Despite the country’s laws prohibiting seeking of alms on the streets and from shop owners, the number of street beggars is swelling each passing day.
Section 180(b) and (f) of the Penal Code prohibits begging or seeking alms.
In line this law, on February 12, police in Blantyre arrested 12 children who were found begging in the streets and from shop owners.
Blantyre Police Station spokesperson Elizabeth Divala said the 12 were expected to appear in court to answer charges of seeking alms.
And two months ago, according to Blantyre Social Welfare Office, some beggars from Blantyre appeared in court. They were convicted, but were given a suspended sentence of two years. They were ordered not to return to the streets, but to go home.
Barely days after the court ruling, some of them made a triumphant return to the streets. Fatima Muwalo, a 40-year-old woman who roams about the streets of Blantyre City—but whose main ‘territory’ is around The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi—says that although her colleagues were ordered by the court to leave the streets, they are back to their respective bases.
For all beggars including Fatima, they seek alms to feed themselves and their families. Fatima has seven children. Four are living in her home village, Chiradzulu District. The other three escort her in the begging escapades. They are aged two, four and seven, respectively.
“I have been begging for two years. My friend there has been begging for eight years. Others were born and raised here in the streets and have been here all their life,” she says.
Fatima is not alone. There are many of them. Seated close to her is 35-year-old Mary Kenesi. She has just been released from Chichiri Prison. She was remanded by police after she was found begging in Limbe. She spent three months in jail.
Upon her release, she was warned: “Musakapitensokunsewu. Mudzipita kumudzi kwanu [don’t go to the streets again. Go to your home].”
Well, she defied the order. Here she is, wandering about the streets of Blantyre, freely, gathering money to make ends meet.
Blantyre assistant social welfare officer, Chikumbutso Salifu says that his office intervenes to see the welfare of the children.
“We work with some institutions that help the needy like Step Kids Awareness [Steka], Chisomo Children’s Club and Samaritan Trust,” Salifu says.
The Social Welfare is a public institution that runs on people’s taxes. Their duty is to make sure that street kids are removed from the streets and are taken care of.
The continued presence of street kids in the cities and towns raises questions on what the authorities are doing.
“Government is doing its best to protect street children. We are sensitising the public to find better ways of supporting them instead of giving them alms,” Salifu says.
Director for child affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, McKnight Kalanda, speaking recently ahead of the commemoration of the International Day of Street Children, advised people in the country to view street children as a welfare issue.
In spite of this rhetoric, street kids are still at large, moving up and down the streets and committing all sorts of misdemeanours. That government sing a litany of pleasantries about their welfare, they know not. What they know with precision is their job description—gathering alms from all who care to play ball.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Jean Kalilani last month said: “There are 5 000 street children in both Blantyre and Lilongwe. Three thousand of them are in Lilongwe.”
Chisomo Children’s Club executive director Charles Gwengwe said that there are about 10 000 street children in Malawi and that the number is growing by day.
On what government is doing is doing to enforce the laws, private-practice lawyer Wanangwa Kalua says: “Government has in the past attempted to remove them. But they have usually returned to the streets. What lacks, perhaps, are mechanisms to ensure that once they are removed they do not return.
“In the short-term, that might mean committed policing of public places while the long-term solution lies in empowering such people to make ends meet lawfully.”
Government has all the machinery to clear away beggars from public places but what could be hampering it from succeeding.
Leaving beggars to seek alms does not augur well with government. It makes them look as if they are playing a humanitarian card in this gamble.
But Kalua is quick to dismiss this hypothesis, saying: “It would be speculative to say government merely wants to look humanitarian. You will note that regularly government agencies sweep the streets seeking to shy street beggars away.”
As the law enforcers are relaxing their grip on the street beggars, their liberty in loafing about gathering money in the streets is undermining the seriousness with which government upholds the sacredness of the republican laws. n