When living in the USA, we attended a small Lutheran church close to our home. Our pastor at the time has since moved on to work as a missionary in Africa. Weekly, he sends updates on how things are going. Sometimes they are screed's about life in Burkina Faso, their current post...other times they contemplate some of the issues that surround the people he is living around. Everytime, they are insightful and informative. Below is one such entry...
Africa is a continent of stark contrasts. In some places the drought has caused severe famine. In other places people are fleeing because of horrendous rains floods. Some of the countries in Africa are peaceful, calm, and content. Others struggle with continuous rebel uprisings, fractious groups trying to overthrow those in power, and corrupt politicians running the government. There are richly decorates cathedrals, mosques, homes, office structures, and markets. But around the corner hungry children beg for money or food for their one meal that day.
Yes, Africa is a continent of stark contrasts. In Darfur, the Sudan, last week an agreement of sorts was reached between rebel groups and the government. Fighting will cease, but millions are still displaced, living in refugee camps, on the verge of starvation. A little ways from the Sudan is the costal country of Somalia. Rebels are, this very day, fighting for control of the capital city. Over 200 innocent citizens were caught in the crossfire yesterday and lost their lives. In the Central African Republic, where friends of ours are missionaries, the president of the national church told them to have their bags packed in case things “heated up.” They are living with the possibility of evacuation at any moment. In Kenya, lack of rain has caused a severe drought…so severe that even camels (with a capacity to carry water for months) are dying. In Nigeria yesterday over 150 people died when an oil pipeline exploded. Nigeria is an oil rich country, but very little of the profits filter back to the people. Because of the extreme poverty, people try to tap into the pipelines to get oil or gasoline to sell or use. That’s what happened yesterday…someone tried to tap in and died in the process.
All of those places are quite a ways from where we live in Burkina Faso. Yet, in many ways the African people are tied together in poverty, in tragedy, and often in hope. The average citizen of Ouagadougou knows what is going on in the other parts of Africa. Famine could happen here any year that there is not enough rain. Rebels could incite a riot and overthrow even this stable government. Older people here remember a time when they were displaced and sent off to Cote d’Ivoire or Mali. It could all happen again, and every peaceful day is a day when the Africans say “grâce à Dieu” for another day of relative calm.
We had a discussion on Friday about begging in Africa. It is very common. Children carry large empty red tomato cans to collect money for food and other needs. Sometimes they are accompanied by an older person who is blind. “River blindness” affected thousands of people over 50, and while it is nearly eradicated today, the effects on those who had it were devastating. In addition, many Muslim children who go to “école koranique” (Muslim equivalent of Sunday School) are encouraged to go out and beg. It is necessary for Muslim people to practice charity, and this gives them a way to do it. Many of the children are indeed poor and probably do not have enough to eat. (In Burkina Faso, 1 meal a day is the norm for many, many people).
The discussion at the school was interesting in that there were some people who thought no one should give anything to beggars and then they would simply stop. But the solution is not that simple. Others thought that if we solved the problem of poverty, we’d solve the begging problem. Still others said that maybe just keeping enough loose change handy and giving a little to each person was the best way to handle it.
The teacher were also surprised to hear that in a country as rich as the US, there were beggars. To them it seems absurd that people in the US would need to beg. They have a picture of the United States as wealthy…everyone working a good job with adequate salary and benefits, in a nice house, with no financial needs ever. I guess the “disconnect” goes both ways, doesn’t it! We told them that many times people lose jobs, home, cars, other things and are forced onto the streets. But, like here, there are those who beg because they like it, because it is profitable, and because they’d rather do that than work. I remember an exposé in the Oregonian last year about beggars who made more doing that than working a minimum wage job. It also told of groups who pooled their resources and made a pretty good living doing the begging.
The same thing happens here. Each time a beggar approaches I wonder if he really needs the money, the food, the prescription, or if it’s just all fake and he’s making money as if it were a job. And how does one handle the daily encounter with the beggar? It is an unanswered question…for us, and for you.
I hope to post more of these tales as they roll in...