Thursday, November 26, 2009

Laughing all the way to the bank

I can't really say I've been thinking about Thanksgiving, and what it really means to be thankful and such. It's not my holiday, regardless of having 'celebrated' it often enough, and well, I've been far too busy yelling at the fiber-optics people who will hopefully give us better internet eventually (at some distant point now that we've sent them packing for being filthy) for leaving dirty fingerprints they were unable to remove all over my Mexican Sand-colored walls, and trying not to laugh while having a serious discussion with my maid who accidentally managed to glue a box of tissues to my bathroom counter, and then tried to remove it first with butter and then with rubbing alcohol, of all things imaginable. But let's not go there. Let's just not.

Because I have been thinking about giving, about generosity, what it really means, and how far we'll go to avoid being generous. How far we'll go to avoid equalizing the situation for everyone on this earth.

As Christmas dawns in the horizon, two things become extremely noticeable in South Africa, or at least in my part of Joburg: increased security and beggars. To me, these two speak of the same thing - desperation. Being the highly westernized (by which I mean Coca-Colaized, McDonaldized, and Oprahized) and religious nation this proud nation is, Christmas is a big thing. It also happens to take place smack in the middle of the big summer vacation, which easily makes it the biggest holiday in South Africa.

People want to celebrate, they want to provide, they want to give and receive presents, and they want to eat good food with their families. Or at least many of them do.

To achieve this, most of them work hard the whole year. Some of them decide to rob a grocery store, hijack a car, steal a delivery of cellphones, or break into a house and empty it of cash, electronics, and jewelry, as every year before Christmas the number of all of these crimes goes up. And some others decide to stand at intersections and ask for money. Sometimes with their children or a blind person in tow for sympathy.

Many of them don't have any other choice.

In my time in South Africa the subject of begging has come up quite a few times, and I've heard many an explanation on why one should NOT give any money to beggars, and none too many on why one should, or even why it would be okay to do so. I've also heard plenty of, what I consider to be nothing but stupid urban legends with absolutely no truth to them, stories about someone living large off of the few coins they beg for at a stoplight. I've also seen real beggars getting nothing while windows roll down for white matric students (those finishing high school) who 'beg' for money at a crossroads to fund their matric trips to some beachside town.

From the media in Finland I know that my own nation (oh the shame) is trying to outlaw begging, or possibly already has, and seems to consider such a phenomenon, which is quite a recent addition, a huge disruption of the Finnish society perpetrated by a bunch of Romanians (the tabloid version, but the proper media is not using terms much more complicated) who come for the summer and establish tent-villages, which Finland also feels should be eradicated. Like right now. There are also urban legend-ish stories (circulated by the mainstream media also) of how these people who make it to Finland from Romania for the summer aren't poor at all, but just out to leach on us and use us to make more money in addition to their already good incomes.

A pure load of bull, I'm sure you would agree.

Here's what I feel is closer to one kind of truth. To a truth about an everyday life here for many South African citizens.
  1. Begging is hard work. It is not an 'easy way out', or something one does out of being lazy. It's hot and dusty, cold, dangerous, monotonous, uncertain, and you probably get if not physically, then at least verbally abused quite a bit.
  2. No one has ever gotten rich from begging, or even moderately wealthy. 
  3. Not everyone, or even many, of the people who beg are drunks or drug-addicts. Especially in South Africa or Finland. And even if some of them are, that does not mean that all of them are.
  4. Regardless of hearing numerous stories on begging-rings with big bosses behind the whole operation there is no hard evidence anywhere of such activity.
  5. There simply aren't jobs for everyone. Or at least jobs that will keep a family afloat. 
If one has more than enough to cover their own basic needs, shouldn't some of that go to covering the basic needs of one's fellow humans? And if the government cannot get a system based on paying taxes to do just that to work properly, isn't physically giving that money to those who need it the next best thing?

Really, I just can't fathom how it could be any more complicated than that. I just can't.

And if you're not cool with just blindly believing every word I write here (as you shouldn't since I am certainly not an authority on anything else besides what I think is right, tequila, coffee and wine), here are some of these awesome mansions these beggars who make hundreds of dollars every week live in. Obviously.

Thoughts? Nice ones.


kristine said...

i often read your blog and find you've said what I would have said if I was articulate enough. this one is like that.

Big Fat Mama said...

The reality is we just don't know everyone's story. Research indicates that most street kids (in Canada anyway) are fleeing abuse at home. I can't tell the difference between those in real need and those not--so I give my change away every time. I just know that if it was my kid standing there with a hand out, I would want people to give her something.

And you're right--begging isn't easy. I think it's pretty humiliating.

Tonia said...

People are so quick to judge those who beg, or live on the streets and many's the time I've argued with friends (ha!) about it. They appear not to be able to see that those without money/love/stable backgrounds/a lucky break may not be able to live the way they think everyone should. I've stopped making sense, but this topic and people's attitudes make me really angry. I'll go away now.
Love the blog by the way.

liisamarja said...

would you feel any different about the romanian beggars in finland if you knew that in some cases organized crime is involved and that some of the people doing the begging have to give their hard earned the money to those who brought them to finland?

julochka said...

i didn't know that about the romanian beggars in finland. but i have to say that one would have to be pretty desperate to go beg in finland, wouldn't one? it's pretty dark and cold there. well, that's true of scandinavia in general. and the people are as cold as the weather, so i think you've got to be really, really desperate to do that. tho' perhaps they are financing their underground pleasure palaces back in romania (because i didn't see any above ground that one time when i was there). so i guess i'm trying to say that i think that story makes me pretty sad. for all sides, actually, because it underlines how certain governments are trying to legislate the hell out of everything. and it won't work.

i always give money (if i have the local currency) to guys who are playing music. i think they're providing a service. i am hesitant if they're sitting there with their pit bull and their beer.

Eidothia said...

I was dead against giving alms or would think of giving to the deserving and so on, until I read this:

You often say, "I would give, but only to the deserving."
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

Adding to your message of generosity.....


Eidothia said...

Oops forgot to mention, the above quoted from Khalil Gibran's The Prophet.

Myne Whitman said...

I wanted to quote the bible and Khalil but someone beat me to it. Great write-up, very articulate and the pictures sum it up.

Anonymous said...

Begging is a a difficult issue. I don't know South Africa that well but I do believe that many in the country are driven to begging. In my native country (Holland) I believe that the state is providing enough for everyone in need and no one needs to beg. In the city I call my home (London) live can be pretty tough and there are many beggers on the street. I'm quite reluctant to give them money since it often goes to some addiction but sometimes I do. I'd rather buy them some food

caroldiane said...

Extranjera - you are getting all philosophical on us - I LOVE it! And you have touched on such a huge issue. I am most troubled by the young people I see as I just want to scoop them up and take care of them, but when I put my "mom" perspective aside, it is those without any options left that are the most difficult to walk past. My compromise has been to share food when I can, given that I don't have the means to reverse their circumstances, but I can/will provide some decent food when I can. It is not always gratefully received but I have made the effort. Then I realize that I am trying to assuage my guilt for my blessings which isn't very helpful - a complex issue, to be sure. Thanks for the thought provoking blog today! xo

My name is Erin. said...

I love everything about this post and the Khalil quote is a perfect addition. It made me cry and I'm reposting it everywhere I post. :)

I also responded to your comment in my comments. XO

Also, I'd like to mail you something. May I have your mailing address? After all, it IS the giving season and I've found something that I believe Extranjera may be in NEED of. :)

My e-mail address is