A child taps impatiently at my car window. Tap, tap, tap. He won’t be ignored. He is small, wearing dirty shorts and shod in bare feet. He’s pushing a young man in a makeshift wheelchair whose legs are tangled in a useless knot.

It’s hard not to notice Africa’s poverty – especially when you live in a far flung place like I do where jobs are hard to come by, where, I was once told, families park off their ‘unwanted’. The crippled, the sick, the old, the insane. For years, here, in the Outpost, lived a poor deranged man who had a penchant for ladies nightdresses. I’d often encounter him, roadside, tucking into a piece of fruit that a street vendor had given him, flamboyant in purple negligee. Today I saw a man bedecked in black bin bags, wrapped about his wrist, upon his head, worn as a hat.

The crippled, the sick, the old, the insane.

And no welfare to prop them up.

I’ve lived here all my life. And I still don’t know what to do when a man, a woman, a child, children approach begging. I don’t know what’s the right thing to do. If I ignore an outstretched pitifully, pleading palm I feel brutal and cold and cruel. But if I give, am I feeding an addiction? A friend who works with street children urges people not to give them money for they will use it for glue or drugs, ‘and they are rarely hungry’, she adds, ‘the shop keepers and restaurants frequently feed them’. So what, I ask, what to give? A smile she says, ‘they rarely enjoy positive engagement’. I try to remember that.

Stories of roping the crippled, the sick, the old, the insane into money making schemes by manipulative families and community members abound. For they do draw cash. Years ago, a visitor to Africa, who was resolved to Make Poverty History long before the banded slogan was popularly touted by European politicians, who himself used a wheelchair, was accosted outside a city cinema by a cripple.

‘why should i give you any money?’ he asked the cripple, not unreasonably, ‘see I can’t walk either’, and he gestured to his chair.

The cripple, shuffling along the pavement on padded knees, considered this for a moment, ‘fair enough’, he said, and proffered a few shillings in the direction of the determined do-gooder who waved his money aside but handed him a business card instead.

‘Come and see me here’, he said, indicating the address on the card, ‘we’ll teach you a trade so you can work and earn a living rather than beg for one’.

A few weeks later, the cripple duly arrived at the address and was taught how to tailor, quickly he became adept at using his Singer sewing machine. Months passed and his patron asked him how he was getting on.

‘I enjoy the work’, he said, ‘I like working among others in the workshops’. His patron smiled broadly, benevolently.

‘But I don’t earn nearly as much as I did on the streets’.

Is granting a little dignity with one hand worth it, I wonder, when you take away something else almost as precious (what use is dignity if you’re hungry, cold, can’t educate, feed, clothe your children) with the other?

When we were children and drove up to Town from the farm, parking in the Centre was a perennial nightmare, you’d circle the block endlessly trying to find a spot. Unless, of course, you patronised PegLeg as Dad did. PegLeg moved swiftly between lines of traffic, one leg bent, stunted, useless, a big wooden stick worked as a punt as he vaulted his way quickly, deftly, towards the car when Dad beckoned. Then PegLeg would urge one of the parked cars, with chauffeur dozing at the wheel, to move out and along so that his customer could park. They always obliged. And we always got centre-of-town parking.

PegLeg was paid for his services when you got back to your car and found the contents still intact. He wore a big gold watch. And he was the only street dweller that I’d ever seen who wore a wristwatch at all.

Would he, I thought later, have given up his big stick and his punters for an apprenticeship in a workshop. I don’t think so.

I’ve lived here all my life. And I still don’t know what to do when a man, a woman, a child approach begging. I never know what’s the right thing to do.

The little boy is still tapping urgently on my window. I fish a note from my bag, wind the window down, hand it to him. He thanks me, stuffs the cash into his back pocket and hastily wheels his charge on.

2 Responses to “Charity”

  1. Ad dy Says:

    I have the same dilemma here, even though we have nothing like the poverty you must see in Africa. If I see someone begging in London, I think giving money is no use as they will probably spend it on drugs. I have instead nipped to a shop nearby and donated some chocolate or a doughnut and even donated biscuit bones for their dogs. I still end up feeling guilty that I have maybe insulted them or not done the right thing.

  2. Claire Cook Says:

    PegLeg – Christopher – always to be found near the New Stanley. I used him many a time for parking. Wonder if he is still there or what became of him?

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