I go to the stalls in the market to buy food; I cut out scraps from my clothes when they wear out and stitch them up with anything I can get from people. I have no possessions, nothing. I sleep in the market-place.
‘Local people who pass by give me only about 10 cents, but the tourists and foreigners give me a shillinr - and men usually give more than women. I have no friends but we talk amongst ourselves in the park - about how to get more money, bow much we’re getting at the moment, what we need to survive. On Fridays we arc allowed to go round the shops and ask for money:
that’s when the Asians give to us.’
Gertrude wants to know why I’m so interested in her. ‘Why talk to me? Talk to the others, we’re all the same.’
I ask her what she would do if she got some money. But she says she doesn’t know; she only looks back not forward. ‘I never thought I would come to this,’ she says wistfully, ‘I hoped that I’d get a rich husband who would look after me properly. But my problem was being barren. That’s why I have nobody and nothing.’
*1$ = 14 Shillings
Lindsey Hilsum is an Information Officer for UNICEF in Nairobi.
Worth reading on... TOURISM
Certainly the most comprehensive and readable introduction to tourism is The Golden Hordes by Louis Turner and John Ash, Constable, 1975. Tourism, as far as they are concerned, started on its destructive course with the ancient Greeks who developed pleasure resorts on the edges of their cities. The history goes on through the first organised expeditions of Thomas Cook right up to back-packers travelling to the mysterious East. There are chapters too on the
economic and social aspects of what they call the ‘pleasure periphery’. The tone is highly polemical, somewhat bitter, but very entertaining.
Much shorter, and coming to more constructive conclusions, is Third World Stopover by Ron O’Grady. World Council of Churches, 1981. This has become the centre-piece of efforts by church groups in many countries to take action on tourism. The issues are spelt out in clear and simple language. Write to WCC, 150 Route de Femey, 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland. Christian Aid in the UK have taken the enterprising step of producing a filmstrip-tape version, available for purchase or hire from Christian Aid, P0 Box Nol, London SW9 SBH. Another practical result of church concerns has been the setting up of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism in Thailand.
Another practical result of church concerns has been the setting up of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism in Thailand. This publishes a valuable monthly magazine Contours available from: P0 Box 9-25, Bangkok 10900, Thailand. Our tanks to them for their help in the preparation of this edition of New Internationalist. The UK representative of the Coalition is Roger Miliman, 70 Dry Hill Park Road, Tonbridge, Kent TN1O 3BX.
An interesting case study of one particular village in Sri Lanka has been produced by the Research Project on Women and Development. Who needs tourism? looks at all the ways women are involved in the tourist industry - from running guest houses to marrying foreigners. Available from the University of Leiden, Holland.