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Street begging and moral decadence in Sierra Leone: My Take!

February 15, 2016 By Mohamed Massaquoi

Street beggars around Cotton Tree in Central Freetown

Street beggars around Cotton Tree in Central Freetown

Some Sierra Leoneans give money to street beggars out of pity. Others give to beggars just to get them off their necks. Some Sierra Leoneans are, simply put, philanthropists. What’s more, the average Sierra Leonean, regardless of his socio-political and religious inclination, resort to be freed from suffering of all types including cases of illness that do not readily response to treatment; to injury to enemies, real or perceived, or seek protection from evil; or to obtain the desires of the heart. The process usually involves giving alms to beggars. Thus, for more than one reason and in more than one way, money flows in to oil the engine of street beggars. Abyss

The population of beggars on our streets is growing exponentially. The menace of street begging as a potential threat to our very societal fabric is obvious.

Many social commentators have attributed this astronomical growth in street begging to poverty, real or imagined. Is it really as a result of poverty or due to the manipulation of sentiments by some vested interest groups? There is really no debate in the sense of an articulation and consideration of basic issues and dimensions of the matter.

Street beggars constitute a class of professional beggars, those who take begging as the principal means of earning a living. The increase in the number of street beggars exposes the blatant lip service by various governments to curb the menace of street begging in our major towns and cities.

Islam abhors the adoption of any form of begging as a profession. Whether we like it or not, to most non-Muslim minds, Islam is not only associated with begging, but appears to encourage it. Much as this is a clear misconception, the fact remains that street begging prevails because we Muslims, particularly some of our leading Malams, regard it as a fertile ground to thrive.

In the name of Islamic faith, some Malams take children away from their parents into major towns and cities to transform them into useful individuals in society. But instead of imparting Islamic knowledge to them, the children beg house-to-house for food or are made to beg for money on the streets and perform menial jobs for the sake of money from dawn to dusk. One wonders whether these children ever have time to study!

Many leading and vocal Malams advocate for the continuation of the almajirci system not out of conviction but rather in a desperate attempt to win followers and remain relevant in the equation. Through the manipulation of sentiments and deliberate misapplication of concepts, they make case for mabarata at the expense of almajirai. The concepts or terms almajirai and mabarata are purposely used interchangeably in arguments to cloud the issue. The two terms are not synonyms. A closer look at each of these terms will drive the point home.

Almajirci, the process of being an almajiri, has its roots in the Arabic word al-Muhajirun, meaning those who migrate. The term was first used in Islamic History following the Hijrah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 of the Christian era. Those Meccans that migrated with the Prophet (SAW) to Medina were referred to as al-Muhajiruns (the migrants), while their hosts in Medina were called the al-Ansars (the helpers of the migrants).

As far as street begging is concerned, the political class hardly goes beyond paying lip-service to curbing the menace. The reason is simple: many of these politicians lack the proper basis of Islamic theology. They believe the Malams have supernatural powers. They patronise these Malams to rig or win elections; intimidate or subjugate the opposition; or gain and retain political power. Any action that will make them lose the support of these Malams is sacrilegious! So they find it convenient to choose the part of least resistance:  paying lip service.

Which way forward? First, governments at all levels should embark on an enlightenment campaign to make the populace understand that (a) almajirai and mabarata are two entire different sets of beggars; (b) a crackdown on street begging is not a crackdown on any aspect of Islamic culture and norms. This is to make the Muslim public less susceptible to mischievous Malams who manipulate religious sentiments to cloud the issue for their selfish interest.

Second, rather than waste tremendous energy and resources and embark on paying lip service, all in an attempt to project the image of reforming the almajirci system: a system that has clearly outlived its usefulness, the government should spare no effort in educating the dramatis personae of the almajirci system of Islamic education on the advantages of a more formal, vibrant, pragmatic and relevant system.

Street begging in our society today is like a cancer in the body. Either we sacrifice the cancerous part and save the body or we allow it to invade and destroy the entire body. Street begging thrives because we, the government and people, allow it to. We either summon enough courage or will to break its neck and finish it once and for all or allow it to remain a nuisance and an obnoxious part of our culture and tradition till the end of time.