Should we feel compassion or any sense of empathy for beggars? It may often seem as if beggars should be Oscar winning nominees for their acting abilities. They seem to be masters at acting sad and desperate. And what can we do but feel sorry for them? Siphiwe Ka Ngwenya wrote the poem ‘begging’ because he realised the plight of those who were genuine beggars. He saw those who were really suffering in sad circumstances.
The poem is written in free verse. There are no punctuation marks. This gives a sense of desperation. The beggars have made begging their profession. They beg in order to survive another day. Some people work for an institution from nine to five. Others are self-employed. Whatever the case, nobody at work or in the community really cares about how we survive another day. Some go home after work and start drinking. Others flop down in front of the television. And then there are those that go out and socialize or work a second job.
Beggars beg to survive another day. The poet uses a small letter “i” to diminish the status of the narrator. The narrator is witnessing what many of us prefer not to see: the desperation on the streets. He merely tells us what he sees. And who is the narrator? Well, if you’re walking down a crowded street, every unknown person you pass is nobody in particular. In fact, you’re nobody too. The beggars are “nobodies”. Yet, each person that is on the street, for whatever reason, has a facial expression that tells a story. Some expressions are etched deeply and, like graffiti, are not easy to remove. The beggars’ faces show pain. Their faces are somber. They have sores and bruises on their hands and bodies. They are blistered and quiver. Fever? Cold? They suffer anxiety.
When there is no work there is no money, which means there is no food, no shelter, no security, no clothes, no medicine … nothing. When we have nothing, we feel desperate and anxious. When we need things and we have no money, we feel the need to ask someone for help. The extreme case of asking is begging.
But why then do beggars lie? They do this to cover up for their inadequacies; their shortcomings. They can’t find work, and feel useless. They hide behind lies to get something … anything … to survive another day. Their lies are self-serving and cannot hurt those who are being lied to. The lies are harmless. In South African cities there are many different cultures. In each culture and in every language, there is poverty: someone is suffering; someone is asking; someone is begging.
And the poet sees them all … as he walks on by.