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What to do to make a better life for a beggar in Africa

Updated on March 21, 2011
Just another beggar on the street corner? Read on to find out why this man could be a symbol of hope...
Just another beggar on the street corner? Read on to find out why this man could be a symbol of hope...

A life-changing encounter

Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
beggars are coming to town:
Some in rags, and some in tags,
And some in velvet gown.
- old Nursery Rhyme

Beggars are a common sight all over the world, and South Africa is no exception. Almost every intersection in every city in the country has its population of people begging.

Most motorists make sure their windows are up and their doors locked when they see the advancing beggars, and sometimes with good reason.

There are the women with babies, the elderly with tattered clothes, the sick and the lame, all hoping for someone to notice them, someone to give them a handout. And sometimes they are lucky and a hand emerges from the car window to deposit a few coins into their usually calloused and dirty palms.

But for one woman in Pretoria one beggar somehow looked different, looked unique. She made eye contact with him and something shifted in her, something made her look more deeply at this man, and that has made all the difference, both to her and to him.

The woman, Isabel Wagner, says she doesn't know what exactly it was that made her look a second time at the man standing in the intersection, but very soon she was embarked on a journey of discovery, the discovery of the man Amos Sibanda and the story of how he had to become a beggar at the intersection of General Louis Botha Avenue and Atterbury Road in Pretoria East.

Logo of the Amost Better Life Foundation
Logo of the Amost Better Life Foundation
Amos Sibanda
Amos Sibanda
Isabel Wagner
Isabel Wagner
Amos ion the doorway of his house in Mamelodi
Amos ion the doorway of his house in Mamelodi
Gracious and Amos inside their home
Gracious and Amos inside their home
The busy intersection that is Amos's "workplace"
The busy intersection that is Amos's "workplace"
Amos in the intersection
Amos in the intersection
Amos showing his placard
Amos showing his placard

Amos's Story

It turns out that Amos was not mentally deficient, as many who saw his deformed face assumed, nor was he unwilling to work. He was deformed and rendered unable to work through a dreadful accident which cut short his life as a farm foreman and turned him into a really needy person who had to pocket his pride and beg for a living.

Amos was born in Musina (formerly Messina) in Limpopo Province in 1978. In common with many, indeed far too many, people in South Africa, his father was unknown to him and his mother died when Amos was just 10 years old. As a result he only managed to get a Grade 4 education, but in spite of this he found work as a labourer on farms in Limpopo Province and eventually he was employed as a foreman on a farm in the Brits district of the North West Province.

In October 2005 the accident that changed his life irrevocably happened. His skull was severely fractured and his palate punctured. He was airlifted to hospital where he had to have a tracheotomy, was ventilated and intravenously fed. Most of his lower jaw was destroyed in the accident which left him unable to speak or eat or drink properly.

After being discharged from hospital Amos could no longer do the kind of work he had been doing on farms and so had to find other ways of making a living. He started by handing out advertising leaflets at intersections, but this work was intermittent and had to start begging to make ends meet.

Three years almost to the day Isabel came into his life and things started to change for the better. As she tells the story on the website of the foundation that has been started to help Amos, she and her family had been going through very bad times and she had started to see a therapist weekly.

“Then one morning on my way to my appointment I came to a stop right next to him. I had time to look at him, staring shamelessly. And with my medical background it was obvious that he must have had enormous problems even trying to function at the most basic level. By the time I reached home I knew that I had to help him,” says Isabel on the website.

Isabel managed to get a surgeon to operate on Amos, paid for by the foundation she had set up called Amost Better Life Foundation (ABLF). As a result of the operation Amos is able to eat and drink more easily and his speaking has also improved, though it is still rather difficult to understand him.

The next operation Amos needs is to rebuild his lower jaw, which was almost entirely destroyed in the accident. This operation will need some highly specialised equipment which will have to be imported.

Meanwhile Amos's wife Gracious is pregnant with their second child, due at the end of April. Their first child is a three-year-old boy called Tinos. They live in a rented home in the Pretoria suburb called Mamelodi.

Amos continues to stand at the same intersection where Isabel first encountered him, but now he holds a printed, laminated poster advertising the ABLF's website and carrying the message: “Thank you everyone for your contributions. First operation a success!!” instead of  the hand-written cardboard one he previously held.

Isabel, who does not want to be regarded as a saviour or heroine, would like to see Amos become independent and able to care for his family again, able to feel like a competent human being.

Amos himself wants to expand the modest photography business he has started, taking photos of people around Mamelodi and selling them. He has been given an old film camera and so is dependent on processing outlets but hopes to get a digital camera and a computer with a colour printer so that he can become more self-sufficient.

Slowly but surely his self-esteem and self-worth are coming back to Amos, though he still has a long way to go.

Grameen Bank logo
Grameen Bank logo
Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bank
Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bank

The end of the story?

Amos's story though, should not end there. At least it should help people to see that beggars don't always beg because they are workshy, or have a drinking or drug problem. There are beggars who have genuinely got a problem and the only way they can keep body and soul together is by asking for help in public.

And not all beggars are going to spend the money they do get on drugs or alcohol. The difficulty of course is in knowing the genuine from the chancer.

The Nobel Prize winning founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus has made it a policy that every person in the Bank must lend to one beggar. It was a challenge he issued to the employees of the Bank. At first only a few lent to beggars, but after a while all 27 000 people working for the Bank lent to beggars – lent, not gave. There were no freebies, no handouts.

The Bank's policy is to expect the beggars to repay the loans in their own time, at their own convenience, but they have to repay.

Grameen Bank now has 100 000 beggars on its books, people who, because of their access to funds, have begun to turn their lives around, to regain lost pride and sense of self-worth. Surely a great way for people to be helped.

Beggars don't have to stay beggars, and maybe the story of Amos can be a start of something for the hundreds of thousands of beggars in South Africa.

Amos earlier this week
Amos earlier this week

Update on Amos: 19 June 2009

Amos went for another operation about two weeks ago, this time to rectify his tongue and give it more movement. The operation was a success and he is already speaking rather better, though he says his mouth is still very sore.

Another operation is due in December, when the bones of his lower jaw will be replaced.

The publicity and awareness of Amos' situation, including this Hub, has generated an unusual interest and most generous offers of various types of assistance.

The first offer is of a comprehensive computer course being offered by a company called Academy of Learning. This course, together with the digital camera and computer he has also been given, will enable Amos to get his budding photography business going in a more professional and profitable way.

He hopes that all these things will help him get off the street: "I'm really looking forward to not standing on the street corner any more," he says.

In addition to all this he has been offered some reconstructive surgery to get his face back to what it used to look like, though no date has been set for this yet. It will have to wait until the bone replacement operation has been done in December.


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