Begging in Benin does not carry a social stigma as in developed countries; here, boys sent out on the road are aspiring students.
  • Begging in Benin does not carry a social stigma as in developed countries; here, boys sent out on the road are aspiring students.
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In the first century A.D. a Christian mystic named Augustine said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read but the first page."

Those words have guided a great deal of my life, and I travel to learn. I travel to escape the mundane and familiar, and to experience the new, whatever it may be.

It took several years for me to realize the journey was as important as the destination, and while I have written about epic expeditions and near-death close calls, I've come to believe the best stories have been the little ones, the personal ones – the ace of spades pulled from a larger house of cards that stands alone in the way it holds your attention with a personal, one-on-one experience.

They're even better when you collide with them unexpectedly.

My friend Noah and I were driving along a remote road in Benin, West Africa, when we passed a group of young boys. From a distance they appeared to be a rag-tag bunch, maybe a gang, and I gave them little thought until Noah pulled the car over and said, "You should talk to these boys."

Up close I could see they were rather well-dressed and groomed, ranging in age from about 6-13, and I could not imagine why he wanted me to speak with them, feeling especially vulnerable since I could see no one else around for miles.

They crowded around, as curious about me as I was of them. Through Noah, they told me that in this part of Africa, a child really is raised by the entire village, and if one did not have the means to support everybody, some of the children were designated to leave with the blessings of all adults. It became their job to wander from village to village, begging as a group.

Begging here carries no social stigmas and is as accepted as any other form of employment. Children are simply better at it than the elderly, and so it becomes a full-time job. Such groups of children are actually a common sight throughout this part of the world.

I might add that none of these boys ever asked me for money.

Older children are put in charge of younger ones, just as at home, making sure they do all the necessary things such as brushing their teeth and washing their clothes. Most importantly, they have a code of honor. They do not lie or steal, and they all share whatever they take in with each other.

At this point, the youngest boy who was beaming with a mile-wide smile obviously had something he was proud of, and reaching into his backpack he pulled out a wooden tablet to show me.

In most of rural Africa there is little paper and fewer pens or pencils. Families will carve a small wooden tablet for writing, the size of a notebook, which is passed down from one generation to the next. Ink is made from the ashes of a fire mixed with water, and a river reed serves as a pen. The children write their lessons on them each day and wash them clean in a river at night for use again the following day.

This is what children use in school, and it is what each of these young beggars carried in his backpack.

This young man told me they had all done their lessons early in the morning before the heat and the day’s travels, and added that one day he hoped to become a teacher himself. Another boy showed me his tablet and said he was going to be a doctor, while another wanted to become a veterinarian. They all said this matter of fact, as though it were already a done deal for each of them.

A moment of optimism in West Africa.

He told me they loved being outside rather than in the confines of a building, that they were learning about the environment firsthand this way, and felt that being out in the middle of everyday life was a better education than any they could receive in their respective villages.

I was overwhelmed by the upbeat nature of this young man and his companions, and everything he said made perfect sense to me. If itinerant beggars can hold such large dreams, then I think the future of Africa is in good hands.

I drove away thinking of this beautiful moment of human optimism and it remains one of my favorite African encounters.

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