Kampala, Uganda – At 7am every morning, Joyce Kigem leaves the small mud and wattle shelter she shares with her six children and walks about three kilometres through Katwe, a large slum in Kampala, to the Ugandan capital’s best-known market, Owino.
She calls it “going to work” but she’s neither a vendor nor hired help. In the market, she loiters by stalls where traders sort and winnow beans for sale, picking those that fall to the ground.
Sometimes, she climbs onto off-loaded trucks, to pick spilt beans off their beds. When she has collected a cupful or two, she heads back home.
By the time she gets home (typically around midday), her four eldest children (12 years and under) will have left the shelter.
She knows they have gone off to beg for money and food, at any one of Kampala’s busy traffic intersections.
Kigem’s children return home around midnight, with anything from UGX1,500 to UGX3,000 (40-80 cents). On luckier days, strangers also give them food so they will say no to Kigem’s staple of cooked beans.
Begging by organised networks?
Children begging in Kampala’s streets is a common sight and authorities say many of them are forced into begging by organised networks.
“We don’t know where they come. There are a number of children on the streets, of course, alongside their mothers who gain from them,” Sam Sserunkuma, the city’s deputy executive director, told journalists on Tuesday.
Last week, the city of Kampala passed a law that banned donations or food to street children. People who do, now face a fine of about $11 or six months’ imprisonment.
But Kigem, a single mother, said that poverty forced them to beg. “If I could meet them [the politicians], I would explain my situation and tell them that it’s better for my children to beg than steal,” she said.
Her neighbours who were eavesdropping joined the conversation with far less restrained commentary.
“Are they going to punish people for being merciful? asked Michael Keem, a leader of Kinyoro neighbourhood, a swampy edge of Katwe slum, home to poor people mostly from the Karamoja region in the country’s northeast.
“People give money in churches. They should ban that too. America gives us money as a country. They should ban that.”
Suleiman Korobe, a 23-year sitting next to him, said if “the government which is supposed to solve hunger” has instead decided to make money off the hungry through fines.
Residents said the new measures were meant to target the community from Karamoja – one of the poorest regions in the country.
Francis Kisakye, a social worker and founder of Trace Uganda, an organisation that works with street children, agrees with their assessment.
“The ordinance is combing the apex of the problem; targeting only the visible street children: the ones from Karamoja,” Kisakye, a former street child, said.
Karamoja, a semi-arid region, has experienced frequent famine in the past. Most of its social and economic indicators are the worst in the country.
Of its 1.2 million people, 61 percent live in poverty compared to a national average of 27 percent, according to the latest Uganda National Household Survey. While the national literacy rate is 77 percent, it is 42 percent in Karamoja.
City authorities say the law is meant to protect children from being trafficked into the city by criminal gangs who then place them on the streets to beg.
Children on the streets
In Katwe-Kinyoro, however, residents refuted the trafficking theories.
“Nobody brings them. It is hunger that pushes them out of Karamoja,” Keem, the community leader, said.
A 2018 survey by Retrak, a non-profit, estimated that 15,476 children live on the streets of the four major towns on the route out of Karamoja: Mbale, Iganga, Jinja and Kampala.
Kigem said she left Karamoja along with her children during a famine in 2016.
Even though life in Kampala is still difficult, she said she won’t go back because in the city she can feed the family, once a day.
If the city authorities start arresting people for giving street children gifts, she will ask her own children to stop begging to avoid getting innocent people punished.
“But after a few days, hunger will make them do it again,” she said.