8 December 2012

Uganda: Undercover - On the Street for Four Days With Beggars

The Christmas story rhymes with the street beggars we meet almost everyday. Like the infant Jesus, they are poor, homeless and no one can believe that they will grow into someone influential.

ESTHER NAMIRIMU stayed with them to uncover what the eye does not see when you drive by on Kampala streets. Do these women own the children who beg? Who keeps the money? Or is there a bigger racket behind it all?

I HIT the streets at 5:00 am, Thursday August 2 to uncover the truth behind the children who beg on the streets of Kampala.

We always see women with many children, usually seated in one place and seemingly controlling a network of children who beg and hand over the harvest. But are they genuine beggars?

Are they incapable of earning their own living? Are all the children theirs? What kind of life do they lead? In short, are they pitiable or should they be rounded off?


I reach my first destination, Uganda House, at 5:45am and position myself at one of the Pioneer bus stages. There are neither street children nor their 'mothers' begging on the streets yet. This is my chance to watch their arrival.

Time goes by; 6:45am, 7:45am, 8:45am, 9:45am, 10:45am and there is still no sign of street women or children. I move to the nearby Nandos for breakfast and I take a strategic location, but still no sign of the women.


It is not until about 11:30am when I see a boy in a dirty blue T-shirt and black shorts, bare feet, begging alone. Ten minutes later, a girl in a dirty purple dress, also bare feet, appears.

The two have something in common: they have money bags, hanging on their necks by a string and covered by the cloths they are wearing.

Each coin they receive is dropped in that bag. It is 12:10pm, four street women carrying babies on their backs and about fi ve others of about four to seven years arrive.

The women place their children, of two to three years, at a measurable distance from each other to beg, while seated.

Immediately the woman leaves, the child starts begging in a seemingly trained manner. With a titled pitiable head and sorry face, they extend a hand, expecting a sympathetic person to give.

The peak hour for street children is during evening jam

Whoever receives something brings it victoriously to the 'mother', who sits at a strategic place to monitor them. The older ones follow passers- by, moving after them stubbornly for some distance, asking with a merciful face for some money.

They genuflect, display distress, signal hunger, sometimes thirst, call on 'uncle' or 'aunt', until a person yields. The older children keep all the money collected in their moneybag.

Occasionally, the 'mothers' move around, giving extra instructions and the children obey diligently. Sometimes, the mother is pointing out a potential 'donor' and other times she is not happy with the child's act. Other times, the women sit under a small tree as they chat and laugh, but keeping a watchful eye on the children.


It is Friday August 3. This time, I arrive at 8:00am at the Electoral Commission, and I am not late. The women and children street beggars begin arriving at around 11:15am.

This time, children are first and they come one by one. Some come from the direction of the city centre, others from the side of Namuwongo while the rest are strolling in from the side of Garden City.

Unlike the ones I met yesterday, these seem to have masterde city roads because they cross unaided. The women, too, are begging. Dressed in a black and green checkered Karimojong skirt, with a dirty blue shirt, one of the women carries a baby on her back and uses it to generate sympathy. But the beggars here are not as lucky as those at Uganda House because this spot has a few pedestrians.

At about 3:30pm, a baby defecates by the roadside and the mother uses a piece of paper to remove the feaces, and ties the paper in a white polythene bag. She drops it by the roadside, where no one can step on it.

By 4:00pm, the traffic has increased and that is their harvest time, till 8:30pm, when they return home. Again, I follow stealthily, until Nalubwama Arcade on Ben Kiwanuka Street.

I find so many of the beggars already gathered here, chatting heartily, with happiness like one big family. I return very early the next day to start the day with them.

They say aunt, not mother


Not many people give money. One girl, of about two years, who had not got anything for about two hours, suddenly receives a sh500 coin.

She runs, with a beaming smile to the woman under a tree to handover the money. "Aunt, aunt, kikumi kikumi," she says as she approaches the woman. The child's calling her aunt sends me thinking whether she is actually her mother.

The 'aunt' smiles, says nothing, but keeps the money and tells the child to hurry back to the station. At one time, the children started playing, but that did not last long because the 'aunts' sent them back to their station. The girl who had brought the sh500 coin boldly refuses, but is dragged back into duty.

The 'aunt' then checks on all the older children, gathering the money they had so far collected. She puts it in her bag and resumes her sentry position. At about 4:30pm, something happens, that raises lots of questions. A woman, dressed in a red top and black jeans comes along, with soda in a plastic bottle and two disposable glasses.

These children are so happy to see her and gather around her, shouting 'aunt, aunt'. They dance around her, jubilating. She distributes the soda to the three children and gives each of them Bogoya.

While the rest drink the soda happily, the young girl (of sh500) takes her soda to their 'aunt' who are seated under a tree. The women have a fi ve-litre yellow jerrycan in a green polythene bag, from which they have been drinking. They do not have cups, so they drink directly from it. They take her soda and give her the jerrycan to drink from.

It is 5:00pm. People are returning home and this, apparently, is their harvest time. Many give money and some food, even left-overs. It is mostly the pedestrians and people in taxis who give. Those in private cars close their car windows or look away when the children approach.

Time check is 7:30 pm. Women announce it is time to leave. They gather the children and leave with them. I follow from a distance up to Owino Market, till it becomes too dangerous for me to follow as they head towards Kisenyi.


Saturday August 4, 5:45am finds me on Ben Kiwannuka Street. I find the women bathing. She first removes the blouse and bathes the upper body parts and thereafter removes the skirt and bathes the lower body.

After, they disappear, one by one, towards Owino Market. I would like to follow them, but they are looking at me suspiciously. When everyone is gone, one teenage girl remains.

It is 6:35am; I greet her and look for ways of beginning a conversation. "That water must be very cold, right?" I tell her. "Yes, it is, but if you do not bathe now, there is no other opportunity as the town will be fi lled with people."

"Where do you fetch the water from?" "From Nakivubo Channel, there is some clean water that comes from the springs. Sometimes we get it from the Old Park late in the night. During the day, they beat us if we try to get the water," she explains. "How often do you bathe?" I inquire.

"Every day, around this time," she replies. "Why don't you undress fully and bathe at once?" "I also do not know, I have grown up bathing like that." "Why is everyone going that side of Owino market?"

"To pick some grains, tomatoes and matooke that fall off the trader's vehicles during offloading. And that is where I am heading too." I thank her for the information and give her sh2,000, for which she smiles and thanks me.


7:05am finds me at Standard Chartered Bank on Speke Road. I sit on the steps at the Statue of Liberty and open my Facebook page on phone. No beggar arrives till 11:45am when three women carrying children on their backs show up.

Then, other children, of four to nine years, come, as women follow closely. They start 'working' right away. Altogether, there are 11 children, of two to nine years.

A few lucky ones receive some money. A woman wearing hijab offers money to all the children and their 'aunts'. Still, it is mostly pedestrians giving, people travelling in cars close the windows as soon as the beggars approach.

Most times, women sit at a distance, keeping watch of their children begging. Whatever he 'harvests' is deposited with her

One woman driving an Ipsum says to a beggar: "If I give you something to eat, you will not return home and more of you will flood the streets." Here, at every interval of about 20 minutes, the women collect the money from the children.

And like elsewhere, the most harvesting time is 5:00pm to 7:00pm. At 8:00pm the women gather the children, making sure no one is left behind as they return 'home'.


My last day's assignment is different. I have to get closer and talk to them. It is Monday, 6 August. I arrive at Uganda House at midday. I have a box of Safi drink and milk biscuits and start distributing to the children and the women. I also give each woman sh1,000 to earn their trust.

I then ask if one of them can stay with me because I need to get some information. One volunteers and the rest go back to their begging stations.

She says she is Alice Achu, her baby is from an Itesot man who got tired of being on the streets and returned to Soroti. I learn that the women are impregnated by fellow beggars on the street. At 20, Alice already has four children, her fi rst coming at the age of 14, out of rape on the streets, she says.

Achu came from Moroto and has been on the Kampala streets for six years. She was lured to Kampala by a friend who convinced her there were jobs in the city.

Her four children help her earn more money. Sometimes, women 'borrow' children and pay the mother a commission after work in the evening, she says.

Their day begins with a trip to Owino Market to pick the grains and other foods which fall as traders offload trucks. They cook, eat and then come to work. Achu sleeps in Kisenyi at Mama Dalla's house, where she pays sh500 every night.

How do they ease themselves on the streets? "We pay sh200 for the public toilet. It is not good to be dirty. You can fall sick if you are dirty," she answers.

On a good day, Achu says she can earn sh15,000. "I can meet a good person and he says: go and buy passion juice for the baby. On a bad day, I earn sh3,000. There are also days I go back empty-handed."

She uses the money to buy food. She also pays for accommodation, toilet and medical treatment. On a bad day, she picks garbage like chicken feet and heads and cooks with discarded tomatoes.

Work stations have their own politics. Some women do not allow a new member to 'work' from their begging station.

"For me, I do not mind, but some people do not allow strangers to invade their space." "How do you handle menstruation?" I inquire. "We pad ourselves with a piece of cloth. Later on, we wash it and keep it well for the next month."

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