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Anger at an Unfair World

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Two young beggar girls in Harare.
Bustling through the busy streets of Harare, I see them up ahead, on the same corner where I see them every day. I look down to the ground. I wish I could pass, unnoticed, but my whiteness stands out in the crowd.

As soon as they see me, they come, bowls held out, eyes pleading. "Please give me five dollars," the little boy pleads. "We are hungry." He looks about seven years old. My heart is breaking, but I shake my head and say, "No, I'm sorry, I can't today." I keep walking and his little sister falls into step beside me. She is silent, barefoot, in the same green sweater as every day. She carries a baby on her back. Her well-practiced stare says it all. There are no parents in sight.

They follow me the entire block.
"Please. We are hungry."
"No, I'm so sorry."
Repeated over and over.

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Poor but still smiling.
My face is flushed. I feel sad and angry. Angry at these children who break my heart everyday. Angry at parents who send their children out to beg instead of out to play. Angry at this unfair world that allows this situation to exist. Angry at myself for feeling so helpless, and for numbing to the pain.

What good would five Zimbabwean dollars (about six cents) do? Or ten? Or even one hundred? It would not feed them. They wouldn't stop begging and go to school, or go out to play. If anything, it would encourage them to continue.

But then, what harm would it do me, to give so little? In the past, it might have assuaged my guilt a bit, tossing them a few dollars and feeling as if I had done my good deed for the day. But not now. Giving change out feels as effective to me as throwing it into a wishing well, a bottomless hole, and wishing for a better world.

We've been traveling now for over six months. My white skin and foreign accent symbolize money to the impoverished people throughout the world. Not a day has passed that I haven't been targeted by people, especially children, who are begging for spare change or a loaf of bread, or that I buy some cheap trinket from them.

I give what I can to these poor kids.
Sometimes I do give something, some spare change, a piece of fruit from my bag, or even take a child out to lunch with me. But I can't give every day, to every one. Harare, like Guatemala City and Cuzco, Peru, has lots of well practiced, professional beggars. Some, I have learned, are con artists. Like the old man who insisted that all he needed was Zim$135 for a bus ticket home to a rural village (less than four US dollars). My friend Jonathan gave it to him, only to see him here in Harare the next day, asking for the same thing.

The Child

Innocent heads
rest on Concrete beds
The streets are home to children.

Mournful eyes
beg a sol
As if to say
"That will change things."

My helpless heart breaks
with knowledge

that all the sols in my pocket
all the money in my name
would do little
for this ragged little boy
hand outstretched.

He doesn't know
that what he lacks
is so much more
than my money can buy.

-Abeja (written while in Cuzco, Peru)

But no matter what their story, they are begging because they need to, to survive. Children lead around blind relatives, entering cafes and restaurants and standing silently by the table as we eat. A man here in Harare thrusts the stumps of the end of his arms into your face as you walk by. Most of these countries have no Social Security system, no Medicare, and only a very few overcrowded orphanages.

At home, I am not a wealthy person. In fact, I technically have NEGATIVE money, considering college loans and credit card debt. But as I travel on my US passport with my US dollars, I gain new perspective on what poverty really is. It is not the state of one person. One child, alone, cannot live in poverty. These beggars are just the victims, the symptoms of an unfair world. It is the country that is impoverished, or perhaps it's the planet.

One traveler I met says that she gives money to established aid organizations, like orphanages or shelters, in the countries that she visits. That way, she can feel she is doing something more effective than just handing out spare change.

I admire her for doing that, for caring so much and trying so hard. Aid organizations make a huge difference in the lives of people in need. Many help needy people to help themselves in a dignified and sustainable manner. But, at the same time, it can be just like handing out spare change but on a bigger level. Is this just a Band-Aid, covering up deeper issues? Does this treat the symptoms without addressing the underlying problems?

The governments in most of these countries are saddled with huge amounts of foreign debt, so they cannot afford to build orphanages, schools, or hospitals for their people. The number of children orphaned because of AIDS grows daily in Africa. Small farmers are being bought out by large agribusiness and multinational super-stores put local shops out of business. All over the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

A blind beggar and his son.
The United Nations Human Development Report for 1999 says that one in four people in developing countries is affected by poverty, while nearly 1.3 billion do not have access to clean water and one in seven children of primary school age does not attend school. But numbers don't express nearly as much as the eyes that stare up at me. The UN report calls for a new look at globalization, emphasizing "people, not just profits."

And I stand here, confronted, conflicted. World economics and political theory mean nothing to the hungry little girl with sad eyes, her hand outstretched in front of me. I reach in my pocket, hand her a few coins, and make a wish. Then I hurry away, trying to think about something else.


Kavitha - Survival Skills
Kevin - Our Meating Was Not A Coincidence!
Monica - Rapunzel, Rapunzel...
Abeja - Anger at an Unfair World
Kavitha - Children Coping with the Aftermath of AIDS in Africa
Abeja - A Friend in Need...

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