On parade for alms

Patricia is a gold mine for the family
Patricia is a gold mine for the family

Patricia, 11, is some object of pity or sympathy as her mother has designed her to be for the selfish reasons of making money to fend for her family. While she sits on her wheelchair and paraded in the streets to beg, she faces a bleak future without any formal education but also believing that she cannot live a normal life in her condition. Bright Mhango tells her story.

The lunch time traffic in Lilongwe is everyone’s worry except for a few who benefit from the snail’s pace of the vehicles.

As anxious and restless drivers slowly balance their feet on the accelerators and brakes along the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary, Marita Wisili goes to work.

She walks along the white line in the middle of the steaming hot tarmac road and knocks on each and every driver’s side window.

In her hands, she holds and pushes a wheelchair which houses the shaky and pitiful sight of a small girl with a drooling mouth and glaring eyes that pierce the objects they meet. She constantly looks down and plays with a naked Barbie doll.

She has a plastic bag placed on her legs containing pills. She is donned in a school uniform and underneath the school gear she has trainer’s pants.

As the traffic surges forward, Wisili steps back as if dancing to the traffic tune. She has mastered the art of selling pity.

A driver can choose not to attend her but no driver passes without looking at her because she stands right next to the driver’s side when the city’s vehicles are at their slowest.

“I am not crazy. Many think I am lazy and crazy but I am not. This is my last resort. I have nowhere else to go,” says Wisili without an iota of an apology.

I ushered her aside for an interview and she complied without ceremony. She probably thought my suit meant I was the police.

I assured her that I was just chasing a story and promised her that I would part with a few of my own savings to compensate her for the time she would lose talking instead of begging.

“Patricia was born normal but she was struck with yellow fever later in her life and it affected her joint. She later developed arthritis and cannot walk. She always needs attention,” said the mother as her daughter fumbled with her doll.

Wisili is also mother of four other children. Patricia is just 11 years old and her age mates are in Standard Six. She still lags in Standard Two with no hope of completing her education. I asked the mother what she thinks of her child’s education.

“She got sick and I stopped her from attending school. Since she has missed out a lot this term, I am thinking of sending her back to school next term,” she said.

I asked her why her daughter was in uniform if she was last in class about a month ago, a question she did not answer promptly. I did not push but she insisted.

“It’s not that we deprive her of anything. She can answer in English if you ask her name. She is bright,” she responded.

But why bring a school child to the streets instead of sending her to school or at least find means of earning an income to fend for her and her siblings? Why expose her to all kinds of risks, sun, rain and the cold weather?

The mother’s answers were basic. She lost an umbrella in a minibus and says she has a towel on standby in case it gets cold.

“My husband is jobless. I have attempted small businesses such as selling cassava but to no avail.

“I have tried returning to the village but my five children are used to the city, so I resorted to begging to fend for them. I am new in the trade,” she added.

But I have been seeing her on the same spot since I arrived in Lilongwe over a year ago. She reveals that she nets about K2000 per day on a good day which she says is used to buy drugs for her ailing daughter as well as feed her family.

With the husband not working and the mother spending the whole day begging on the road with Patricia as her bait, the little girl is clearly the breadwinner of her family.

Her sickly looks sell her off well to onlookers and sympathisers who think giving alms is helping the child when instead it rescues a whole family and at the same time ruining a future.

Her mother is strong and has a Junior Certificate (JC) of Examination. She has two phone numbers, lives in a rented house in Area 23, catches a minibus to and from begging. When so many of us are in the city by sweat, some are here living on proceeds of pity.

In 2012, Malawi passed the Disability Act but as the United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) observes, the legislation is not being implemented fully.

“There is outdated legislation in the form of the 1971 Handicapped Persons Act but this is charity-based and is not aligned with current rights-based approaches. Government funding for the disability sector is low. The Ministry of Disability and Elderly Affairs receives only about 0.07 percent of the national budget.

“Disability issues are not seen as high priority – for instance, children with disabilities are mentioned only once in the current

Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS II),” reads a UNICEF report on the state of disabled children in Malawi.

The National Policy on Early Childhood Policy does not mention children with disability. The 2008 Malawi Housing and Population Census found that the prevalence of disability among children was lower at 2.4 percent, most of which are found in the Northern Region followed by the Central and then Southern regions.

Twenty-three percent of the disabilities among children in Malawi are to do with hearing loss, followed by visual impairment (17 percent) and mobility problems come at 16 percent, it says.

The report identifies challenges for the likes of Patricia, including lack of access to health and education services.

Temwani Mkandawire is a typical adult who grew up with the most common disability of losing hearing ability. He says more needs to be done by both parents and authorities.

“It is important for parents to show their disabled children a lot of love and motivation. That way, they feel less conscious of their disability and focus on living a normal life. When I lost my hearing, I was surrounded with love from parents and relatives. I was treated normally and even did chores like everyone else. I took it up from there and learned to live normally.

“On social services, I see little sign effort to provide for people with disabilities in general, at least as far as my own experience is concerned. For example, I am yet to come across a reception at a bank or hospital where sign language services are provided,” said Temwani.

Director of disability programmes in the Ministry of Disability and Elderly Affairs Felix Sapula said his ministry is trying to make life for the disabled better.

He said they plan to force people such as Patricia’s mother off the streets.

UNICEF Malawi representative Mahimbo Mdoe said at a recent function: “Our attitudes are the greatest barrier that children with disability face…”

Of all the thousands officials and able-bodied people that pass Patricia on the roadside, nobody notices that the child’s rights are being violated.

Sapala said parents such as Marita will be counselled but without economically empowering them they will just look for a new street to beg.

Unless Patricia is made aware of her rights and society made aware of the crime in the Wisili family ‘business venture’, she will grow up counting vehicles and not figures in school.

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