Tactics for dealing with beggars range the ethical gamut. Certain kinds of people just fork over the cash at the first sight of a quivering lower lip. A handful of others like the silent treatment (easy but not immediately effective). In Bombay I noticed that Indians would actually hit street kids with rolled up newspapers — a bit hardcore, but immediately effective. Luckily, I’m white and I live in Kenya, so I have plenty of opportunities to try various methods almost daily! For example, I felt terrible after this exchange with an eight-year-old girl last week:
Beggar girl: “Uncle please, I’m hungry…”
Me: “Go to school”
Beggar girl: “Please buy for me some food”
Me: “Kwenda huko, uliza huyu. Hata mwafrika anapesa!” (Get out of here, go ask him. Even African people have money)
Beggar girl: “(mumbling)… enda nchi yenu” (go back to your country)
Me: “Mimi ni mkenya” (I’m Kenyan)
I felt triumphant for outwitting her until I remembered that she was eight, and everyone was staring at me. I don’t know what came over me, the poor girl had no idea what was coming! Although I realize my tactics were flawed and spur of the moment, I wasn’t entirely remorseful about how it went down. Picture Nairobi’s central business district early on a Friday evening: everyone and their brother have just left the office and are now milling about town. You can imagine my frustration when they come running the instant they spot me.
Telling her to go to school at that time of day was admittedly pointless, but I still feel like it was a good suggestion. In the heat of the moment you can’t take time to make sense, you just have to go with the flow. Extra points for using a foreign language, haha!
For what it’s worth, I was walking to dinner in Westlands a few nights later and found a small girl sitting alone on a curb. She jumped up and started her routine when she saw me, but I quickly shifted gears. As we strolled along I casually asked her a few questions, like, “What’s your name? Will you sleep here? Where do you live? Was that your sister I saw down the road?” I gave her enough money to go buy some milk or a few packs of biscuits.
I felt good about my actions until I walked around the corner and there were three more beggars disturbing me one after another. I told them, “Sina coins” and, “Nimesota.” (I don’t have coins, I’m broke). Then I walked a bit further and found a whole gang of homeless people who promptly started yelling stuff at me. As I continued down the road towards Westgate mall I saw a bag tied to the fence. The bag was moving and making sounds, the sounds of baby puppies squirming. Enterprising Kenyans sell cute puppies, kitties, and rabbits here during the day — I never thought about what happens to the animals when the customers aren’t around.
What a crazy night. Life just isn’t fair.