There are several themes in Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike, originally published in French in Dakar in 1979 by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines as La Greve des Battu. Some of those themes are Begging, Polygamy, Inordinate Political Ambition, Superstition, Strength in Unity, etc. But what can be considered as major theme in this work is the important role all human beings (regardless of their social or economic status) play in the social, political, economic, spiritual and biological life of one another. A more philosophical way to put it is ‘the interconnectivity of all things’ or ‘the socio-economic and spiritual ecology of all things.’ It simply means that all things (especially human beings, whether rich or poor) are essential for the success and survival of one another. That is the central message of The Beggars’ Strike.
This story is set in Dakar, the capital city of French- speaking Senegal in the Islamic tradition. The chief character is Mour Ndiaye, Director of Public Health Services, who is obsessed with his ambition of becoming the Vice-President of the Republic. In order to clinch the appointment, Mour needed to put up an outstanding performance in his present duty, and the most pressing need in that line of duty is getting rid of all beggars from all the streets in the city…beggars whose presence are considered harmful to the prestige of Senegal, beggars who are defined as running sores which should be kept hidden, at any rate in the capital, beggars who are threats to public hygiene and national economy. These beggars, Mour and his superiors insist, are eyesores to tourists whom they scare away from visiting the country.
Mour Ndiaye found a readymade instrument for this job of disposing beggars in his assistant, Keba Dabo, an honest, fine, and forthright gentleman, propelled by his nauseating feelings towards begging and beggars. Keba had been raised in a family whose absolute poverty ought to have pushed into begging, but his mother had refused to take that alternative. Instead, she had managed with the children, starving them often in the process. Keba had grown up to abhor all acts of dishonesty, life of dependence, and anything that could make people to pity him.
Keba waged several wars against the beggars. Each time he and his taskforce had succeeded in running the beggars out of town, they returned the following day. “You’ve got to track them down wherever they lurk,” Keba instructed his squad. “They think they can wear us down, but if we have to take severe measures, we shall take severe measures. It is a very serious problem, you know. No one can move about freely any more without being attacked (by beggars)….” Those beggars ‘who poison the air with their smell’, the plague that must be got rid of by all means, the canker that must be hidden from sight.
Finally, Keba Dabo and his men succeed in putting all the beggars permanently out of town. Mour Ndiaye was excited. The President congratulates him for a job well done, and Mour, as usual, visits Serigne Birama, one of his many marabouts, to consult him over his Vice- Presidential ambition. “That which you desire is in God’s power to grant you. And I think He will grant it, Insha’ Allah. You shall have your wish, if it pleases God,” the marabout told Mour. “All you have to do is to sacrifice a fine white ram. You will slaughter it with your own hand; you will divide the meat into seven parts and distribute these to beggars.”
Meanwhile all the beggars have been hounded out of town and herded into the new Slum Clearance Resettlement Area. In the scuffle, many of them were fatally wounded. Even old Gorgui Diop has died of the injury he had sustained from the melee. Anger, beggarly anger, fills the Resettlement. “We’re not dogs! You know perfectly well we are not dogs. And they’ve got to be convinced of this too. So we must get organised,” Nguirane Sarr, the blind beggar who plays the guitar fumes.
Ideas began to form in the minds of the beggars. They began to reflect on the real reasons why people give alms to beggars in the first place. “You think people give out of the goodness of their hearts? Not at all. They give out of an instinct for self-preservation. They need to give alms because they need our prayers – wishes for long life, prosperity, to drive away their bad dreams, and for a better tomorrow…,” the stubborn Nguirane philosophized. After much haggling amongst themselves, the beggars reached a consensus: never to leave Resettlement.
Nguirane is proved right. People began to troop to the Resettlement with their gifts to offer them to beggars. In response, beggars dictate what they should be given, and givers had no choice but to comply. Who ever said beggars have no choice?
Mour Ndiaye continued to seek out and consult new marabouts. His quest leads him to Kifi Bokoul, a marabout whose face no one has ever seen before, a man said to converse with spirits and of whom spirits had little or no choice but to carry out all his wishes. Mour brings Kifi Bokoul home and after seven days and seven nights, the marabout gave his verdict:
“You will have what you desire…you will be Vice-President if you slaughter a bull and divide it into seventy-seven portions which you must distribute to beggars. The gift must not be limited to one district of the town. If you make the offering as indicated with three times seven yards of white, non-silky material, as well as seven hundred cola-nuts, of which three hundred must be red and four hundred white, you will be Vice-President a week later. Not later than a week.”
Begging the beggars
Mour springs into action. Suddenly, he realises that beggars no longer beg in the streets; he has purged the streets of beggars. First, Mour tries to persuade Keba Dabo to go and persuade the beggars to return to the streets. Keba finds the idea nauseating. Then Mour Ndiaye visits the Resettlement, begging the beggars to return to the streets, even for a few hours so that he can make his offering to them.
“Go out into the street, can you be serious?” the beggars tell Mour.
After a long political oration, Salla Niang who controls the beggars promises Mour: “Monsieur Ndiaye, you can go. Tomorrow, if it pleases the Creator, all the beggars will be back at their old posts.” Mour rushes home to slaughter the bull. He cuts the flesh and packages the meat according to Kifi Bokoul’s precise instructions. He loads the meat and other items into a van and drives round the town to distribute them to beggars. No single beggar anywhere! He has been tricked. He has been deceived by the beggars, especially by that wayward Sallah Niang of a woman. Mour is infuriated.
He returns to the Resettlement. After some stifled conversation with the impertinent Salla Niang, Mour hurls several wads of bank-notes at the beggars. They all jumped up and scrambled for the bank-notes. “That’s for your bus-fares; so you can go into town and take up your places in the streets, can’t you?”
“Yes, yes, we’ll come… this afternoon.”
Yet, they did not come. On Salla Niang’s instructions, the beggars are continuing their STRIKE!
The sun is going down. The day is getting over. “You must drive to the beggars’ house,” Mour tells Kouli, his driver, “we can’t keep all this meat all night in this heat. We must go and give it to them.”
But that will be medicine after death. Right there on TV, the President is already announcing Monsieur Toumane Sane, Mour Ndiaye’s rival, as Vice-President of the Republic.
The core lesson we should learn from this award-wining novel is that all groups of human beings are important. They may be our servants, employees, the masses, or people who have been reduced to our dependents by circumstances. It would be foolish for us to look at these people and say “they have no choice” like beggars and therefore maltreat them. Like Mour, our fate, our life could one day depend on them in this world, or in the next world like in Lazarus and the rich man. Ultimately, we are all beggars in this world. You are either begging from man, or from God.
By OSA AMADI
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