The last humanitarians standing

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“Merely criticising the government… is not going to help our Almas.”

Most of us have seen her outstretched weather-beaten hand on the streets of Rose-Hill, where she begs. Her suffering is a live documentary that plays on repeat in the background of our busy lives. We don’t know why her spaghetti-like arms are so thin. We don’t know why her body shakes uncontrollably, what the medical reasons for her convulsions are. But enough people still share a few rupees or smiles with Alma. Because we are not really the kind of society that lets an elderly woman deteriorate on the streets alone, are we? Not yet – but we could be headed in that direction.

A majority of us have already learnt to ignore the Almas of this island. We already excel at all the strategies commonly used by people who want to turn a blind eye to human suffering and get away with it psychologically. One strategy is to reduce all of Mauritius’ Almas to mere background noise. Another is to talk about how unfortunate it is that drugs are destroying so many lives. However, the statistics stand in the way of that strategy since they tell us that the majority of people who beg on the streets aren’t actually substance users – and the majority of drug addicts are not homeless.

An increasingly popular strategy is to fire off some half-hearted comments about how inadequate the government is. Why are there no appropriate institutions for elderly beggars with health problems, who have nobody to turn to after a lifetime on the streets? What kind of leaders allow suffering that is so undignified? The comments are true, of course. The shelters where those in need can get a bed for the night are not a solution for fragile elderly people with health conditions who need more support than that. The criticism is justified – but the crux is that merely criticising the government and then carrying on with life is not going to help our Almas.

Without enough people willing to fight for them with actions, not just words, the Almas are chanceless. Often unable to access direct government help for bureaucratic reasons (our Alma, for instance, doesn’t have an ID card or any original birth documents), they need help on a grass-root level, by any fellow Mauritians willing to fight against the inadequate government in their names. Luckily, such people still exist here. Recently, a local family welcomed Alma into their home and now provides her with a bed and meals while helping her apply for an ID card that will open up the doors to the official support system. You will have heard of similar stories of Mauritian solidarity. Luckily, this country is still a far cry from the development in many European countries, where vulnerable people who beg on the streets (and sometimes even those who give them coins!) are insulted, assaulted and spat at every day while the majority keeps silent. Some of the last humanitarians standing are found right here in Mauritius. This is a tribute to them.

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