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Jamaica's growing culture of mendicancy

Thursday, October 17, 2019

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I came to Kingston first by train and then by bus in the mid-1980s to attend Durham College on Camp Road and met my first set of professional mendicants. These were different from the resident mentally ill man and woman — Foster and Vie — who were a part of my childhood community and who we understood needed our help in different ways.

As a child I had read about people in another country, far away, who would mutilate themselves, blinding perfectly good eyes, breaking their perfectly good limbs, even cutting out their tongues, so they would draw more emotion and alms from potential do-gooders. This was a job. A means of earning a living in a stratified and poverty-ridden society.

It all seemed rather fascinating and a bit warped to me all the way in good, good Jamaica where poor people like us, from rural areas, were taught that we must work hard for our honest bread, and be satisfied with the little we had.

Then I joined the throng who entered and exited Kingston by public transportation daily for work and school and came face-toface with versions of what I now call our culture of mendicancy. People soliciting alms. Begging.

There was that tall, dark, well-spoken lady, always polite and clean, who would politely ask for spare change. Sometimes on the buses, sometimes on the streets. We were told stories about this woman. How 'someone' saw her lodging her 'earnings' at the bank in Half-Way-Tree. We were fascinated, some of us annoyed. Was she hustling a living off what we could barely afford to give away?

Then there were the regular bus preachers. The men and women who would harangue you all the way from Spanish Town to Kingston, preaching their hearts out, encouraging the 'congregation' to join in. Bursting out into song and prayer, they would end with the obligatory 'offering' request to 'keep the ministry going', usually somewhere along Dunrobin Avenue, before the bus discharged its core of passengers.

And the little boys, hanging around Tastee in Half-Way- Tree, watching you swallow your one single patty, bite by bite and insisting that you should give them a piece. And there were a few others. Poor people. Women with children. Physically disabled children and adults. That was in the 1980s. Sometimes I wonder where they are now.

Today, that request for alms, mainly 'out of necessity', has exploded into a veritable deluge of men, women, children, entire fami l ies complete with father present, healthy, not so healthy, young, old, employed and unemployed who flood every single establishment, street corners, shops, buses, stores, supermarkets, stoplights, television screens, newspaper pages, social media pages — literally everywhere. All asking for help. Preferably in cash. Rumours abound of babies being 'rented' or 'loaned' to hustlers as emotional props to extract more from those with a nurturing or maternal heart.

Men and women lurk on social media pages, showcasing and soliciting from those who seem to have something to offer. And, of course, there are other structures that have sprung up on the Internet like the GoFundMe and related pages that aim for bigger stakes and cast wider nets. These are far different from the little scraps of paper purportedly for an upcoming walkathon or block drive to which you would affix your name and write down your contribution before handing it over.

Sometimes, these 'requests for help' take a predatory turn, as with the harassment of mainly female drivers by young and not-so young men, at specific stoplights in Kingston. Insisting on wiping someone's windscreen for a fee, when they have indicated no desire to have this done, is really forcing them to pay for something they did not want in the first place. People get angry. The young men sometimes get boisterous at an unwilling individual. Words are sometimes exchanged. Vehicles are sometimes scratched. There are flare-ups. One young man was shot. People get angry. Maybe they are having a bad day and just want to go about their business. Maybe they are broke. Who knows? It's a bad situation and many women will tell you that they avoid specific stoplights, like the one by Devon House, because they anticipate trouble of some sort.

Then there are those who prey on family members living abroad, especially in the USA. Many people migrate or 'run off' and work in harsh conditions, sometimes holding two or three jobs, just to survive and send back money and barrels to family members back home in Jamaica. Yes, they want to help their family members, but many complain about the unrealistic and sometimes plain wicked requests for money.

One woman told a story on social media of her adult sister claiming that she needed US$200 to get a new TRN. Others pay multiple times over to renew passports, get drivers' licences, birth certificates, pay school fees and so on. They eventually find out they have been hustled by their own family members long after they have sent multiple money transfers via Western Union and MoneyGram.

So many stories abound of others who send thousands of dollars to buy or build houses only to return home and find a ramshackle or half-finished house in a community far different from the one they expected. All these behaviours and practices are branches of a tree that have the same roots. This culture of mendicancy.

No one has done any research on the composition and breakdown of Jamaica's class structure since Carl Stone's seminal work of the late 1970s. This is long overdue. But Stone did highlight at that time that more than 70 per cent of Jamaicans were a part of the lower class. While this figure must have been reduced, and the composition of class and status significantly changed since that time, we do understand that the greater percentage of Jamaicans are still operating at the base of the socio-economic structure. This virtual pyramid means that nuff poor people live in Jamaica.

What seems to have changed, or is changing, is how Jamaicans respond to being poor. Or maybe it is how they are being socialised to tackle being poor. I was taught to work hard for what I wanted. Whether it was grades in school or a new pair of shoes. And I grew up at a time when pride was critical for most poor Jamaicans. You could not allow anyone to 'take step with you' because you were poor. You could not steal, and you certainly could not beg. You made do with what your parents provided. And you kept your pride at the forefront, even when you had one pair of shoes and chicken back gravy for dinner. That was nobody's business but you and your family's.

I am not sure what the teachings are today, and it worries me. But what is clear is that today it is different. There are different social cues about how to deal with being poor, or just being in a situation where you lack something you desire. Talking with a young woman several years ago, she explained her 'situation' and asked for help to pay her university tuition. I asked if she had applied for a students' loan. She explained that she didn't want to 'owe anybody anything' after she had finished her study. I was intrigued. I asked her why then didn't she apply for a scholarship. She explained that scholarships “tie you up too much with their Grade Point Average obligation”. “What if I feel like failing a course or two one semester? Scholarship is like slavery,” she said.

I hear similar statements from big men and women seeking help. Why aren't you in a job? Yes, jobs are hard to get, but sometimes you have to take what you can until you get what you want. “No Miss, that kinda job is like slavery. Mi nah dweet”. I have stopped being surprised at these kinds of statements from healthy, able-bodied, young and not so young people who are more than capable of funding their dreams and desires. What I find appalling is a culture that encourages and supports this idea and underwrites the script so that those who can take care of their needs feel entitled to insist that someone else should do so.

I still prefer to help someone to find a job than to give them some loose change. After all, the 'teach a man to fish' philosophy means that we are building our communities and country. But then again, there are those who are working and still continue to solicit help. It is like a veritable tidal wave of mendicancy.

I was particularly moved when I heard a backstory to the missing baby who was recently abducted on Rousseau Road. Whether it is true or not, the story suggests that the teenage mother took her young baby to meet a potential benefactor that she had met on Instagram. This benefactor promised to give her clothing and other gifts for the baby and so she went to meet this woman, a stranger. Her baby was abducted.

I grew up in an era where we were told about the 'Black Heart Man' who would offer candy and kidnap us. We were taught to be distrustful of strangers bearing gifts. What are we teaching our children and our people today? Is this a global phenomenon that has somehow lodged itself at our doorsteps? Whatever it is, we cannot continue to give a fish or basket of fishes to able-bodied individuals who can earn an honest bread, even if they think it is not enough to give them the type of life they desire.

We must raise the bar and teach more of them to fish, and insist that they go fishing. Indeed, we run the risk of ignoring those who are most in need because we respond to those who make the most noise and demand the most attention. What is clear is that we must stem this rising tidal wave of mendicancy at all levels as we chart a path towards full development.

— Donna P Hope, PhD is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Email your comments to dqueen13@ hotmail.com


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