Giving until it stops hurting


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A tall teenaged boy darted up to my car window when I stopped for the light at the exit of the shopping center and dropped to his knees yesterday.

Please, he said, rubbing his stomach, I haven’t eaten today.

And he kept saying it until another car pulled up behind me.

I don’t know why I didn’t give him anything and I really don’t want to think about it.

If I do think about it two bad things will follow the bad thing that already happened. One is that I will be reminded, once again, that I’m not as nice a person as Iwant to think I am. The other is that in an effort to avoid that reminder, I will start thinking of the reasons why I didn’t give him anything — the way I feel cornered in the car, the knees, the people selling things on the side of the road who don’t look as strong as he did, and then, conversely, the habit I am developing of saying no at red lights to the myriad of things people try to sell there, mangoes, tomatoes, peanuts, laundry hangers, jumper cables, chess boards, machetes, a used skirt many sizes larger than my size, men’s belts with DG on the buckle, dog leashes, puppies . . .

But that kind of thinking is a slippery slope, as the list of factors that don’t pertain to the plight of this boy and the plight of my conscience pile one on the other and digress even further from the simple request, and my simple refusal. The list leads to rationalization, a really slippery slope that helped contribute to the doubletalk of compassionate meaness that our nation just spent the last 8 years inflicting on itself and the world.

At the same time, I have a history of rationalization that precedes the recent shameful past — from the time my sister told me in one of the less fortunate countries where our family vacationed that giving to beggars was counter revolutionary, to now, when I’m reading Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, that shows the havoc wreaked by self-congratulatory charity.

The truth is that I could give a few thousand kwacha ($3000 would be about 75 cents) to each person every day who asks me for money in exchange for nothing, without ruining anyone’s life, causing corruption, or derailing plans for an effective social service system, and I probably wouldn’t notice the deficit to my budget. I have given to the three of the previous half dozen who approached me — all as it happened, very small children leading around blind elders (that is really true, and honestly, I only just now figured that out — hint: Oedipus at Colonus — odd) .

And the other truth is I make purchases for more money without consulting a nebulous and shifting philosophy in the process.  In fact, I am likelier to find myself justifying having made a purchase, than justifying not having made one. Which introduces the inescapable element of selfishness, how much easier it is to know how to meet one’s own needs than those of others.

One of those needs is turns out, is feeling one has addressed a problem. That doesn’t happen here, because there is too much going on that is problematic. “We have been good at peace,” a Zambian man who works for an organization promoting contraception and health care access said to me the other day, “but we haven’t been good at prospertiy.”

Instead, the citizens of this country, at least of this city, seem to have gotten good at paucity. Which may be part of the reason I forget sometimes how bad it is. Instead, I have been lifted by almost unfailing good humor and kindness, honesty more often than I am used to finding in more lavish surroundings, and a commitment to aesthetics (as the poorest woman’s patterned cloth wrappings — chitenges — worn as skirt, baby sling, cushion for baskets carried on the head shows) and a spirit of enterprise and cooperation. More often than not for free.

I went out with a friend the first week and as she parked her car a teenaged boy approached her mumbling something. She mumbled something back and moved on. I assumed he had asked her for money and she had refused, and I wished I hadn’t left my bag in the car, hidden under the seat as it was. But when we returned to the car he lingered there still, and finally as she got behind the wheel she let down the window and handed him K1500. She explained, and then it all made sense, of course, which is all I want.

“For watching the car.”

Somewhere else, she added, it would have been for not hurting the car.

I hope next time I think faster or not at all, and give sooner.

It won’t hurt.


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