Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Beggar moms using babies as bait

Esther Nyendwa with her two-month-old baby.

ON A cold June morning, Namukale Chella stands on the pavement at a busy junction in Lusaka, her 19-months-old son strapped to her back. She waits until the traffic light turns red, and then goes from car to car, asking for money.

The 24-year-old mother-of-two has memorised one line which she uses to beg for money or food: “Baby hungry, no food to eat,” she says gesturing to the baby on her back.
When she is tired of standing on the pavement, Namukale sits under a Jacaranda tree and breastfeeds her son. Her first-born son called Joshua, who is four years old, playfully tags at her mother, oblivious of the harshness of life the family faces.
Namukale is one of six young nursing mothers begging daily at this junction. Each of the young women has a sad tale to tell about the misfortune that brought them to the streets.
For Namukale, she started begging on the streets after the death of her parents. She has been begging now for six months.
She dropped out of school when she was in grade nine, but still dreams of going back to complete her secondary school education.
“When I was young, I wanted to become a lawyer,” she tells me.
After dropping out of school, Namukale fell pregnant for her first child, and then her second, with a Malawian man. The two never got married and the man was later deported because he did not have the right documentation.
Homeless and without support, Namukale and her children spent one year living rough at Intercity Bus Terminus.
She says she has relatives who could help her, but they have not offered her any help.
Namukale makes between K30 and K50 per day through begging. She uses the money to pay K150 for the small room she rents in John Laing township.
But not everyone sympathises with her plight, or indeed her son’s.
“Some people shout at us and insult us. They say we should go and look for jobs instead of begging on the streets,” she says.
Namukale says she has tried to find a job, but without success, and she has no one to leave her children with.
“Life is hard on the streets,” she tells me, as she dabs tears off her face with her bare hand.
The youngest of the six beggar moms is 17-year-old Seraphina Kalenga. She came to Lusaka some years ago from the Copperbelt, following her father.
Seraphina, who lives in Chibolya, became a mother when she was only 15. At that time, she was homeless and spending nights at the Intercity Bus Terminus.
Seraphina was 13 when she started life on the streets. She started by working as a guide for a blind man. Every day, she would guide the blind man to this same junction to beg. The two would then split whatever amount they raised 50/50.
When the blind man died last year, Seraphina continued to beg, but instead of using disability as a bait, she is now using her two-year-old son.
But Seraphina has also fallen prey to substance abuse.
After narrating her story, she pulls out a small bottle from her bra and holds it to her mouth and inhales. She is sniffing wood glue, a commonly abused substance among street children, with a knock-out effect.
“I need to get high so that I don’t feel shy when begging,” she tells me, as her friends giggle and laugh.
Among the beggar moms, 19-year-old Esther Nyendwa is nursing the youngest child. Her daughter, Blessings, is only two months old.
“I just want to raise money to buy diapers and food for my child,” she says.
But Esther is not happy because she has to compete for sympathy with the blind beggars.
“Today we have so many blind people here. People would rather give to the blind than us,” she complains.
And sometimes, there are turf fights among the women, themselves. Usually, it pits the old timers against the newcomers like Namukale.
Some of the beggar moms, like Neliya Nyirenda, have grown up on the streets.
Neliya, 21, has been on the streets since she was 10, and it shows. She has the roughest character of the five. She also has a tough look. Neliya also has a bottle of glue stashed in her bra.
Neliya does not have a child of her own, after a miscarriage a few years ago, but she keeps her sister’s child, who is almost two years old.
And then there, is 19-year-old Promise Lombe. Her son, Vincent Mwamba, is only 15 months old.
Promise was 11 when she started begging on the streets. She dropped out of school after the death of her mother, although, she says her mother was too poor to support her. In fact, she had moved into an orphanage while her mother was still alive.
But when the orphanage was closed, Promise had no support and so she returned to a hard life on the streets.
Promise now lives with her grandfather who works as security guard. She has never seen the father of her child since she gave birth.
She usually comes to this spot around 10:00 hours and returns home at 19:00 hours.
“I just want to make some money for soap and food for my child,” she says.
Her biggest fear living as a beggar is getting money from evil people or Satanists.
But that the mothers are exposing their babies to health risks on the streets is without doubt.
In fact, the sixth beggar mom, Mary Chilufya, is not out on the streets begging today, because her son Emmanuel was admitted to Kamwala Clinic with suspected pneumonia.
Chilufya is homeless, but spends nights at Intercity Bus Terminus.
When I visited Chilufya later at Kamwala Clinic, I found that she had gone out to look for money so she could pay for X-ray services requested by the clinic.
The use of children by beggars as sympathy baits is common in many parts of the world.
But child rights activist Henry Kabwe, condemned the practice of using children as tools for begging, saying children are supposed to grow in a safe environment.
He says begging is illegal in Zambia, and law enforcers must stop it.
“The fact that we are seeing those people begging on the streets shows that there is lack of enforcement of the law,” he says.
He says any law enforcer who hears that there is a mother with a two-year child on the streets must respond quickly. He adds that the mothers must also be made to account, and that society should not turn a blind eye to the situation.
Mr Kabwe also says the trend of beggar moms also shows that the country’s social welfare system is not well-organised.
He blames this partly on the lack of proper data, especially on children.
“Birth registration is a challenge. If a car is brought into the country, it is registered within two months, but you can decide whether to register the child or not,” he says.
Mr Kabwe says lack of documentation of children who are born in the country will make it difficult for Government to implement programmes such as the social cash transfer, because it will not have proper records of people who are vulnerable.
He also suggests that that the Ministry of Community Development partners with the private sector to help such mothers.
“Most of the poor in Zambia are supported by companies outside Africa,” says Mr Kabwe.
For Zambia Police Service, the problem needs to involve all those concerned with the welfare of children, as well as the local authority.
Police spokesperson Esther Katongo says police can round up the beggar moms, but has nowhere to take them.
“We need to look at it holistically,” she says. “We may pick them, but where do we take them; have we found them what to do?”
Mrs Katongo says begging, as well as giving alms is illegal in Zambia.
“Begging itself is an offence, but you look at the underlying factors,” she says.
Mrs Katongo says the women are pushed onto the streets because they have nothing to fall on.
She says what is important is that the women cover their children properly and that they are not being abused.
It is late afternoon, and I meet Namukale walking back home, her two children in tow. Life could not be harder for the young mother.

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