I’ve been wanting to write something a bit more introspective, so I’m writing a bit about my thoughts on beggars in Liberia. I’d like to be generous, kind, and loving to people. At the same time I want to be safe, responsible, and wise (I’m also a bit of a cheapskate). I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to best balance all these, but I thought I’d share my ideas so far. I welcome feedback.
Needless to say, there are lots of beggars here. Being white I’m seen as being rich. Relatively speaking, I am. Eighty percent of Liberians make less than a dollar a day. Though GT doesn’t exactly pay well, and Liberia isn’t cheap, I am able to live comfortably without fear of going broke by giving away a few US dollars.
From my experiences, I’ve concluded that there are three, maybe four, different kinds of beggars. The first kind are the destitute – those who have nothing and no hope. These are probably my favorite beggars. They don’t cross the street to follow me for three blocks telling me how hard there lives are, that they only need something “small-small” to make it until next week when something in their life will change. They just humbly hold out their hands. Their faces speaking more than adequately to their need. Their clothes are worn and tattered. They gratefully accept whatever they’re given. Most likely I wouldn’t even understand their Liberian English if they tried to explain themselves to me. These beggars tend to be the elderly and/or maimed.
My heart goes out to these people. Physical they’re unable to work, so I can’t think of them as being lazy, and me being a form of welfare that removes the motivation for them to go out and work. I’ve yet to see any homeless shelter or soup kitchens here. I don’t know what other alternatives they have other than begging. Even if there was a shelter here, it would be over-crowed the minute it opened, so I’m happy to help these people with a few Liberian dollars or some food. I can’t imagine Jesus walking by and not stopping to help such people, though I must admit, when I’m pressed for time, I’ll often pass by without looking twice.
There was an elderly gentlemen, who was missing a leg, sitting by the pavilion where the TRC hearings took place. He never asked me for anything. He just sat there. I knew he was in need, and bought him a bag of peanuts. He gladly accepted it with out a word.
I’m not sure how I feel about liking that these beggars don’t accost me. On the one hand, I feel that if you’re in need you shouldn’t need an elaborate story to make me feel sorry, or follow me for a quarter mile. But then again, maybe I’m too selfish.
The second kind of beggars are kind of like the homeless you’ll meet on the streets in America. They walk up to you and ask for money. Usually they are in better physical condition than the aforementioned beggars, which makes me wonder how in need they are and what the best way would be to handle their issues. They are definitely in need; the whole country is in need. Unemployment is 70 percent. No one is going to one day stop begging and the next have a job. But then again, begging isn’t a sustainable source of income. You’re never going to get yourself out of poverty by asking expats for money.
But what do you do in the mean time? I can’t say, “you need to get a job, but for now just go hungry.” And while I do have money, I don’t have enough to give to everyone. Some expats have told me that I’m just enforcing these beggars’ dependence on others, which is true. In general, the country needs to move on past the expectation that the rest of the world will help them and start working hard for themselves. But a lot of people are in genuine need now, and the country’s problems stretch far beyond their dependence on the rest of the world.
These beggars may also be a little more demanding. They might want more than a few Liberian dollars and can be picky eaters. I bought a little boy some peanuts after he had followed me for four blocks asking for help. I was hungry and had already decided to buy some peanuts for myself. They’re cheap and have lots of protein; what’ s not to love. I figured if they’re good enough for me, they’re good enough for him. He just looked at me like, “that’s it?” I was not impressed. If this kid had been really hungry he wouldn’t care what I gave him. He wanted sardines and bread. But at the same time I doubt he had a cupboard full of food at home. Was I just reinforcing his belief that the white man will buy his dinner, or was a I really helping him? Maybe both.
I was buying water one time, and a man told me, “buy me a water.” He wasn’t very nice about it. He was dressed decently well for a Liberian. There were a lot of people standing around, so if I bought him a water what else could I do but everyone a water? I don’t carry enough cash on me to buy everyone water; it wouldn’t be safe for me to be handing out money on a street corner, and I didn’t want to buy everyone a water. That’s not what I was there for, so I offered him the rest of my water. He said he wanted his own water.
That really annoyed me. Beggars can’t be choosers. I felt pretty sure this guy thought, “he has money, he should buy me something.” This is not an attitude I want to foster. Bill Gates has money, and no doubt I’d probably try to be his friend, and get in good with him. Maybe he’d give me some free computers or something. But I’d never walk up to him and say, “buy me a car,” thinking that he owed me a car just because of his wealth.
There was a man standing next to the gentleman who had asked for the water. He was older, and his clothes weren’t as nice. He quickly snatched the water I had extended to the first man. That man was thirsty; that’s my kind of beggar.
Sometimes I’ll be talking to a guy for a few blocks, listening to his story. Later on someone else will see me and tell me the guy I was with isn’t an “honest person.” This would be the possible 4th kind of beggar – the not so honest beggar (I’ll get to three in a minute). As I said before, everyone is in need, but these are the conmen. Obviously, I know where I stand with these beggars. I just thought I’d mention them. One such fellow remembered my name from when I was here in May. He told me he needed just a little money to buy gas for his scooter so he could give rides to people and make money. A couple days later I saw him on his scooter riding around. He had gas somehow. If you’re able to afford your own scooter as a Liberian, you’re doing pretty well.
Finally there are the beggars I know – the people I work with, live close to, or otherwise see on a regular basis. For me, these are the hardest to know what to do for. I want to know them and be their friend, so naturally I want to help them. But I don’t want them to think that every time they need something they should ask John, or more importantly, that “John will always get me out of trouble.”
There’s a boy named Marbaux that lives by my house. In a round about way he told me how he didn’t have a notebook for school. On a side note, he doesn’t look me in the eye when he tells me what he needs, which I don’t like. I feel you should man up and look someone in the eye if your asking something from them. Maybe he doesn’t feel worthy to look me in the eye? At any rate, I bought him a notebook. It was only a dollar, and going to school is a habit I’d like to encourage. Education has been proven to lead to a sustainable economy. But then the next week a group of girls stopped me by my house and asked for notebooks. I haven’t bought them anything. I probably could afford to buy them all their books. But at some point I would have to stop. If I bought the girls books how long would it be until their parents were telling me how they need more rice, charcoal, or clothes? And I’m a little weary to buy stuff for girls; that could get complicated. But no doubt these girls need school supplies. What to do?
Sometimes the security guards for the building next door will ask for money to get home, for cigarettes, or for water. These guys have a job. Granted, they probably aren’t paid super well. But they have work. If they can’t afford transportation or water, I feel they should take this up with their employer and not me. Not that they know what it is to be professional, but they aren’t very professional. I laugh to myself when people like this talk about going to America and making it big. It really bothers me that they come over at night asking for a ride home as though I’m their only option. How did they get there in the first place? Did they plan ahead at all, or were they just thinking the white man would take care of it? I haven’t given these guys anything. I try to be nice to them and say hi when I walk by. Sometimes I’m a little worried since they know where I live, but I really don’t want to encourage them.
A week ago a guy I work with asked me for 75LD to get home. He told me his son had spent his money for a ride home from school, and so he gave his son his money. I had talked with this guy before. He has been friendly to me since I have known him, never wanting anything in return. I told him if I gave him money, it was a one time deal, that I didn’t want him to come asking for money next week. He told me that wouldn’t happen, and that he felt embarrassed to ask for money in the first place.
I felt good about helping him. He’d had a rough day and needed a little help. So far, he hasn’t asked for money again. I couldn’t imagine living on such a small margin; it must take a lot of faith. I’ve had unexpected expenses of much larger magnitudes before – blown out tires or unexpected bills – but I’ve always been able to pay them. It wasn’t fun, and it did impact my overall saving and spending, but life went on just fine.
So those are my thoughts on the state of begging in Liberia. Like I said earlier, I still don’t have it all figured out. I probably never will. I’d like to break it all down into a, “give this guy this, and give that guy that, and give him nothing,” formula. However, life is very much on a case by case basis.
I have learned to be honest with people. Not to make excuses about not having any money, but just saying, “No.” When I have the time, I like to hear someone out and understand their situation. Maybe there’s something I can do that will be more helpful than just giving them money. Sometimes I’ll tell the person why I won’t give them money, but I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Jesus said, “give to everyone who asks.” (Luke 6:30) I’d like to think of myself as someone who follows His example, though I suspect I fall quite short. The Bible does say we are to be wise, even shrewd, with our resources, but I’d hate to use that to justify my own greed. I wish I could be like Peter who when asked for money by a cripple beggar said, “Silver and gold I have not, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”(Acts 3:6) It’s been a while since I’ve healed anybody.
In America I like to buy a beggar a burger instead of giving them money. It ensures the money is spent on their nourishment, and it shows that you care enough to take 15 minutes out of your schedule. But things here just aren’t that simple. There’s never a Burger King around when you need one, and needs often extend beyond food. I came here to help. To give of my skills and time. How should I give of my money? How do I help the immediate need without causing long term harm, and still show love, acceptance, and grace?