Friday, September 29, 2006

Why I don't like Fridays

Have you ever lived in a Muslim society? Northern Mozambique is at least 50% Muslim, and Islam is concentrated here on the coast, due to historical links with Arab countries. We are extremely fortunate in that there is presently no conflict between Muslims, Christians and followers of any other religion. Everyone is free to worship as they see fit, and if a woman chooses to marry someone from another faith, she simply converts. This may be an odd concept for those of us who have been brought up to believe in the absolute nature of faith, but it makes for very relaxed inter-faith relations in these troubled times. So far so good, and I have no problem living in what is effectively a very relaxed Muslim society.

My only problem, if you can call it that, is this. One of the admirable traits of Islam is the obligation to give alms to the poor. In particular on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Therefore every Friday the streets of Pemba fill up with the absolute destitute: the lame, the blind, the crippled, the sick, metally disabled, war-wounded, war-traumatised, lepers, the poorest of the poor, and so on. They circulate in large groups from one Muslim-owned business to another to beg for charity. To the credit of the Muslim community, they receive bread, rice, small change and other items. It is, to be frank, a horrible spectacle. These are truly desperate people, dressed in rags, stinking, sometimes shrieking, sometimes covered in sores, all pretty pitiful. And there is nothing I can do about it. I don't know where they are hidden during the rest of the week, for apart from a few regular beggars, we never see this sad section of society. It reminds me that although Pemba looks OK (if not great) on the surface, this is still an incredibly poor country with a lot of poor and suffering people. So, what should I do? As things stand, I do nothing. There are a number of people I often give a little money to (some of those "regular beggars") but I find the scale of the problem rather overwhelming. I would like to do more than just salve my conscience, but it is not immediately obvious how.


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