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Published: June 14th 2006
‘Mmmm. S’ray bai. K’nyom wee-ay. Soam. Soam.’
In the darkness, her wailing went by unnoticed by some, misunderstood by others. She made her way along the riverside promenade with her husband, begging for help, desperate for money.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of pulling out 100 Riel and handing it over, more as a measure of clearing one’s own conscience, than in a bid to help. For if we thought about it for just a moment, one would come to realise that the USD0.025 we are handing over can do very little to help anyone. Perhaps a shake of the head and a frown would provide her with more dignity than the Monopoly money we off-handily thrust her way.
The questions are endless; are you actually helping these beggars by giving them money? Are you fueling an underground economy which is providing these people with an unsustainable way of life, living off the money of others? Instead, if we collectively stopped giving, these people would be forced to be taken up by the many NGOs offering them help, which they shun at present, preferring to make ‘good’ money on the streets from the silly barangs. What do they buy with the money we are giving? Drugs? Gambling? Does any of it ever end up in their bellies? What should….
I was interrupted in my train of thought by Nika asking whether I had 10,000 Riel to give to her. ‘I will pay you back tomorrow, can you give her?’. I put back the petty sum I had reached for and pulled out the 10,000 Riel note. Nika nodded at me, indicating I should hand it over. This was a lot of money in Cambodian terms, and I wondered what Nika’s urge was, why she was so clear in her instructions, when we are approached by a similar looking plight every 20 minutes or so.
‘Ohhhh. Lady, money. Beaten me. Please. Please.’ The hand gestures I had mistaken as being simple language enhancement had actually been an attempt to show the wounds on her head, deep infected gashes from where she had been clubbed by some thugs in her poverty-stricken province. She had made it to Phnom Penh somehow to find money, as they had taken everything she owned, leaving her stripped.
As I handed over the note, the woman looked from me to Nika, back to me. She dropped to her knees and thanked us profusely, praising us as gifts sent to her from Above.
I pulled out a second 10,000 Riel note at this stage, ashamed of my initial, ignorant response to her pleas. Who am I to judge whether it is good or bad to give someone who is begging enough money for them to survive, scrape by, keep their bodies ticking over? Shouldn’t the question really be whether we can afford to ignore their cries for help, regardless what their motives?
We mock the direct sales people in our society, shaking our heads that they don’t have enough pride to take on a decent job, one where you don’t have to ask people for money. Now, I try to understand just how much dignity and pride these begging people have to put aside every day if they want to survive. People argue that they should not be pitied, as they choose this life. No, I think. Perhaps the telemarketer chooses his job, but the plight and desperation in the eyes of this women, who kneels before us out of unqualified gratitude for the USD6 we have just handed her, she is not doing this out of choice. So let us not judge her anymore…
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