Sierra Leone: COVID-19 Dwindles Earnings of Street Beggars
At age 5, the Chairman of Wilberforce Street Beggars Association, Patros Thomas became disabled with Polio. Thomas is an early school leaver who started Street Begging in 2005. He attended the St Andrews Secondary School commonly known as UCC in Bo City. As an orphan, he was not able to go beyond Junior Secondary School (JSS) 3. He recounted, “My parents died when I was in JSS. After my Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), I came to Freetown where I started street begging at a tender age.”
Thomas has 15 years experience in Street begging, but he wants to enter into sports instead of continuing with the street begging. “I want to change my life from begging to sport. Right now, I have started training handball, table tennis and Sitting Volleyball at the National Stadium.
He told Premier News that they are not begging, but rather, it is the will of God. “Why is it that the life of persons with disability is not respected in society?” he asked. “Persons with disabilities have no dwelling place. There is no transport system in the country that is disability friendly.”
He disclosed that the only time the leaders recognize them as human beings is during elections in which they will come and campaign to them to vote for them, adding that after elections, the politicians will abandon them again.
He stated that there are about 150 street beggars who sit at the cotton tree including about 50 women.
He categorized beggars into two: those who walk upright and the persons living with disabilities who mostly walk with their crutches and sit in wheelchairs, adding that the beggars who are not living with disabilities usually bullied them when it comes to sharing of food items or gift from charitable organizations.
Thomas, a father of four, explained that it is through this begging that he takes care of his family including paying of rents, transportation, and medical and also educate his children. He said that before COVID-19, he earned at least Le 50,000 daily from begging, noting that he often spends Le 20,000 for feeding whilst the Le 30, 000 will be saved to solve other family problems. But now he earns around Le 30,000 daily.
He disclosed that some beggars who do not have helpers to push wheelchair have hired young men to ride them and any money that is actualized or earned for the day will be shared equally, pointing out that it is a contractual agreement between those who push the wheelchairs and the beggars that money and gifts earned will be shared equally.
He explained that they chose to beg at the Cotton Tree because it is central to the capital Freetown. “Our presence at the Cotton Tree will send a signal to the government that we need shelter and livelihood support,” he added. “This place is very important in the country, look at State House, look Law Court Building, look CID Headquarters, look National Museum and look NASSIT including other prominent offices, these places are very important offices in the country,”he added.
He said that they are seating at the cotton tree to draw the attention of authorities, including President Bio, that they should provide permanent shelter and livelihood support for them. “We want the government to prioritize persons with disabilities especially beggars. Government should not take us as second-class citizens,” he said.
He explained that COVID-19 affected women because most of them are single parents who are unable to go out to beg. “If they do not beg they won’t be able to sponsor their family,” he said, adding that the Social Safety Net cash transfer project implemented by NaSCA did not benefit all beggars because they are in most cases roving. He said that the Mayor of Freetown rented apartments for some of them at Waterloo for a year, but discontinued after their tenure ended.
Koma Z. Hassan-Kamara, Information, Education and Communication Officer of Freetown City Council said that the Council has done a lot to remove persons with disability, especially those depending on the street begging as their livelihood support, from around the iconic Cotton Tree areas because it is the heart of the city.
She said that the presence of street beggars around the cotton tree is a negative signal to visitors. She confirmed that the Council rented an apartment for about a year for about 100 households at Waterloo and gave them start-up kits, but after the one-year renting, they left their apartment and returned to Freetown again whilst some of them sublet their apartments.
“When we interface with them, they told us that it will be difficult to stop begging because they are getting huge money from begging. So, living in Waterloo will reduce their earnings,” she said, adding that the Council’s Transform Freetown Plan has a particular cluster to see how they can help female persons living with disability including female beggars.
She said that most of the female beggars are single parents and as a result, the COVID-19 restrictions affected them, noting that residents of Freetown were afraid of giving money to them because they don’t know their health status.
Santigie Kargbo, the National President of Sierra Leone Union of Disability Issues (SLUDI), a civil society organization that advocates and seek the welfare of persons with disability, said that street begging is a social menace that is affecting persons with disability, adding that most persons with disability have been neglected by the society, basically by their parents. He said because they were abandoned, they are unskilled and one key means of getting income is to go on the street to beg.
He said that COVID-19 pandemic affected the living standards of female street beggars. “In fact, we have a documentary that we titled ‘Night Husband’, we call it ‘night husband’ simply because of the vulnerability of female beggars; men usually go after them at night and impregnate them and abandon them to suffer.” “The man can only say ‘this is wife at night’ and when there is morning, they are ashamed of calling them my wife or girlfriend.”
He added that during the COVID-19, most of the female beggars became pregnant and they were neglected, stating that in most cases, they lost their babies because there was no proper care. “Women living with disabilities are more vulnerable. We see more women begging in the street because no support is given to them in terms of livelihood support,” he said. “Men with disabilities are better than women street beggars in terms of societal acceptance.” He said that the livelihood support for persons with disability is very minimal.
He said that the source of income is very difficult and they have no option apart from begging because the government could not provide the social responsibility like basic necessities that underprivileged people should enjoy, adding that in other countries, government usually provides cash-transfer for persons with disabilities on a monthly or quarterly basic.
He emphasized that disable people have been marginalized, neglected and discriminated, adding that without the support of the parents, government and international community, the beggars will continue to be on the street.
Mawusie Dumbuya, the Information Communication and Outreach Manager of the National Commission for Persons with Disability (NCPD) said that the Ministry of Social Welfare has done a survey to get a comprehensive data on street beggars and other persons with disabilities.
He said when the Ministry completed analyzing the data, the Commission will start using it as a working document. He disclosed that in the Mid-Term Development Plan, the government has planned to eradicate street begging by 2023, and added that the plan is very gender-sensitive, adding that the Commission is cognizance of female street beggars. He disclosed that the Commission is working with (NaCSA) to ensure that the social safety net is extended to street beggars and other persons with disabilities, adding that some street beggars benefitted from the fund.
“The social safety net fund given to street beggars is not sustainable, but we are engaging the Ministry of Development, Ministry of Social Welfare, NaCSA, and other relevant players to ensure that we come up with comprehensive strategy to make persons with disabilities including street beggar’s self-reliant,” he said.
Effort to interview the Ministry of Social Welfare proved futile.
“This story was written and produced with support from Journalist for Human Rights (JHR) and Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) media fellowship.”