Monday, April 2, 2012

Moral Dilemmas: Beggars in Bolivia

Beggars in Bolivia

I tried to google the topic of "beggars in Bolivia," with few results, except for different travellers’ experiences with beggars in Bolivia. A google search of begging led me to the “Wikitravel” section entitled “Begging.” I had little experience with beggars while I lived in Nashville, Tennessee.  There was a beggar outside the Catholic Cathedral on Broadway, and another at the Starbucks on 21st Avenue, across from the Vanderbilt Divinity School. When one turned onto Broadway from Interstate 440, there was usually a man holding a sign declaring that he was a veteran in need of money.
In Cochabamba on Sunday afternoons, beggars (mothers and children) cluster around Dumbo’s, Donal’s, and Cristol on Heroinas, one of the main streets of the city, where middle-class families go for Sunday dinner or treats.  In these places, mothers or their children come up the clients to try to collect extra change. The children are dirty, typically dressed in indigenous clothes, and sit on the sidewalk when they are not imploring the clients to give them money. One Sunday after the missioners had eaten dinner at Donal’s, a well-dressed woman began to plead with us to help her pay her doctor bills.

Beggars like to gather around the church doors on Sundays. When I was in language school, I would count out Bolivianos (equal to 15 cents) to hand out to the children outside of Santa Ana Church at Cala Cala, where we missioners used to attend Mass.  I wanted to be able to randomly give money to those outside when Mass was over. One Sunday, a very dirty woman who could have been my age followed us missioners across the street where we would buy ice cream cones. We also bought her an ice cream cone, but as we were walking back to our respective host family homes, she kept stepping in front of me, holding out her open hand, moving it up and down like a lever, insistently, as if I owed her more money.  
One time when I was walking down the Prado, the boulevard leading from Cala Cala to downtown, a little girl accompanying her mother caught my eye. The girl was athletic, clean, and sharp.  She danced in front of me, holding out her hand for money. I was angry with her mother for encouraging her daughter to take up this line of work at such an early age. As the girl pranced along beside me, I told her that she should work hard in school and think about what she wanted to do when she grew up.  Afterwards,  I felt a bit silly for lecturing her, but I was saddened by the possibility of her throwing her life away.
I like to keep some change in my pocket as I walk down Heroinas or in the Cancha (the shopping district in Cochabamba, actually an open air market that extends for blocks and blocks), for someone who seems as if he or she really needs the money. But my giving isn’t based on any set criteria. Some people, like the host family we lived with in Cala Cala (where the middle to upper class townspeople live) would give money to very old people who could not work, or sometimes to children. Once when we were eating ice cream and empanadas on a Saturday afternoon, Henry bought a family of four empanadas and ice cream as well. Another time after we had watched the carnival parades, he gave our extra ham and cheese sandwiches to a group of street children.

Begging is a profession in Bolivia.  I have seen many women with sleeping children beside them on the dirty sidewalks of the city. The children are always under five or six years old, wearing a chullo hat, with Alpaca sweater and buzos (sports pants).

 I don’t like to think of these families situating themselves on the dirty sidewalks. But here the mothers make their living. Some women simply sit on the sidewalks holding out their hands or a cup; other women walk up to the passerby, asking for money. Yesterday, when I was waiting for my ride  from Super Haas, where we buy groceries, I was standing at the foot of the stairs, with my backpack and a bag of groceries.  I was ready to go home after teaching my classes, ready to start baking pies for the men at the prison, since I had promised them I would do so, and the chocolate chip cookies for the film series the next night. I noticed the woman whom I refer to as the tambourine woman, singing and tapping her tambourine on the other side of the stairs. I had seen and heard her before. She often sits atop the hill where the Christo is located (the gigantic statue of Christ that overlooks the city, so tall that people walk up to the shoulder height and look out, so imposing that I can see it no matter where I am in the city of Cochabamba.
 Although her voice is so-so, she sings hymns loudly, enthusiastically, with the rhythmic shaking and tapping of her instrument. Her face shines when one talks with her. She is singing for the glory of God, but she will accept money in thanks. I gave her the last of my change, and returned to my spot on the steps of the grocery store. A young mother came up to me, where I was compelled to wait for my husband. She was pretty, dressed in a pollera, with the Quechua wide-brimmed sunhat.
I knew she wanted money. She kept talking to me, staring at me as if I were the odd one, there with my backpack and groceries. I had no idea what she was saying, and was about to feel terrible about my Spanish, when I realized that she was talking to me in Quechua. I was stuck, since I had agreed to meet my husband there. She kept talking to me, asking for money, looking at me as if I owed her my money. Eventually, after making it clear that I had no more money to give her (“No lo tengo!”), I just started to stare in the distance, as she kept talking to me, until she finally left me,  stopping to talk with the tambourine lady.
Because we are from the United States, people assume that we have money to spare (my stipend from FMS is supposed to cover my basic needs, not the needs of others).  Some people we work with have asked to use our credit cards to help conduct those very businesses where we are working. We can’t do this. Other people for whom we work have asked us to buy books for them online or bring back items from the States when we went home. We have learned the hard way that we cannot do this even for our Bolivian friends. We were warned about this when we worked at Carmen Pampa—never loan anyone money; you will never get it back. It must be said that some people have repaid us, though.

The Wikitraveler website gives the following advice about giving money to beggars:

* Give only when it is your choice; don't encourage the obnoxious or intimidating beggars by buying them off.

 *Keep the amounts in proportion; in a country where many people work long hours for a few euros a day, giving a beggar a euro is wildly excessive. 

* If you do give, be discrete. Otherwise, you may mark yourself as an easy target and attract all the other beggars to see what they can get out of you; this can quickly ruin your trip.
 *Make an effort to spend some where it will go to the poor. Give the street musicians a few coins, buy some flowers from the hawkers, take a rickshaw or a donkey ride. Pick up some local handicrafts. Play the game; bargain hard and try not to get grossly overcharged, but accept that some people need to make a living off tourists. You are probably going to pay more than a local would; don't worry too much about it.
I have developed habits that help me to decide when and to whom I give my few coins. For example, I buy manzanilla flowers (used to make chamomile tea or when mixed with boiling water, used for soaking tired feet or irritated skin) and bags of lemons from women on the street. The women who sell these two items, usually together, seem to be the poorest vendors in the city. I try to pay street musicians who really can play and/or sing. I buy gum from the vendors on the street. I buy all of my flowers at the edge of the Cancha, from the flower women. If I see an item that I need as I walk past rows and rows of street vendors, I try to shop with those vendors who cannot afford to sell their wares in stores. I do not buy from vendors who come into the restaurants where I am eating lunch or dinner because I feel that I have paid for the right to not be hassled.  I favor buying ice cream cones or sweets for children whose parents have asked them to beg for money. I feel that these children should receive treats like other children, and I don’t know what my money would be used for. I try to always give money to the the quadriplegic who begs on San Martin, and I give to the old people who beg, feeling that they have no other way to obtain money.

I understand about bargaining too. Three weeks ago, I went shopping with my young friend in the neighborhood, Lizbeth. I found a top that I liked, she had made friends with the shopkeeper, and I got a straight answer to my question, Am I supposed to pay the price that is quoted to me from the salesperson? The answer was, No.  Politely, I queried the salesperson, How much am I really supposed to pay for this sequined purple blouse? I got a straight answer, and paid a reasonable price.
There are many conclusions to be drawn. I am in a poor country where there are no holds barred on the profession of begging. People are poor here, and many people beg. They use their young children to bring in money. These beggars are insistent: they will follow the other person for at least a block, or go into a restaurant or even department store to seek money.  I am uncomfortable, still, with the beggars on the streets of Cochabamba. I never reach into my purse to get change because I don’t want anyone to know where I keep my money. But if I have put some change in my pocket, I may empty the pocket if I am moved to do so. I don’t like the tactics, using children to ply the passersby or poor, dirty people who stand outside the churches after the services. Beggars, like street vendors, know where the crowds gather.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned from an English conversation class that those sleeping toddlers and infants who are have been placed beside their mothers who are begging on the street are quietly sleeping for a reason. They have been given glue to breathe so that they will not bother their moms while they are begging. I had wondered about the children with the shiny immobile faces, whose eyes were sealed shut almost as if they were dolls. They seemed so unnatural, and I learned from one of my conversation friends that the mothers don’t have enough milk, due to malnutrition, to nurse their children, so they curtail both their own hunger and that of their children with the glue they breathe (such a fix is inexpensive, I hear).

There are many organizations in Bolivia that are trying to work with indigent mothers, abused children, and the huge orphan population. Amanecer is one organization. It has provided education and safe shelter for street children since 1984 ( One of our missioners works at a branch in Cochabamba, and other missioners preceding us have worked in these homes as well.  One of our missioners works with street children who have been cleferos (glue sniffers); another with girls who have been taken from abusive home situations, as well as with  abandoned infants. 
Some children on the street are learning how to make and sell handcrafts. The children whom one finds along the tourist tract are vendors of collectables. This is one way to make a living. Here is a picture of a large group of children in the streets of the town Concepción, in the Chiquitania (the tropical savannahs near Santa Cruz, in the eastern part of Bolivia) where the Jesuit missions were begun. They sell handcrafts.

We bought these children's artesania, which we still treasure.
These children also love blue ice cream, and here's the picture to prove it.

A young man who came to Bolivia as a tourist stayed to create a non-profit that trained children in the art of circus performance. One may see jugglers and acrobats at many street intersections in Cochabamba.  (See

Some missioners here are training women as hair stylists.

The German Swiss technical school, Christo Rey, located on the mountain that leads up to the Taquiña (Cochabamba’s beer) factory trains auto mechanics, construction engineers, and hairdressers, to name a few trades taught there, in a three-year degree program.  The lawyer who works there, who also works at El Abra,  the men’s prison where we teach English classes, informed us that a college degree in Bolivia doesn’t always guarantee employment, whereas a three-year technical degree takes less time and provides a better opportunity for a job. Next to the technological school is a free elementary and high school for the children of incarcerated parents.

The way that one helps beggars is to offer opportunities for education and work. For some of us, these problems are to be addressed by the government, with programs set up by tax dollars. In Bolivia, the church (and I mean all denominations) has taken on a large share of social aid, education, and job training.  Non-profits from other countries have stepped in to educate, train, and provide safe homes for children and their mothers.  Poco a poco (little by little) and sin prisa ni pausa (without hurrying neither pausing) serve as incentives for those of us who live here, who view poverty every day.   

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