Some children from slum communities in Accra and some West and Central African countries have invaded the streets of Accra, begging for alms to feed themselves and their families.
While their peers are in school, some of these child beggars, with the tacit endorsement of their parents, can be found on some of the city’s major roads, including the ceremonial routes, streets, under bridges, under trees and in traffic, desperately trying to put food on their families’ tables.
They come in different faces, ages, complexion, sexes; some twins and triplets from the city’s slum communities, Niger, Mali, Chad and The Sudan.
Some even pretend to be sick, preying on the emotions of unsuspecting members of the public in order to get their daily bread.
These children ply their trade at various spots in the city, including the traffic intersections at Sunny FM, the Trades Union Congress building, the Accra City Hotel (former Novotel), the National Theatre, the King Tackie Tawiah Overpass, the 37 Military Hospital, Kawukudi Junction, El-Wak, Airport City, Airport Junction, the Accra Mall, the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA), the footbridges at the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange, Shiashie, Atomic Junction, the Neoplan Bus Stop at Achimota, Kaneshie and along the Graphic Road.
In a clear violation of Section 87(1-2) of the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560), which prohibits exploitative child labour and defines such labour as one that deprives the child of its health, education or development, the parents of these children sit idly watching their children put their lives in danger.
In some instances, the children are given out to physically challenged people in wheelchairs to push them in areas of heavy traffic build-ups to beg.
On a hot Wednesday last week, seven-year-old Issah Mohammed (not real name) and three other boys wove through traffic in front of the GSA on the 37-Madina road.
Drenched in sweat and moving with the speed of light, they employed all the tricks learnt on the streets and what they said they were taught by their parents to beg for survival.
The first trick employed by these children is to approach their targets with sad and pitiful faces, hoping that will convince drivers and passengers to give them money.
If that does not work, they grab the targets by their clothes and in some cases cry.
Some even go to the extent of following the likely “givers” to where they are going to board vehicles to their destinations.
Some people, out of pity, and others who see them as a nuisance, give them money. Others are not that considerate and, therefore, insult and tell the foreigners to go back to their countries of origin.
“We live in Ashaiman. My father brought me from Niger where my mother is still living. I was in class two in Niger before we came to Ghana,” Issah said while anxiously trying to get the attention of the next sympathetic person.
On the average, Musah makes between GH¢5 and GH¢12 daily.
While Musah would want to go to school, he said that would be the decision of his father, a tall lanky man in a blue flowing robe and sandals, whose gestures suggested that he could not communicate in any language apart from his mother tongue — Fulfulde.
When his son was asked to interpret, he (Issah’s father) smiled, shook his head and moved away.
Issah’s case is not different from that of six-year-old Amina (not real name).
With agile feet that run after people and around vehicles in traffic, she fears no danger, neither is she afraid to beg for money – her palm always contains a coin or two.
Anybody who frequently uses the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange pedestrian bridge to the Accra Mall or the bus stop and the walkway around the mall has probably been harassed by Aisha and other children for money or seen them begging or harassing others.
Born in Ghana, she was introduced to begging by her Chadian parents at age four.
For Aisha, begging is a necessity and the only means by which she can survive.
The money she makes, like what all the other beggars make, supports her family.
Her parents and older siblings refuse to beg because, in the words of one of them, “people won’t have pity on us as they have on the children’’.
They, therefore, prefer to sit lazily under a shade, supervise the children’s activities and collect what the children make periodically.
One would think the children do not like what they do because of the dangers and harsh conditions associated with the work.
However, on the contrary, they seem happy for being responsible for feeding their parents and older siblings.
“My dad made me understand that the whole family would go hungry if I failed to make any money, I must, therefore, work hard to meet his expectation,” Aisha said, with her arms stretched, indicating to other people not to forget why she was at the Accra Mall.
With this kind of mentality, the children compete fiercely with one another to attract the attention of possible givers.
Aisha’s day typically begins at 5.30 a.m. because, according to her, “my dad says I have to catch the attention of those who go to work early”.
She begs from that time to about 7 p.m., occasionally taking a break with her parents under the shade.
Aisha, just like the other beggars, has never set foot in a classroom. The only form of education she has had was the one given to her by her older siblings and parents on the art of begging.
Not only foreigners are in the legion of child beggars.
Six-year-old Alhassan Osman also plies his trade at the Airport Junction where he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair to beg for alms.
According to him, he dropped out of school after his mother’s death. He has never known his father.
The Head of Information Research and Advocacy at the Department of Children, Mr Sylvester Kyei-Gyamfi, described the situation as an abuse of the rights of the children.
“The act of begging is a clear example of exploitation. The older ones know that people have a soft spot for children. They, therefore, take advantage of that and use the children for financial gain,” he said.
Refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants?
As a result of ECOWAS protocols, which allow the free movement of people and goods among countries in the sub-region, people travel to Ghana and other countries in the sub-region unimpeded.
In an interview, some of the foreigners claimed to be running from conflicts and political prosecution in their countries but contradicted themselves when they stated that they went home periodically to either check on their families or bring them over to Ghana.
Their stay in a particular country depends mainly on economic conditions in that country and the freedom given to them, and in most cases they are allowed to go about their business with no or minimum restriction.
To make their begging easier, the young ones, who mainly engage in it, are introduced to the local languages of their host countries.
If their work is hazardous, their sleeping places are worse.
Behind the Spintex Road Lorry Park in Accra lies a shanty town of wooden structures where sometimes a family of five or six lay their heads in a kiosk.
“The space is small but we squeeze ourselves in. When the weather is hot, my parents sleep outside,” another child beggar, Zara, said of their sleeping condition.
Ms Ewurabena Quainoo, the Founder of the Save a Street Child Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in efforts to take children off the streets, said the government and NGOs could join forces and pool resources to take the children off the streets, help educate the young ones, as well as identify opportunities that would empower the older ones among them.
Department of Social Welfare
Responding to the concerns, the National Director of the Department of Social Welfare, Mr Benjamin Otoo, said the issue of street children was worrisome and a problem which could not be solved by only the department.
He said the situation bred armed robbery and prostitution, which led to teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and consequently affected the human resource capacity of the country.
Although the department tried to rescue some children from the streets a number of times, he said, the operation had not been successful because the approach was ad hoc.
“We need a holistic approach to deal with the situation because rescuing children from the street is not a simple procedure. It is a long procedure which needs lots of efforts from not only the department but also other stakeholders,” he explained.
Currently, he said, the department had developed a road map for dealing with children on the street which had been submitted to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and was awaiting validation.
As part of the road map, he said, the department was considering a policy on street children.
He said the database to enable the department to plan its work was the first stage of the road map.
He advised parents not to use poverty as a licence to neglect their children but cater for them, not the other way round.