Financial collapse after a seven year illness and the loss of his family led Madou Traoere, 35, to flee his village of Sinzani in north eastern Mali to find a better life in the capital Bamako, but ever since he arrived seven years ago he has been living on the streets begging for scraps and small change.
The Mali Ministry of Planning estimates up to 5,000 beggars eke out an existence on the streets of Bamako, and the number is rising at a rate of 5 percent a year.
These are among the most destitute and marginalised people in one of the 10 poorest places in the world.
Beggars are found everywhere, and are resorting to ever-more desperate measures to survive, even stealing money left by mourners at cemeteries.
The phenomenon is driven by urbanisation, growing poverty and a breakdown of the country’s social fabric, as well as the tradition of begging practiced by Koranic students or ‘talibes’, academics and government officials told IRIN. ‘Talibes’ are children who follow a Koranic teacher and traditionally beg as a way of submitting to God.
Urbanisation and social breakdown
Professor Badra Alou Macalou, who teaches development and geography at the University of Bamako, told IRIN the problem is getting worse because of growing numbers of adult villagers moving to the city in search of work.
“People in the interior [of the country] where poverty is increasingly fierce, think there is everything in Bamako. But when confronted by the harsh reality of the capital, they end up becoming beggars,” he said.
As a result, Bamako has now expanded beyond its official city limits, with new districts emerging on its outskirts, causing tension over land management and social divisions between new and old inhabitants, said Mamane Touré, a surveyor at the Bamako town hall.
Farmers and semi-nomadic pastoralists living in the Sahelian and Sahelo-Saharan areas of the country are the poorest people in Mali, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and it is becoming more difficult for them to sustain themselves through farming.
This rural to urban population movement is backed up by global trends from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which estimates that by 2030 the number of people living in cities will rise from 3.3 to 5 billion, with 95 percent of this growth occurring in developing countries.
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Adult beggars neglected
Sangaré Coumba, member of a non-governmental organisation (NGO), The Association of Women for the Development of Faladie, said the government and aid agencies focus most of their support efforts on child beggars or ‘talibes’ overlooking the problem of adult begging in the process.
The problem of child begging is widespread in Mali’s towns and cities, according to local NGO Mali Enjeu (ME) which conducted a survey of over 11,000 students in Koranic schools in Bamako and Ségou, 250km to the northeast of Bamako in 2005. The survey found a quarter of students, particularly boys, survive only through the proceeds of begging.
Reasons for the focus on children are partly because of their numbers but also because people think children are more vulnerable than adults, Coumba said.
“They say that adults can escape [the practice of] begging, [while] for children it isn’t easy because they are more fragile and have difficulty supporting themselves through hunger, cold and poverty,” she said.
And, she added, “children are easier to help than adults”.
An official from the Ministry of Women, Children and the Family, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Begging is very complicated because it’s a social, religious and traditional problem. There is no law in Mali forbidding [it].”
Government struggling to cope
With begging so widespread, and growing, the government admits it is struggling to tackle the problem. “The state is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem,” said the anonymous government official.
Government programmes are small: one involves running a welcome shelter for children in Bollé, a district of Bamako, where beggars learn trades such as carpentry, mechanics, and tailoring to help them become self-sufficient and to keep them off the streets.
Government officials do not have accurate figures on how much the state is spending to tackle begging, but say it relies on partnerships with aid agencies like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and local NGOs such as ME and CONCAM to augment its efforts.
Mamadou Seydou Diallo, coordinator at ME, criticised the government for not doing enough to address the begging problem. “The state’s [efforts] are not enough for the [beggars] who are in dire need of support,” he said.
ME boosts the government’s efforts by working with it to run a literacy and training programme targeting 500 children in six Koranic schools in Bamako district and Ségou.
Most of the children are illiterate, so they are taught Arabic, French and other local languages, and those over 15 are trained in small trades such as polishing shoes or tailoring.
But this programme also focuses on child beggars, rather than adults.
Concam, a local NGO, has stepped in to try to address the problems of adult beggars, by supporting them through a training course in trades such as clothes-dyeing or carpentry to keep them off the streets.
For ME’s Diallo, two things are needed to tackle the issue on a wider scale: to increase the scale of these income-generating projects, and to change people’s attitudes so they are alerted to the dangers of begging.
The first step to achieving this is to hold a day of activities drawing city residents’ attention to the plight of beggars, he said.
Fatoumata Kané, an ex-beggar who now runs two businesses, said the responsibility also lies with beggars themselves. They should stop accepting their fate, she told IRIN, and look for new opportunities.
After receiving training from Concam she now runs a laundry and dyes clothes. “Beggars can do [any number of] activities… provided the authorities attach importance to their socio-economic status,” she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions