Saturday, February 20, 2010

Helping, hurting or just being taken

Wednesday after work, I was very hungry and with my collegue, J, we finagled a car to go get some Lebanese food at the new somewhat fast-food restaurant. Before we got far, we were called back to the office- first for an office key, then to change vehicles. As I sat in the car waiting for J to come back out, a boy of 10 or 11, approached the window.

"I'm hungry. I haven't eaten. I am displaced and living on the street...." He asked for money for food. Usually I don't give money because I am used to the boys around the stoplights in Port-au-Prince who make a business out of begging. But, since I'm in a new context, I thought why not give something? I pulled out my wallet and handed him 200 francs. Accepting this he then asked for money for clothes. I said no, I'd already given him something at which point he started sobbing and saying he had no family, he had no clothes, wouldn't I please help him????

I was at a loss. Was this real? Was he really in such dire straits or playing the white girl to see what he could get?

J came back at that point and shooed the boy away, but he clung to the side of the car even as I tried to move it through the office gate, but let go as I pulled away.

Thursday morning stepping out of the house and running a bit late, the temporary day guard told me there was a girl at the gate. Joining me step for step to the gate he explained that she was looking for work, particularly if I would hire her to wash our clothes. He was replacing our regular guard, D, a lovely woman with a bright smile who had to take a couple of days off because her infant was sick and in the hospital. Was this girl outside the gate a friend/relative of this new guard and he thought there might be opportunity? I explained to him that we already had a Maman to wash our clothes and clean our house.

Stepping through the gate I continued the same explanation that I'd been giving the guard. "I'm sorry, we already have someone working for us. We don't need another person."

A girl of about 12 was wearing an off-white t-shirt and a darker colored skirt was leaning against the gate. Her shortly-cropped hair wasn't braided and stood on end to give her a bit of wild look that didn't match the dejected look on her face. In the 10 seconds I had had to form an expectation of this girl before seeing her, I hadn't assumed she'd be so young.

Who was this girl? Where did she come from? She's so young!
"That is what you wanted, right? To work for us?"

The girl nodded, and I in my rush to walk the two minutes to the office, said I was sorry I couldn't take her on and turned and walked away.

Friday afternoon I was to meet Coach B to take four kids- poor kids he teaches tennis- to buy proper shoes for them to play in. I needed some as well, so when he brought up the need for shoes to this white foreigner, I said I'd buy the kids shoes and get some for myself as well.

Due to a little logistical snafu in getting a vehicle, I didn't meet them until 4:30. By the time we got to the huge outdoor market covered with a tin roof where they sell shoes, it was just starting to rain and get dark. Not the most ideal conditions to look for shoes, but Coach B insisted that we look for shoes for me first before looking for the kids. With three kids in tow (one couldn't make it), we moved from stall to stall with vendors pointing to shoes and calling out to me, "Maman, look here". "What about these!" I'd look at them and reject the shoes in turn as most did not have a sole to wrap up around the front of the toe to protect against toe-drag when playing tennis.

"Do you have anything in a 42?" Coach B would ask a vendor. They would look, pull something off the wall and try to get me to try it on. I did try on a few pairs, disconcertingly most were damp on the inside from being washed. It was a used shoe market, although any pairs I tried on were quite new looking.

To try on a pair I'd pull out a sock from my purse, stand on one foot as I put sock and shoe on and try not to fall over as other customers brushed past in the aisle. After a few try-ons with no success, I found a pair that fit well and Coach B started to barter.

The bartering started in French at $65 dollars and quickly switched to Swahili and I couldn't follow any more except for the many references to "mazungo" that the vendor was making. I'm assuming he was saying, "Dude, I'm not dropping my price for this foreigner!"

I started to show interest in other shoes with other vendors to show I wasn't really interested in buying his shoes hoping he would drop his price, but he wouldn't go below $50. So, Coach B said we'd have to come back another day and we walked away. At this point it really was too dark to keep looking and many vendors were packing up. Coach B suggested coming back the next day and we started to walk out. I and the three kids got into the car, but Coach B was still inside. He came out a few minutes later and said the guy would accept $35. Deal! Coach B went back in and bought the shoes while the rest of us waited in the car.

By this time it was pouring buckets, but the kids asked if we could go the best grocery store in town and get candy. Hmm, so shoes aren't enough, huh? What 9 year old wouldn't much rather have candy than a new pair of shoes? So, off to the store to let them pick candy and then I dropped them home.

At this point, Coach B asked how we'd handle getting the shoes for the kids. Obviously, my presence would just drive prices up. He suggested that I could just give him the money and he'd buy the shoes and show me what he bought. He estimated $25 per kid, so I handed him the $100 bill I'd brought along hoping I wasn't being suckered and reminded him to get the remaining $5 in change from the vendor who had sold him my new shoes.

Three days. Three encounters. Helping, hurting, or just being taken?


  1. I never, never, never know with these instances either.

    My policy used to be to never give anything -- it wasn't sustainable -- better to smile, greet, shake hands, be friendly, and move on.

    But yeah. I really don't know anymore, and recently gave money in one instance and clothes in another...

  2. Hey! reading a great book that is challenging that thought... Same Kind of Different As Me (if you can get it, read it!) and the one after What Difference Do It Make? Great Reads! Missing your posts friend!