On soporific Friday afternoons, when most Maldivians gather for a family meal, a street corner in Male’ starts filling up with people. The sun is high in the sky when the beggars start taking up their positions on flattened cardboard boxes and polystyrene containers. In the shade near the fruit and vegetable market, they sit patiently, leaning against a flaking blue wall.
Abdul Raheem, 54, comes by with a wad of five rufiyaa bills. Jovial and smiling, he chats with the beggars. He has handed out money for the last 15 years. â€œI do it as charity,â€ he says. Other benefactors, mostly men, follow in rapid succession, dishing out notes of varying denominations. Friday is the most rewarding day of the week for beggars when the usual daily income of Rf30 (US$2) jumps to Rf200 (US$16).
There seems to be an almost equal mix of women and men among the 23 beggars. Like Khadeeja Adam, 48, most look older than their age. â€œI was a dancer in the 70s, my stage name was Shiranee,â€ she tells me. She used to live in Villingili but a spot in the vegetable market has been her sleeping quarters for the past six months. A divorced daughter with six children who live in rented accommodation are her only kin. â€œShe is too hard up to help me,â€ says Shiranee with a goofy toothless grin.
Aminath Nafeesa Adam, 34, gives boredom as her reason for attending the weekly gathering. â€œItâ€™s a month since I moved to Maleâ€™ to be with my relatives and am alone at home mostly.â€ But as she speaks some of the other beggars interject, telling her to be honest and admit her motivation is money. One man even reminds her that she is â€œsinning by lyingâ€.
Another of the beggars stands out among the rest. Aminath Abdul Rahman, 46, looks every inch the businesswoman she aspires to be in her dark blue velvet outfit, matching blue headscarf and dazzling gold and white handbag. â€œI only come here during Ramadan and the weekend,â€ she explains, adding she moved from Noonu atoll three months ago in search of employment. â€œOn my second day here, I went to the municipality and applied for permission to have a coconut cart,â€ she says. Aminath insists she will stop begging as soon as she finds work.
Most of the men shy away from speaking, some of them getting up and walking away. Two men, Ali Musthafa, who is unsure of his age, and Ibrahim Yoosuf, 70, agree to talk. Both receive the monthly allowance of Rf2,000 (US$56) given to those over 65. Ali says he came from Addu atoll to Maleâ€™ during Ramadan to have a tooth extracted. He too does not have any close relatives. â€œMy three children and three wives are dead,â€ he says. Ibrahim sits in a yellow wheelchair, a victim of leprosy at the age of 14. â€œI hope that this government will give poor people the chance to live a better life,â€ he says.
He describes how his house in Guraidhoo was destroyed during the tsunami and its reconstruction was not completed by the former government. â€œThe allowance is insufficient,â€ he tells me. â€œA fish costs around Rf100.â€ But, Ibrahim says, he has spoken to the president who has assured him the matter will be looked into.
Occasionally scuffles break out between newcomers and veteran beggars. 40-year-old Aminath Hassan, a stern-faced woman,
says that when she first turned up, she was punched and promptly informed there was no more room. Yet she says she will persist: â€œI will come here until I get a job; I have children to feed.â€
As I interview, a crowd of onlookers gather around and sceptical exclamations can be heard. One spectator, 30-year-old Solih Shiyam refuses to believe the beggars are destitute. â€œThis government takes care of the poor,â€ he says. He points to the allowance for those over 65 as well as the introduction of universal healthcare. â€œEven the previous government gave Rf500 (US$39),â€ he says. â€œThere are people here who earn enough to live on.â€ Ahmed Adam, 52, who runs a nearby shop agrees. While he says the beggars are not an inconvenience, he has never given them a single laari as he too believes most are not impoverished.
Director General of Maleâ€™ Municipality Abdul Hameed Ali is of a similar opinion. He says some employees at the municipality have been known to beg. â€œPeople even take the ferry and come from nearby islands like Guraidhoo to beg on the weekends,â€ he says. Under the previous government the municipality was entrusted with the task of talking to and counselling beggars, which led to a reduction in numbers, he adds.
Their care has now been conferred to the National Social Protection Agency (NSPA). Mohamed Ismail Fulhu, director general of the NSPA, says the government provides Rf1,000 (US$78) to those who cannot meet their basic needs. Currently, the number of people receiving benefits is 686. Ismail thinks few are truly needy and alludes to Naasira, a well-known miser and beggar who purportedly has thousands stashed away in a bank. While the jury is out on whether Maldivians who beg do so out of necessity, in recent years, the consensus is that more and more people are gathering at the now well-established corner of the capital to hold out their hands.