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BOOK REVIEW: The Beggars’ Strike

The Beggars’ Strike

by Aminata Sow Fall.

Review by Alagi Yorro Jallow.

Fatoumatta: Aminata Sow Fall’s Novel, The Beggars’ Strike, accounts for a fictional strike in a West African Muslim-dominated society, notably Senegal. The Beggars’ Strike tells the story of an Islamic community caught between the pressures of traditional and contemporary values. The government wanted to increase tourism as a source of revenue and decided to rid the city streets of the ragged beggars. However, the beggars are essential to the community’s spiritual life, and they know it. So as the government plans to remove the city beggars, the beggars decide to strike. The absurd conclusion includes an avalanche of mistaken identities, hilarious chaos, and befuddled orders. This is one of the best Senegalese novel books I have ever read, saved “So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ.

The author Aminata Sow Fall’ The Beggars’ Strike is that rarest book work of fiction not intended as a cultural or historical and or a religious account but creative fiction, a sweet, cheery farce whose sharp writing and sublime humor do not leave a venomous aftertaste. The novella – a long short story or a short, long story of only 99 pages is comical satire, full of wit and succinct dialogue. It is a delightful, fun, engaging tale with enough situational substance to deserve the 1980 Grand Prix de Literature de l’Afrique Noire.

Fatoumatta: Unfortunately, we all take our position in society, however tenuous it may be, for granted. Therefore, the book’s alternative title is The Dreggs of Society. The story portrays how all elements, including the dreggs, are vital to humanity. Many events in Asia, Europe, and North America have led to similar purges of ‘undesirables’ from town centers to present a version of our way of life at odds with reality. The book shows the folly of pretending we are something other than our collective selves with poetic precision. This story adroitly demonstrates the importance of collective bargaining and the danger of forgetting one’s origins. Humour and insight into the tragedy of attempting to run a place and failing that not all people share the same vision make this a most enjoyable read.

I recommend The Beggars strike to anyone who can read. Where the book fails, I think, is in its scant development of the community of beggars. A structure is set up, an organization with Salla Niang, a strong lady boss, at the head. However, as for the rest of the beggars, they exist as a herd, a rabble. Which undercuts one of the book’s messages, which seems to be that the poor are necessary, so one not try to dictate how they remain with us.

Fatoumatta: There are several themes in Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike. Those themes include Begging, Polygamy, Inordinate Political Ambition, Superstition, Strength in Unity, etc. However, what can be considered a significant theme in this work is the vital 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 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.

Fatoumatta: In this story, state bureaucrats, who think beggars discourage tourism from the West, decide to rid the city of begging. The policy is implemented through police tactics of harassment, physical abuse, and imprisonment of beggars. This unbearable situation prompts the beggars to organize a strike where they refuse to return to the city streets to receive donations. The novel portrays the beggars as an integral part of the society’s social structure, and their removal creates profound disruptions in people’s everyday lives. Fall’s novel constructs a paradigmatic framework to help readers understand how begging fits into West African Islamic society. The Holy Scripture teaches that “the poor will always be with us, “but no one wants them around, especially when aggressively asking tourists for alms.

Mour’ Ndiaye’s adventure is one of the sweeping successes, minor frustrations, and superstitious interference in true modern fabulous fashion. His frustrations are rooted in his failings and moral nastiness, and one loathes to feel sorry for his ultimate plight. I love this book. I read it for my literature class in high school and my African literature class during my undergraduate study. Capturing the different classes in society, Aminata Sowe fall is not a name you would forget after reading this book. This is very much in the vein of my observation in the books I reviewed reading of African books, where I mentioned that several of them centered around the inventive ways that everyday people find to get around, or back at, authoritarian rulers, be they imperialists or some of their successors. Aminata Sow Fall writes about Senegal. Her short novel was published in 1979. The tone is somewhat similar to Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow without the ‘magic realist’ (for lack of a better term) aspect.

The book is set in a large town which is Dakar. The newspapers have been loudly proclaiming against the human detritus, which is found everywhere in the city, i.e., the large number of beggars. They must, according to the newspapers, be got rid of. They pester people when they are stopped at traffic lights, and as they come in and out of shops, offices, and banks, they are driving away from the tourists whose money the country needs.

Fatoumatta: Keeping the streets clean is the responsibility of the Public Health Department, whose head is a political appointee, Mour Ndiaye. Sow Fall tells us a lot about Mour Ndiaye, and most of it is not flattering. He had stood up for himself in his early days. He had a European boss who mistreated him, and eventually, after one last insult, he could take no more and hit the man. He was sent to prison and, of course, lost his job. However, he has come back, primarily, he feels, because Serigne Birama Ndiaye found him in the streets of the city, looking lost. He had come to the city to get the compulsory identification card but being illiterate and not knowing the city did not know what to do. Ndiaye helped him. Serigne Birama is a marabout, a Muslim guru. Ndiaye became close to Birama and gave him a lot of money and food. In return, his guidance has helped and still helps Ndiaye’s career.

Mour Ndiaye has a very able assistant, Kébo Dabo. It is Dabo who essentially runs the department, with Ndiaye taking the credit. Dabo has tried to deal with the beggar’s problem but to no avail. With more complaints coming, Dabo is now given extra resources. With a large fleet of men and lorries, the plan is to round up every beggar, no exceptions, and ship them to a remote village some three hundred kilometers away, where there are few or no transport facilities to return to the city. Dabo does this, and very soon, very few beggars are left in the city.

Everyone is very impressed with Mour Ndiaye, and he gets much credit. Indeed, the President is about to appoint a vice-president, and there is talk that Ndiaye is a candidate. He is naturally very excited about this and consults not only Birama but other marabouts about what he needs to do and follows their detailed instructions about sacrifices to the letter.

Meanwhile, there is trouble at home. He has a faithful, loyal and obedient wife, Lolli, who has given him eight children. However, he has met a beautiful sixteen-year-old, Sine, and plans to marry her. Lolli is, of course, furious, but she is eventually persuaded by her family that she has no alternative but to accept. Sow Fall goes along with this, but she lambasts Ndiaye through Lolli’s daughter, Rabbi. The latter is highly critical of her father’s behavior.

Fatoumatta: Though we have been following the story from the officials’ point of view, we also meet the beggars. They are naturally not happy with their treatment and, under the organization of Salla Niang, a woman whose husband was a union organizer but who was fired on trumped-up charges when he complained about the treatment of the workers, they decide that the only way to deal with the situation is to go on strike. This is not an idle threat, as it is a crucial tenet of Islam that Muslims must make charitable donations and, if they do not, they will not prosper.

Mour Ndiaye is now working hard to become vice-president. One marabout tells him that he must sacrifice a bull, cut up the meat, and distribute it to beggars in the city’s four corners. The problem is that there are no beggars in any corner of the town. Therefore, if he does not make the sacrifice according to the marabout’s instructions, he will not become vice-president. If he lets the beggars back into the city, he will be criticized in the press and by his Minister.

Fatoumatta: This is a satire on officialdom and public sector corruption. The government seems to have only one honest man, Kébo Dabo. Mour Ndiaye is mercilessly mocked for his incompetence, inability to speak French, treatment of his loyal and faithful wife, corruption, and excessive dependence on marabouts. Indeed, corruption seems rife, with Sow Fall giving several examples. However, she also mildly mocks the beggars, who feel they have the right not to work and seek alms. Some have no choice, particularly the infirm. Of course, they feel that they are performing a social service, given the Muslim obligation to give to charitable causes. Surprisingly, it is an amusing and well-told story and a must-read.

I have much love for this book. Aminata Sow Fall. In light of a decline in tourism, Mour Ndiaye, the Director of the Department of Public Health and Hygiene, decides to rid the city of its homeless population by means of violent raids, harassment, imprisonment, and forced displacement.

Fatoumatta: According to the Minister’s decree, Ndiaye must rid the streets of beggars. Ndiaye instructs his department to carry out weekly raids. One of the raids leads to the death of a lame beggar, Madiabel, who ran into an oncoming vehicle as he tried to escape, leaving two wives and eight children. Soon after, another raid resulted in the death of the old, well-loved comic beggar Papa Gorgui Diop. Enough is enough, declared the beggars.

For the beggars, they were as necessary to the citizens of The Capital as the air everyone breathed. “Where will you find a man who’s the boss and who doesn’t give to charity so that he can stay the boss? Where will you find a man suffering from a real or imaginary illness and who doesn’t believe that his troubles will disappear the moment a donation leaves his hands? Even the parents of a man … expecting to be condemned, have recourse to charity … in the hope of an acquittal.”

Fatoumatta: For the beggars, they were good citizens practicing a ‘trade’ that supported the ethos of the Islamic nation: giving and receiving. By tradition, people of the city needed to give alms to beggars in exchange for prayers for long life and prosperity – for ‘self-preservation.’ Zakat is one of the obligatory Five Pillars of Islam in which a portion of one’s wealth is given to the poorest of the poor, the people of the streets. It is, therefore, every Muslim’s religious duty to give alms to the beggars.

The beggars are disgusted that they have to pay the price for falling tourism and economic progress. To get them off the streets, the raids organized by Ndiaye and his department have led to deaths. The beggars’ strategy to express their repugnance of the raids is to organize into an alliance, an allegiance, a union – and strike!

How will people manage to fulfill their religious duty if the beggars strike? Moreover, that is the premise of the story. Mour Ndiaye wants to ensure he gets the promotion. So he consults a holy man on how to be successful at work. The religious man issues specific instructions – Ndiaye must give alms to the beggars, but only to those in their usual locations on the streets. However, the beggars have left the streets and moved en masse to the new Slum-Clearance Resettlement Area, a remote location outside the city. Ndiaye panics. People panic. They drive to the resettlement area and form long queues to give the beggars money.

Mour Ndiaye is in a ridiculous predicament – his job is to eliminate the beggars from the streets. Still, to receive a promotion, the holy man says that the beggars have to be on the roads so that Ndiaye can provide them with generous charity. So how can Ndiaye convince them to return to the streets so that he can become Vice-President? The beggars, who refuse to tolerate this all-out assault on their community, decide to get organized and… go on strike! They collectively move into the Slum-Clearance Resettlement Area on the city’s outskirts. “Out of sight and out of mind,” right? Well, not quite.

Given that alms-giving is fundamental culturally and religiously in Senegal, the beggars may be out of sight in a Muslim country. Still, suddenly, they are on everyone’s mind. To whom would these upstanding city dwellers give alms now? Who would pray for their success and prosperity?

The city folk is thus forced to venture beyond their urban comforts to seek out the displaced beggars, making the long trip out there in their fancy cars to continue giving alms. Ndiaye, who aspires to become the vice president, consults his marabout (a spiritual advisor) about ensuring his political success. He is told that he needs to give alms to beggars but only those out on the streets, in their usual spots.

However, the beggars are all gone now! So what is Ndiaye to do? His “war on poverty” has been turned around against him. Paradoxically, the beggars’ strike has resulted in the alms-givers needing the beggars more than the beggars need them; the cycle of dependence has been completely turned on its head.

Fatoumatta: I will let you find out how the rest of the story unfolds, and I highly recommend you read this book. The author Sow Fall’s novel is inscribed within a particular cultural context; it also enables readers to think about the issue of homelessness more generally by touching on the following elements: the hypocrisy and ethically-selfish nature of charity and philanthropy; the presence of “the dregs of society” – this phrase is the novel’s subtitle in some editions of the book – as a painful reminder of how profoundly sick society has to be to allow the coexistence of extreme misery and extreme opulence; gentrification, tourism, the active role of the state to keep the homeless “out of sight and out of mind” and the violence that this entails; and quite frankly, the “humanity” of the homeless, and the fact that they are real people with real experiences and voices which must be heard. Sow Fall brilliantly succeeds in treating such heart-rending issues with so much humanity and compassion in this short and sweet social satire and page-turner of a book.

Fatoumatta: In this case, an over-zealous campaign to rid Dakar of all beggars to promote tourism (a sort of weak excuse for many citizens not wanting to be accosted at every turn by the scale of poverty) has unintended consequences. The book is, in fact, a sort of comic meditation on the role of begging in society for both the beggar and the giver. Which one has dignity and which is greedy? Is a disabled beggar responsible for not working? The question is a little more direct in 1970s Senegal, where tradition suggests that giving to a beggar and adding a prayer can lead to immediate benefits for the donor. However, the issue of dignity and responsibility is just as relevant to contemporary society, with hundreds of thousands of people living on the streets in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Although its focus on begging suits the novella length, Sow Fall has woven other themes into the book. She lightly explores women’s lingering subjugation due to the persistence of traditional attitudes and in part due to a religion that allows polygamy. In addition, there is a political overlay in which she contrasts the various approaches a civil servant can take when faced with a bombastic ruler or corrupt boss: rectitude, exploitation, and self-preserving navigation. However, we mostly enjoy the beggars finding their strength in community and self-respect.

The Plot

Fatoumatta: In the Islamic tradition, this story is set in Dakar, the capital city of French-speaking Senegal. 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. Mour needed to perform outstandingly in his present duty to clinch the appointment. 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 is 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. Mour and his superiors insist these beggars 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 them into begging. Still, his mother had refused to take that alternative. Instead, she had managed with the children, often starving them. Keba had grown up to abhor all acts of dishonesty, a life of dependence, and anything that could make people pity him. So Keba waged several wars against the beggars. Each time he and his task force 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 severe problem, you know. No one can move freely anymore without being attacked (by beggars)….” Those beggars ‘who poison the air with their smell,’ the plague that must be removed, by all means, the canker that must be hidden from sight.

Fatoumatta: Finally, Keba Dabo and his men successfully put all the beggars away. 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. So if it pleases God, you shall have your wish,” the marabout told Mour. “All you have to do is to sacrifice a fine white ram. You will slaughter it with your 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 organized,” 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 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 to beggars. In response, beggars dictate what they should be given, and givers had no choice but to comply. Who 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 gives 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 and 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

Fatoumatta: Mour springs into action. Suddenly, he realizes 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 convince 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 around 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 banknotes at the beggars. They all jumped up and scrambled for the banknotes. “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.”

However, 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.”

However, that will be medicine after death. On TV, the President is already announcing Monsieur Toumane Sane, Mour Ndiaye’s rival, as Vice-President of the Republic.

The Lesson

Fatoumatta: The core lesson we should learn from this award-winning novel is that all groups of human beings are essential. 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 Ndiaye, our fate, our life could one day depend on them in this world or 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 God.

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