There has never been such a large influx of beggars from the West African sub-region. For these swarms of alms-seeking persons — our neighbours from as far afield as Niger and Nigeria — this country is an oasis of wealth, an Eldorado where poverty will surely give way to wealth; a nirvana of sorts.
They will, therefore, do all they can to set foot here before subsequently learning the ropes of taking positions at vantage spots such as traffic intersections and other places of large concentration of persons.
Turfs are guarded and others venturing into such places could face stiff challenges from those already occupying these places.
The alms-begging phenomenon could have emanated from the mostly Islam-dominated parts of West Africa, especially northern Nigeria, where beggars are referred to as ‘almajirai’ for plural and ‘almajiri’ for singular.
The phenomenon has remained because of the misinterpretation of the stance of the faith on begging and culturalisation of it if you live among the Sahelian countries.
In Kano, Sokoto, Bauchi and other parts of northern states of Nigeria, the practice of begging is so entrenched among the people and over hundreds of years that it has become features of these locations.
Attempts have been made to rid these parts of the country of beggars although with insignificant dividends, especially since the dislodged persons are not given alternative means of earning their livelihood.
A few years ago, the Lagos State Government mounted a major exercise to rid the state of beggars. I have learnt that it was so successful that it was almost impossible to set eyes on beggars in the state.
This clampdown on begging in Lagos and perhaps others parts of the federation is a major factor for the influx of beggars to the country, especially Accra today. Although some of them relocated to the Francophone countries, Ghana is the most preferred.
These beggars can be categorized into the visually impaired, cured lepers and physically challenged persons.
It is a lucrative business for some. In Nigeria, the north in particular, there are persons who have invested in sponsoring the physically impaired to go Saudi Arabia.
Upon landing in the oil-rich country, these beggars are offloaded onto strategic locations to commence business, especially at the peak of the annual pilgrimage. The proceeds are handed over to the sponsor who dishes a certain percentage to the beggars.
The Saudi authorities officially abhor the practice of abusing their entry visas but the heat of the Hajj makes it virtually impossible to clamp down effectively on the beggars and their sponsors.
The rich persons and even middle income citizens in the oil-rich country in line with Islamic injunction offload a prescribed percentage of their earnings to the poor at a certain period in the year. Beggars from West Africa fit the description.
Caravan Trade Impetus
The traders from Hausaland alongside clerics were soon followed by hordes of beggars, especially when Islam gained a foothold in the northern parts of the country and in the trans-Volta Togoland, especially Kete Krachi area.
Some clerics who mastered the art of prophesying attracted many to themselves. Some were even hired by chiefs.
The clerics prescribed spiritual therapies for many challenges, among them victory in war or success in life. The therapies could come in the form of being asked to give specific grades of alms to beggars. Other items such as kola, fowls, livestock could be prescribed to be given to specific categories of beggars, the physically impaired, the visually impaired and others.
The practice which commenced over two hundred years ago with time became entrenched in our traditional communities in the Sahelian regions and eventually our Northern regions.
Traditional rulers in the north, especially in Dagbon, had clerics most of them initially being Hausa clerics who migrated from places like Katsina and Sokoto, at their beck and call. They prescribed periodic spiritual interventions, the recipients being the beggars.
Categories of Beggars
The fair complexioned beggars we notice around the Psychiatric Hospital and the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Shiashi traffic intersection could be Nigeriens or Chadians.
They let out their children to beg for alms as they sit under nearby trees expecting that the ages of their kids would be enough factors for compassion from motorists who are mostly their targets.
Some of them hold dusters and try cleaning cars held up by traffic logjams at the traffic intersections.
A new wave of beggars has joined these and they hail from Niger’s Boko Haram infested areas. They are mostly young women with children and dark driven by both insecurity and poverty.
Some of them can be found near the Atlantis Radio traffic intersection. One day while waiting for the traffic light to clear me for movement, I used my mobile phone to take a shot of some of them. A young boy who could not be more than fifteen after chatting with me in Hausa asked, “Why are you taking shots of us. It is circumstances which compelled us to leave our country and come here. At home, my dad has a car too.” Before I could respond, the traffic light had turned to green. My anger at his effrontery lasted for close to ten minutes.
There are a few Ghanaian beggars. These are mostly from the northern parts of the country and they can be found around the TUC traffic intersection towards the Science and Technology Museum. There are also a class of beggars who, young as they are, sit down with their sets of twins and waiting for that special class of people who want only such women to give alms to. They have been asked by some clerics or ‘marabouts’, as they are called in some northern African countries, to do so to only this class of women.
This class of beggars can be found in Nima, where those who need them go. Each category of beggars has its own clientele as it were.
There is a class of beggars who sometimes take to the streets in predominantly Muslims areas of the urban areas, especially Accra. Their Sahelian robes make them look older than their ages. These men are strong and healthy looking nowhere near the physically challenged. One wonders why they choose to beg in spite of the indignity associated with the occupation.
I have learnt that some of them bring livestock into the country and leave these with middlemen to sell for them. They then take to begging for sometimes three or even more months until the livestock is sold then they can return to their home countries.
Sabon Zongo, the mostly Hausa settlement which shares a border with Abossey Okai, is the area of choice for this class of beggars. Here, they can be assured of shelter in the many mosques in the area.
Some of the young beggars now sell an assortment of items alongside their occupation. They would quickly proceed to a motorist stopped by the traffic light and display packets of safety matches or ear swabs and other small items. When a motorist shows no interest in the items, the seller then begs for something.
Abossey Okai Central Mosque
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the Abossey Okai Central Mosque to investigate a story about an alleged kidnapping of some beggars.
It turned out to be untrue because it was established when I made a call to AMA about the possibility of some of the beggars being picked up and taken to a detention centre. It turned out that my suspicion was positive. There was no kidnapping. Those picked up were begging in the streets and AMA operatives picked them up and took them to a detention centre.
The mosque offers many beggars, especially the Nigerien ones, a place to relax and receive alms even when they are not in the streets.
Some beggars have made this place their resting place and in the evenings when one goes there, he is sure to meet hundreds of them in various groups having retired from begging in the streets of Accra. These days though the AMA is dealing with them in a bid to rid the city of beggars.
I met a female beggar who was ready to talk to me about the occupation. According to her, she used to be in Côte d’Ivoire until a civil war broke out in the Francophone country.
“I relocated to Accra with my daughter and have been here since then. I later went for my husband who was then ill and brought him here. He died in Accra after I had brought him and taken him to hospital for treatment,” she said.
According to my host who I learnt was tongue-lashed earlier for talking to the Accra-based Hausa station Marhaba told me a lot about her colleagues. She even promised to be my stringer in the beggars’ community, where, according to her, a lot of things happen.
Her beautiful daughter, about thirteen years old, stood by her as she spoke to me. “Some beggars go out with children who are not their own daughters. There are many children here who can be contracted for such missions. Some beggars come here without their husbands but soon find other men who are interested in marrying them.”
I was taken aback by the news about the rampant bigamous situation which is not allowed in both Islam and Christianity.
Deaths do occur in some cases through vehicular accidents when beggars are knocked down by cars, I learnt. Being Muslims, burial of the dead is supported by the mosques and other members of the faith.
As I chatted with my host, I noticed a scramble and learnt that a Good Samaritan had brought some food to a cluster of beggars. The situation was chaotic and even as my cameraman captured the scene, we were careful not to arouse their curiosity.
Just how they manage to enter without travel documents is something which continues to baffle us. The Ghana Immigration Service (GIS) are restricted in what they can do under the circumstances- porous borders and the ECOWAS protocol.
A consistent pressure by the city authorities and the support of all can help reduce the influx.
By A.R. Gomda