Many beggars in Harare have roped in their children as a way of getting to generous people who may be moved by the children’s pitiful sight to part with a few dollars.
Young boys and girls, many of them barely into their teens, now prowl Harare’s streets while their parents sit in the shadows away from the public’s questioning gaze.
While some of the children seem to enjoy it, darting from street to street, sometimes almost tripling passers-by, theirs is a sorry tale of a lost childhood as they are initiated into the begging system early on in life.
Some of the beggars said they had no choice but to make their children beg because that was the only way they could feed them.
“They have to help because they will also eat from the money,” said a visually impaired Sukai Marongwe at the Charge Office terminus, assisted by her 11-year-old son, Taurai, who doubles up as her guide. “People are able to see how desperate my case is when they look at my son.”
The young boy is supposed to be in Grade 7 now, but has been out of school for years since his mother cannot afford to pay fees. Growing up in the streets is the way of life the boy is now used to.
Every day in the morning, he helps his mother get into town from their modest lodgings in Epworth, a high density backwater located 12km from the city centre.
They often raise between $5 and $10 everyday, which for Marongwe, is not bad.
Her son, who has become adept at begging through experience, said he did not mind his job, but understood that he had a responsibility to assist his mother raise money for a living. Kids his age are enjoying the comfort of their homes and their right to education which, to Taurai, are luxuries he cannot afford to dream of.
The use of children to beg compromises their safety and exposes them to strangers who may end up taking advantage of their vulnerability and abusing them.
Sometimes parents of the children would sit by the roadsides while the children dart in and out of the traffic, begging from drivers, particularly at traffic-controlled intersections.
The children are a common feature at intersections including Rotten Row and Herbert Chitepo Avenue, Churchill Road and Second Street Extension and at Belgravia Shopping Centre, where they engage in their activities away from the public glare.
A University of Zimbabwe research conducted by Ritah Marima, Josephine Jordan and Kenna Cormie from the Department of Psychology revealed that the presence of children in the street was “more or less a symptom of wider economic and social problems”.
The researchers noted that while most of the children would go back home, with only about 10-15% sleeping on the street, full initiation into street life was gradual, especially after the children would have weaned themselves from their parents to make it on their own.
“The incorporation into the street life comes about in time, with a progressive learning of skill and a ‘lessening of boys’ dependence on their parents. In this process of assimilation, children are known to go home and not come back, and children are also known to go home and return because the streets have become familiar to them,” they said.
According to a social worker with the Just Children Foundation, Robert Makura, most of these children were simply responding to an obligation to help their parents, something he said has always been encouraged in the African culture.
He however noted that children who are initiated into begging early on in life will have to contend with the consequences in adulthood as the practice creates the impression begging was an acceptable way of life.
“This practice may engender the begging syndrome in children which will persist in adult life. These children will most likely need rehabilitation,” he said.
He said the only way the children could be helped was through addressing the challenges faced by their parents, whose circumstances often drive the children to beg on their behalf.
“As long as there are no effective policies, parents with physical or visual challenges, they will continue to fall back on their children to help them earn a living on the streets,” he said.
“Perhaps there should be comprehensive policies to address the problems of parents with disabilities so that they do not use their children in begging for their sustenance.”
He added the government, through the Department of Social Welfare, should introduce free education for children whose parents have disabilities.
The government introduced the Basic Education Assistance Module over a decade ago to get orphans and other disadvantaged children better health care and access to education, but this has not been able to cater for all children in need¸ particularly at the turn of the millennium when the economy took a plunge into the doldrums.