Thursday, February 21, 2008

Money matters

One aspect of any culture that has noticeable poverty in it that I have always struggled with is begging. Today seemed to be the day that I would struggle with it most noticeably. I felt like I was in a walking object lesson.

Rob and I walked to the post office, as we try to do at least once a week. On the way back, we were about to stop at the local bakery when we passed what looked like a father and his two young sons. The youngest walked behind the “father” and looked rather scruffy, though that is not unusual here, even for children in my own neighbourhood who are just playing in front of their own houses. We noticed, for example, in the Christmas morning service that we attended that children played quite freely in the sandy dirt that formed the floor of the church. They were not discouraged from doing so in any way and would go so far as to pour the dirt on themselves, clothes, bare skin, hair - the works. Returning to their parents, they would be brushed off but a layer of dirt really didn't seem to be a big parental concern. My point is that when I see “dirty” on a child, I don't automatically think “orphan” or “neglected” or “poor”. This child was an example of that. However, I am developing a sort of begging sense and can often tell when a financial request is coming on. I usually have just a few seconds to decide how I'm going to respond or, even, how I'm going to preemptively discourage such a request. My gut on this one was to walk purposefully past the “family”. No sooner had I done so than I heard the little voice beginning to come after me, saying, “Please, lady, give me money. I want to buy bread. Please, lady. I want to buy bread.” I kept walking as if I had not heard him, though I totally had. I can't help but feel bad when I do that. I just didn't feel comfortable stopping and getting involved with this child. He didn't follow us. We went into the bakery to buy bread ourselves but, ironically, the baking hadn't been done yet for the day and we didn't get any bread either.

As we walked on, I had to go over what I was feeling with Rob. Rob, by the way, hadn't heard a thing. Sometimes, he doesn't pick out the English when it's heavily accented, I've noticed. Anyway, he said that he had seen the child and had also assumed that he was with his father. He pointed out that, had I been in the US and had been approached by a child for money with the father standing right there, that I would absolutely not give them money. It would be undermining the authority of the parent, who was with them. Really, we couldn't be sure what was really going on. It seems like some children in places with poverty issues have a little mantra that they've learned in English that gets triggered when a white face enters their line of vision. It's almost like they can't control it. That's what this child's request felt like, anyway. And should we give in to that, particularly when there's a responsible adult with them who should be caring for the child's needs, not encouraging them in demeaning behaviour? Had I given the child money, wouldn't that be insulting to the father? Like, who do I think I am, just giving someone's child money, right in front of them, like he couldn't get his own child bread. Rob pointed out that the father was walking briskly and the child didn't actually pursue us to the bakery around the corner from where we passed him. I imagine the father was going wherever he was going despite the child's request, which he lust have also heard, and that the child decided that it was more important to keep up with his father than to acquire the 4 pula (62 cents) that a loaf of bread would cost. So, the father's position on the importance of his child's acquisition of the money seems clear. Rob said that to give this particular child money would likely be to undermine the father's authority. Like a cranky kid at the mall who wants to eat now and the parent says, “Not yet, we need to finish what I'm doing first.” If that kid managed to wheedle food out of a passerby, can you imagine how ticked off that parent would be?

We talked about all these things, going on to talk about how there doesn't seem to be a cohesive plan of action for money requests from a foreigner. Even for ourselves, our response varies greatly, on a case by case basis. We go on our gut, most of the time. Sometimes, I give just because it's an awkward situation and I just want out quickly, before they cause a scene. Recently, we were sitting near the door at a Nando's restaurant, sort of a KFC-level restaurant, and a man came to our table from outside. We were the only white people in the Nando's, incidentally. He came up to us and greeted us politely. He said that he had just gotten a job in Gaborone but that he could not make it there until the next day. So, he asked if we could give him 20 pula (about $3) to buy some chips. Rob looked at me. I knew I had a 20 pula note in my purse. On top of that, I could feel the eyes of everyone at the tables around us boring a hole in our situation. I just wanted it to end. I rooted it out quickly and gave it to him. He said thank you and headed through the crowd toward the order counter. I wasn't watching as he walked behind me but Rob says that he headed toward the counter but went past it and on out the door, without ordering chips. Ah well. Was he really needing food money? If so, chips probably wasn't the best food value anyway. Hopefully he went and bought food somewhere, something healthier. Who knows? Frankly, I didn't care a whole lot. I mean, it was $3. I've been known to give a lot more than that to causes and charities I don't even believe in, just because I was asked for a donation by a person that I really care about.

But why the hesitancy about one request and not about another? Rob disliked the Nando's situation because he said he felt like we were singled out because of our skin colour. But, later that same day, he was approached for 100 pula by a man in the parking lot and felt like giving it to him. And we can't clarify our reasons when we make these decisions to give or not much of the time. And we don't want to get all spiritual-sounding about it and say that it “just didn't feel right”, implying that it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit that causes us to tun someone away. But we do go with our gut, rather than clarifying policy. There's the direct command of Jesus in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Do I obey that? No. Not only that, I don't know of a single person that I've ever met who gives to everyone who asks them. And this command is not qualified with “but only if you believe that you are not being scammed.” In fact, this context of this passage is instruction on how to treat people who are using and abusing you. So, while giving to someone who I sense to be a scam artist may violate my personal sense of justice (rewarding a liar), is it more important to satisfy my own sense of morality or the flat-out, clear-cut commands of Jesus?

Later on that same walk home, we were walking away from the Rodewalds house, where we had gone to drop off their mail. I saw a road-side stand that had some nice-looking oranges and bananas and we stopped to buy a few. While I was selecting some, the lady selling them asked what church we go to and I told her. She said, “I knew you were a Christian. I saw you walking by earlier and could. We can recognize each other, you know, in our spirit.” I said that I thought that was very true and commented that she was not the first Motswana to make that observation to me. A lady in Gaborone at a stall selling traditional shirts had also identified us as Christians from a distance. I also thanked her for her observation, said that it was an encouragement to me to think that I might be recognizable as a Christian, no matter what is going on in my life. We said pleasant goodbyes and Rob and I continued on our journey home. At that point, I mused that perhaps this might be another reason people were targeting us for money. Perhaps they could see what this lady saw and they were approaching us not simply as whites who have too much but as visibly followers of Christ who have a mandate to give. If I think of it this way, it makes it a bit easier. Less racial, more encouraging.

Just before we arrived home, we greeted 2 fellow walkers on the road. One of them said that they were from Zimbabwe and that they were looking for work. I said that we had no work. He said then that they had been traveling for days and had not eaten anything, asked for 20 pula. I knew that we were out of 20 pula notes and told him that, alas, we had just spent our small change. He said that even a few pula would help. I offered him the bananas that we had just bought. He took them and thanked us. I didn't feel awful as I walked away but I didn't feel great either. I just don't walk away from these types of interactions feeling anything but guilty for never having to ask for money from strangers on the street and sorry for them that they feel they have to demean themselves in that way.

Then, it occurs to me... I do know how it feels to do that! I've been doing it since the fall of 2005! Not on the street, of course. Rob and I do it in shiny church buildings, in nice outfits and with the glossy, venerable title of Missionary. Still, there are days when I feel like we cross the line. On an easy day of raising support, we are people who are called to do God's work and giving people the opportunity to get involved in something they can't do themselves. But on a rough day, we are begging for our lives, pleading for money to keep us doing this work so that the personal sacrifices we've made to be here (seeing our nieces and nephews grow up, being there for our parents as they grow older, enjoying the friendship of people that we love, advancing ourselves in careers that would provide financial security) aren't converted into one great, big, pointless waste.

So, do I wish that Christians would give to me just because I ask them and without them having to have any special positive feelings about us and our ministry? Absolutely. Do I treat others as I want to be treated? Not always. And therein lies the conundrum.

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