However poor Myanmar may be, however much poorer it was before now, only a few people don’t have anything at all to eat or nowhere at all to sleep. In a country big on donation to the monkhood, where food is put out for street cats and dogs, most communities look out for their less well provided for neighbours.
You do see beggars, young and old, able and infirm, but they don’t seem to be starving and they do seem to be given cash as they make their rounds.
Families rig their mosquito nets up in stairwells or on the street beside the stall they run in the daytime. Young boys who work for food and pocket money as waiters teashops sleep on the tables where in a few hours they will serve breakfast.
Of course there this even less ‘fortunate’. It’s nothing at all – not by a long way – like next-door Bangladesh with its 600,000 street kids, half of them in Dhaka, but Myanmar has its street kids too.
Early the other morning in Yangon I met three of the dirtiest children I’ve ever seen here. Three boys. Four, five and eight years old sitting on the kerb of a main road.
No shoes. Two of them without shirts. All of them dirty dirty. The trousers of the five year-old, his single item of clothing, were torn wide-open from knee to groin. I spoke to them for a little while. My Burmese does not stretch much further than that but it’s good enough to find out that between the three of them they have one absent-alcoholic parent.
An 18 year old appeared at my shoulder and spoke to me in passable english. He explained that they are a group of five. He’s trying to look after these three and his dirty eleven year old, rubbish collector, brother (pictured). They sleep at the train station, the youngest on a disused, rubbish-strewn flight of steps that other people seem to use as a toilet and who knows what else.
Some mornings they come out here close to one of the more expensive hotels and the older boy, himself clean, asks for money from tourists and better-off locals so that he can buy the three of them and his dirty 11 year old brother, who has a nasty bump and gash on his head that he says a policemen gave him with a stick.
The 8 year old has a cut, infected and badly swollen foot that he has trouble walking on, the result of it having been run over by a car five or six days previously.
I bought them all a good meal of rice, chicken curry and vegetables, and then extra rice, which they politely and thankfully ate sitting at the low tables of a street stall that was just opening up for business. The older boy ordered only for the four small boys, not for himself until I prompted him*, It was only £3 to feed all five of them.
Min Thu and I went looking for them again early in the morning a couple of days later and found the 8 year old and the 4 year old who are brothers, sons of the alcoholic parent. We fed them and then took them to see a doctor.
While waiting for her, the doctor’s helper cleaned them up a bit – just hands, feet and faces – without touching them herself; they really are that dirty. And we fitted them out with clean if oversized t-shirts that a friend had spare. Big improvement.
When the doctor came she turned out to be 23 yr old from Shan state who was very keen to understand the cost of living in the Uk and particularly in London as she hopes to study further there.
She said nothing is broken in the foot but it is properly infected. She cut away dead skin and cleaned out puss and then dressed the foot (he has no shoes so that dressing will have become dirty within minutes), gave him an antibiotic injection – which he did not enjoy – and sent him away with three bags of pills to take at different times today. He’s an 8 yr old homeless kid, is that going to happen? The whole treatment cost 2300 Kyat which is just under 2 pounds.
I arranged to find him again the next morning and take him back to the doctor for ‘follow up’. Of course he didn’t turn up, having jumped a 4am train to somewhere there was said to be good begging prospect that day.
This I found out because the bumped-head 11 year old was around and very happy to accept another meal. Therese speaks great English and perfect Burmese so we could have proper chat with him while he ate. He’s not a beggar, he’s in the rubbish recycling business. Fill a sack with plastic water bottles and other returnables and it should be worth 500Kyat, enough for a plate of food at a street stall. He has not been to school for a long time. And what job would he like to do if he could do any job in the world? A tea-shop waiter. Not an an unrealistic ambition maybe, so long as he keeps out of trouble and learns to have a wash a little more often.
Of course there are way too many kids in need in the world. (Too many kids full stop?). There is nothing special about these few I met here but less than a dollars a day makes a big difference to them; no-one of likes to go out collecting rubbish on an empty stomach. I will keep an eye out for them. Despite their rough and tough lives they are very likeable, seemingly happy kids, playing and play-fighting like small boys do, even homeless ones.
- It’s tricky business. I found a shoeless child beggar in Hpa An, a pretty well-off town. I bought him shoes but they were gone by the next day. Either he sold them or his parent sold them however much he had wanted to keep them on his feet.
- A few years ago in Mandalay we met a tiny girl-beggar. Five years old and seemingly alone in the middle of a big city. A little investigation and it turned out her Dad was the ‘second’ (ticket, money and luggage guy) on a pick-up bus running a circular route that once an hour brought him past the tourist-popular ice cream shop she was begging in front of. Once an hour he could check she was OK and take from her whatever she had ‘earned’. She was an extra source of income for him, who knows if any of what was given to her benefitted her directly at all.
- If a child beggar approaches me at a cafe or on the street rather than give them money I always ask if they want to eat. Sometimes they will accept food but prefer takeaway, normally so they can share it with an older kid or adult who is ‘running’ them. Sometimes takeaway is the only option because the restaurant does not want them on the premises long enough to eat at table.
- When a kid eagerly accepts the offer of food and will eat right there, right now, I think they are the ones who most need help are least likely to have anyone looking out for them. Sometimes they will take you to some other place that they really want to eat from, often a much less nice place but they know the food, know they like it. Once or twice they have taken me to places serving deserts. I always go with the flow. I think allowing them to exercise a bit of choice, indulge themselves even, is probably a good thing too.
- I asked the doctor how much she earns (which is very socially acceptable in Myanmar). She said she is ‘on a percentage’ and makes about 120 dollars a month. Which is what a tourist guide makes in 3 or 4 days. It will be tough for her to meet those London living costs if she gets the chance.
- My burmese stretches to knowing the difference between four and five, mainly because I find consistently making the right sound for five (which is the same as for fish) very hard, get it slightly wrong and you are saying ear.