By Baba Galleh Jallow
Dear Mother Gambia,
In our last letter we said we would shortly be writing to you about the increasingly troubling question of beggars in our society. Do you see the beggars, Mother Gambia? Do you see the many beggars sitting on all kinds of corners and intersections around town, begging for a living? Do you see that most of these beggars are women – mothers just like you Mother Gambia – some old, some young, some with babies, toddlers, children, begging with them? Do you see children who should be in School following or leading their blind parents around, begging for a living? And do you see the pain and the shame in their eyes. Mother Gambia? The shame of having to beg for a living? You do know of course, Mother Gambia, that no human being can be so poor that they feel no shame at begging. There’s always the shame and therefore the pain that beggars must suffer in order not to starve Mother Gambia!
And have you ever bothered to ask why there are so many beggars on our streets, Mother Gambia? Have you ever asked why so many of these beggars are women? And have you asked whether these women have husbands, and if they do, where their husbands are and what they do for a living? Have you ever asked if these beggars are Gambians, and if not, where they come from? And why? Would not it be good to know why our people beg and why people from other countries come to our country to beg? Of course, you need not ask whether the children of these beggars are going to School, Mother Gambia. You do know the answer to that question. If a person must beg to eat, they simply cannot afford school-related expenses like School fees, uniforms, books, and transportation costs for their children. And so they watch their children grow without any education, and if they are not very lucky, without any skills or with skills that may only earn them very little, if not land them in trouble. You do know these are your children, Mother Gambia, don’t you? And you do know they have no futures. Or at best, that they have very uncertain futures. You don’t want children without futures, Mother Gambia. You must rescue these children – your children – from a futureless life of misery and pain Mother Gambia. It doesn’t take much to do that, if only you put your mind to it.
And here’s another question for you, Mother Gambia. Is it possible that the increasing numbers of very young thieves in our society has something to do with coming from beggars’ families? Most thieves caught around the Greater Banjul Area nowadays are teenagers, very young boys who should have been in school, but who have resorted to stealing, perhaps because they never had the chance to go to school, or if they did, could not stay in school because of the abject poverty of their parents. Some of us are quick to brand these child thieves worthless vagabonds who choose to steal rather than to do something useful with their lives. But do you see that the case of these child thieves might not be so black and white, Mother Gambia; that some of these child thieves possibly come from families that survive on begging.
Equally troubling Mother Gambia, is the very difficult question of our invisible beggars. The beggars we see on street corners are only our visible beggars, Mother Gambia. Right in the public eye but marginal to the public consciousness are the vast majority of our public servants who, but for going to work and coming home every day, are faring little better than the beggars on our streets. Now consider this, Mother Gambia: according to our Integrated Pay Scale, some of our civil servants (a police corporal, for instance) receive a salary of about D2, 500 (about US$50) a month. If you divide that by 30 days, these civil servants would be earning about 83 dalasi (less than US$2) per day. Some of the beggars on our streets certainly net more than 83 dalasi per day. And, Mother Gambia, a civil servant employed at Grade 6 of our Integrated Pay Scale earns about D45, 000 per annum during their first year of employment. That’s less than US$1,000 per year, Mother Gambia! If we divide 45, 000 by 365 days, this person would be earning D123 per day. That’s less than $3 per day Mother Gambia, far less than what minimum wage earners in some countries earn per hour!
Now let’s face it Mother Gambia! Whether they are married or not, a person earning D123 a day must find it hard to survive in this country. Even more troubling is the fact that only after eight years of service will this person’s salary hit D55, 000 (about US$1,001) per year! That means after eight years of service, this person earns only about D4, 500 (less than US$100) a month! Less than a hundred dollars a month, Mother Gambia, after eight years of service! How can such a person not be reduced to begging, or stealing, or extorting from their fellow citizens if they are so inclined and in a position to do so? And do you know that a civil servant employed at Grade 12 of our Integrated Pay Scale – the highest grade there is – earns only about D141, 000 after eight years of service? That’s less than $2800 a year after eight years of service, Mother Gambia! Now just look at the figures around you and do the math, Mother Gambia. If you do you might not sleep tonight!
We know, Mother Gambia that in Africa, government by begging is the order of the day. Like you, almost all African countries have to beg to survive. It is a sad reality that you and other African countries are the career beggars of international society. It didn’t have to be this way, Mother Gambia; and it doesn’t have to be this way! But until you can stop being one of the glorified beggars of the world, you cannot reduce the people in whose name you beg to beggars Mother Gambia. However small the funds you get from begging and borrowing, they are enough to make less obvious the glaring gap between those of your children who seem to have everything, and those who have nothing at all. It is logical to believe that with some reordering of your priorities Mother Gambia, you can afford to improve the lives of your children, especially the vast majority of our people, who are either visible or invisible beggars in so many different guises.
But alas, Mother Gambia; our cries for solutions to most of our national problems always seem to fall on deaf ears. So far we have written several letters to you, highlighting problems that need urgent attention but that remain unsolved and continue to plague our lives. Horrible health facilities and services, horrible street conditions, horrible driving and indiscipline on our roads, unstable power supply – they all remain unsolved, Mother Gambia! And if a social problem remains unsolved, it can only get worse and will affect the entire society. There is what we might call the logic of the entity, Mother Gambia. By this logic, the entire organism suffers if any one part of it suffers. The suffering of the beggars is your suffering, Mother Gambia. Their poverty is your poverty and their lack of a bright future is your lack of a bright future. So, dear Mother Gambia, please do something about their plight because it is your plight! At the very least, please start asking questions about them! Please see them Mother Gambia!