8 April 2018

Sudan: Inside the Kingdom of Beggars in Khartoum


Posing as beggars, two journalists from the Khartoum Arabic Daily "Attayar" dropped into the growing world of beggars in this East African city.

Tasked by the paper's editorial board, journalists Abdallah al-Shareef and Ammar Hassan, put on dirty clothes and spent an entire week in the streets of down -town Khartoum and its twin city Khartoum North across the Blue Nile, watching the behavior of the begging community, to discover that it is indeed a well-organized business, with a striking chain of command.

Surprisingly, the two journalists found that the beggars, compared with office workers in the country, earn cash sums no white color senior employee would think of.


It is indeed a striking kingdom, well organized and completely disciplined. No wonder, they are professional beggars.

First we had to put on clothes similar to those donned by the beggars. We also had to learn the terminology and tactics the beggars use to raise pity in the public.

We then took strategic locations of preference to the beggars: The Hurriyya (Liberty) Street, along the fences of the Khartoum Grand Mosque and the Abujinzeer Square. Moving to Khartoum North, we sat along the Hospital Street, the bus terminal and the Grand Mosque.

First the nearby beggars would laugh at the way we chanted begging words, including the standard "karama Lillah" (Please Help For Allah's Sake), of course. It needed some intonation to cope. But at the end we could manage.

But it was not the personal skills that mattered. We came to realize that we were inside a perplexingly organized and disciplined Kingdom. Everything is done with complete perfection. They are not just beggars. They are organized groups, run in an administrative hierarchy. They don't use the public transport. They have their own transport facilities that bring them to work on time and return them home when their respective shifts are over. Shifts?.. Yes! Each group works for a number of fixed hours and is then taken back home.


More surprisingly, the beggars receive their meals on site, like any personnel of a regular force who are required to stay in their assigned places. The difference is that the beggars do not receive a single menu. Each group member has his favorite meal. One beggar has a taste for burger, another favors fool musallah(broad beans with cheese, salad and oil), a third may like shawurma (sliced fried meat) and a fourth may prefer sorghum gruel soaked in okra soup. One shift superintendent comes along carrying the meals in big plastic bags, and gives them to the 'workers' one by one.


After a close watch we noticed that there is a field supervisor who would never leave his place for any reason. The supervisor might pose as a cell phone cards salesman or a vendor of any marginal commodity. He does not beg, but just watches how things go on. He has another more sensitive duty: Receive what the beggars have collected. Each beggar would hand him what/she had received first hand and before the shift is over. The reason: For fear that the passersby may notice the big sum and refrain from giving or a passing thief might grab it. A big sum may also persuade persons from outside the Kingdom to join in and overstaff the profession!..Like what we had done!


During this investigation, we were mostly over-shocked by the sight of babies used as work tools. Some beggars carried these youngsters to raise pity. Each baby is leased from its family for 50 pounds a day. Formerly the rate was 30 pounds but has now been raised to 50 pounds to cope with the rising cost of living.

The female beggar would carry the baby on her shoulder all day (mostly 8 hours). At the end of the shift she would return it to its family. Most alarmingly, the babies are kept under an unknown sedative all day, to keep them calm. Quite a ruthless and ignorant act. For who can guarantee that the baby would not be used to this substance and become an addict?


Throughout this investigation we came to discover that money cashed by these beggars is indeed very big, more than anyone can imagine. The daily revenue is divided between the field workers (the beggars),the administrators and supervisors on the ground and the higher leaderships that never come to the field and who keep a firm and an orderly running of the set of networks from a distance.

We got acquainted with all this administrative hierarchy. We also managed to identify the big boss (the King), whose name is usually mentioned with all signs of respect and subordination.

Each beggar on the ground receives 300 pounds a shift. That is the normal daily earning.

That means 9000 pounds a month, more than an undersecretary of a federal ministry is paid. The 300 pounds are the normal daily earning. During the holy fasting month of Ramadan and during the other religious holidays the figures can grow far bigger than that. This is the net sum the beggar actually gets after the meal and transport costs are deducted.


What was actually exciting was the way the beggars are assembled to be taken back home. It is indeed a very clever exercise. To avoid raising the curiosity of onlookers like us the withdrawal from the scene is made gradually. At the beginning, children would assemble at a specified location. They are then followed by the women and then the men. Then the entire group would move away from the crowds waiting for transport. Then all of a sudden a minibus would halt by their side to pick them as if they were ordinary commuters and head to their dwelling areas. There they change their clothes and may get their normal daily outings like anybody else. No wonder, they are employees who have finished their daily work and it is time for them to enjoy life! Most of the beggars live in Mayo neighborhood South of Khartoum and Haj Yousif, East of the city.


As we kept watching these beggars we noticed that every shift specializes in a certain way of begging. Some of them beg under the guise of handicaps when all group members feign a certain sort of disability: an amputated hand or foot, a blind beggar lead by a child, or an imbecile striving to demonstrate his disability by a lot of disorderly movements. May be some of them have real handicaps we could not verify. But they all in all do a lot of acting. For instance a young man drags his body on the ground, an indication that he has a problem with his feet. But after a close look we discerned that he was overacting.

Then we could see another shift mostly made of children, tracked by some women with the supervisor watching from a distance and instantly pocketing what they had received.


In order to find the big boss, journalist Abdallah al-Shareef spent an entire day in the Mayo neighborhood, Khartoum South.

The picture was more clear in that place. Most of the beggars lived in homes close to each other. We saw how a minibus would collect the workers early in the morning and return them to their save havens after work. The homes looked normal save one that could be classified as a first class home.

We were warned not to go close to the big boss. They said he has magic powers that may harm us. Most of the beggars are foreigners belonging to a certain African country. Their complexion allows them to easily dissolve in Khartoum's society.

We learned that a big rift had occurred between the big boss and his wife that lead the group of beggars to split into two halves. But the two kept continuous coordination for the benefit of the two groups.


After a long laborious week we returned safely to our base. We handed the paper's management the money we earned from begging. It is the paper's decision now that the money would be spent on persons of real need who might come along.


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