August 21, 2006

Dakar, Beggars' Paradise?

Spare Change Is Big Business in a Culture of Generosity

Mr. Sorro is a beggar, one of thousands who ply the streets here in a city famous across West Africa for its generosity. He moved here from Ivory Coast after a war injury left him disabled. He had heard about Senegal's tradition of charity, born of its particular brand of Sufi Islam that requires its adherents to give freely in the hopes of increasing their bounty a thousandfold.

These days, though, Mr. Sorro is feeling trapped, and not just by the wheelchair he uses. Dakar's benevolence is being strained as ever larger numbers of beggars, many of them from neighboring countries like Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, choke the streets.

Begging here once brought in as much as $10 a day, which is about what a blue-collar worker in the region makes nowadays. But, the police have begun chasing Mr. Sorro and his friends away from their normal posts, trying to clean up the city's image, and the generous hands of Dakar are growing fatigued.

I visited Senegal more than a dozen years ago (April 1992) and witnessed this brand of begging:

Dakar has another category of beggars as well. Impoverished village families often send their boys to the cities to attend Koranic schools, where they are expected to support themselves by begging.

The boys are known as talibé, and 100,000 of them wander the streets of Senegal’s cities.

Outside idling buses and taxicab windows, the boys chant Arabic prayers for coins, food or sugar cubes. Some find the system exploitative, and rumors abound of imams who amass significant wealth from their charges.

Nevertheless, people give, freely and often.

Unlike their older, more aggressive New York brethren, you felt alright giving change and food and other items. In fact, had I known about this beforehand, I would have bought change, tees and trinkets to give out freely.

Posted by ronn at August 21, 2006 08:55 AM

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