There’s a girl named Violet who lives near me who’s in her first year of secondary school and is probably about 13. She abruptly started talking to me and telling me she likes me a couple of months ago. And yes, I understood why. A few weeks ago, she told me she liked my bag (my daypack), and asked if she could have it. Slightly taken aback at her directness, though not surprised that she was asking for something, I said no, I’m using this bag. She said, well how about tomorrow then? I said no, I use this bag a lot. The next time I saw her, she asked if I had any books. Specifically, she wanted a dictionary for English. I said I’d look for one in town (they have used books) because, uh, education is good (?). I haven’t found one yet. Since then she has continued to be nice to me, carrying my bag or showing me her school exams.
One night last week, though, she came to my house. When I told her I was working on my computer, she asked to see it. So I invited her in to see it – they don’t have computers at their school. After a few minutes she wanted to look around the house. Fine. I offered her a couple of oranges to take home. Then she said, my mother doesn’t have a job so she can’t afford bread. I said, ummm. There was a whole loaf of bread sitting right on the table. So I said, ok, you can have half this loaf. She took that and said, and she can’t afford shoes for me to wear to school. Uh-huh. I told her I can’t buy her everything. She accepted that and left.
At this point, I said to myself, what to do? It’s one thing when I see her out on the path and she asks for things. But now she’s coming to my house.
I think this is something all foreigners have to deal with at some point here. There’s so much need, and no matter how little money we have, it’s still more than most people here have. And things are so cheap – I could easily afford to buy Violet new shoes. But where does it end? What happens when someone else comes asking for shoes or whatever. It has to be all or none, and I can’t buy everyone everything! Plus, this is begging. And I don’t want to encourage begging. Yes, people are poor – but are they poor because they try and fail to make money or because they’re too lazy to make money and are looking for easy money from me, whose skin color means I must be a walking ATM? You always have to ask yourself if someone is being especially friendly because they genuinely want to be friends or because they want something from you. It sucks, and unfortunately I think the case is often the latter.
Violet is in school. So they got money for that somewhere. Even more significantly, her older sister not only completed secondary school, but sixth form as well (Americans: this means she didn’t leave school at 16, when secondary school ends, but finished our 11th and 12th grades as well). That takes money too. So they must have some way of getting money, however little.
Today, she came by again. She said her mother sent her to greet me. Pause. I need money for a haircut. My teacher says I have to get one, but my mother doesn’t have the money. How much is it, I ask, out of curiosity. 500 shillings – about thirty cents. Also, can you help pay for school?
Now, her mother has obviously gotten the money for haircuts and school in the past. Her other daughter even completed sixth form. Why right now does she not have the money? Is it because something has changed in her financial situation? Or is what has changed is that an American has moved in next door, and it’s easier to play the ‘poor’ card and be handed money than to go work for it? I told Violet sorry, but no, I won’t give you the money. And please tell your mother I don’t like being asked for money.
There’s a difference between needing money because you genuinely can’t come up with it and needing it because you’re too lazy to go out and get it yourself.
The tragic thing in this case isn’t so much the poverty specifically, it’s the fact that Violet is being manipulated, used by her mother to try and get close to me and ask for money. If I see her mother, I’m going to tell her that if she wants to ask for money, she should come do it herself, not send her daughter. Thirteen years old, and your mother won’t give you thirty cents for a haircut but instead asks you to go pretend to be nice to the mzungu and ask for the money? That has to mess a kid up somehow. Her older sister has a job, but also won’t give her thirty cents? What kind of messed up is that? And if I gave her the money, the problem is that I would be encouraging the mother.
So will Violet get a haircut? I’m guessing yes – like I said, they’ve obviously come up with the money in the past. But if not? Will she go to school and be beaten because her hair is too long because her mother won’t give her 30 cents? Chilren get beaten for not being able to provide all the things they’re required to bring to school (firewood, etc).
And if so, whose fault will it be? Her mother’s, certainly.
And mine too?