There comes a time in every expats life abroad that they have to face the difficult decision of how to respond to someone that they’ve actually come to know and built a relationship with who asks for help in a time of need. This is much different than giving some spare change to the random beggars we come across, but this is when a friend, or neighbor, or student has a real life out of the ordinary problem and they come to you hoping to find some help. Every expat handles these situations differently, some with very strict rules of how to refuse such requests in order to maintain a reputation of fairness and not present opportunities for material aid to damage the relationship already built on other grounds. Others tend to keep an open mind and receive every request and at least listen to the person’s story to see if or how they can help and end up judging each situation on an individual basis. And then there are those who just can’t say no and become the charity sugar momma/daddy regardless of whether they get taken advantage of or not. I fall somewhere in the middle, with the open mind sensitive to needs, but also unafraid to tell someone, “Seriously, don’t waste my time. Go annoy some other chump.” I wanted to share a couple examples.
Last week on the same morning that I wrote the “Beggars 101” post, I had a woman in my office brought to tears as she explained to me her problems. Typically, it’s not unusual for someone to put on a sad face or even squeeze out a tear when asking for a handout. But you’ve got to understand who this woman is. We’ll call her Madame O. She’s tough and even a little intimidating if you don’t know her. She’s short, but certainly not small and wherever she goes, her presence is known. She’s what Haitian’s might call an iron lady, and you don’t mess with iron ladies. She sells staples such as rice an flour in the market and has 14 kids, 11 of her own plus 3 nieces and nephews that she’s taken in. I met Madame O more than four years ago when I was doing damage assessment work on homes affected by the hurricanes that had hit the country that year. She was the next door neighbor to a house that the organization I was working for at the time was rebuilding, and we ended up buying her some extra sheets of tin to repair her roof as well which was in bad shape. Ever since then I’ve remained friends with her knowing that whenever I walk through the market I can count on her to give me a little bag of peanuts as a gift. She’s never asked for anything, not because she doesn’t need, but because she’s too proud to let anyone think she can’t take care of things on her own.
That is until last week when she had reached the end of her rope, a rope that seemed to be tightening around her neck. When Madame O showed up at my office that day she seemed to have shrunk in stature to a fraction of her usually strong persona like a meek little school girl. You could tell she was ashamed to even have to be there. There were quite a few people around the center as usual and she didn’t want anyone to know what she was going through. It’s not a place people typically come to ask for charity because everyone knows that’s not what we do. But as Madame O stepped into my office and began to explain to me her debt and the payments she needed to make for her children’s school and how she didn’t know where else to turn, the tears started streaming down her cheeks but she still didn’t ask for anything. She just told me her situation and said “I don’t know what you can do for me, but I”m sure God knows.”
I didn’t give Madame O anything that day and still haven’t. I just tried to give her some words of encouragement and tell her we’d talk again soon. But I probably will giver her something when I have some extra I to share. When a neighbor like that is struggling so sincerely, as a part of this community I (we all) have to do what I (we) can to help lighten the load. That’s what it means to be part of a community in Haiti.
Being a part of a community in Haiti also means having to put up with some real whackos sometimes too. There is another neighbor of mine whom I have a history with, we’ll call him Pastor O (no relation to Madame O), who hasn’t been as lucky as Madame O on his trips to knock on my door and ask for help. For a while I was very patient with him because I realized that I invited him to beg once upon a time when I made some pity buys from him for some art products that were really crap. Ever since then he hasn’t stopped pestering me for help on one thing or another, but it’s never anything serious enough to waste my money on. Usually I just say, “Sorry Pastor O, but I can’t help you. Have a nice day.” And then go I into the other room or try to look busy until he goes away. But one day in particular I completely lost it on Pastor O mostly because of his tragically poor timing. I had just gotten done bathing. Technically, I was still bating when he showed up, but when I finished and walked through my house in my towel to go put some clothes on, he stopped me en route with some absurd request.
Rule #1 from the Haitian School for Beggars: Don’t ask a naked guy for money. He doesn’t have anything in his pockets.
Apparently Pastor O was absent they taught that one. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt although not too politely, “Get outta here, Pastor O, you ain’t getting anything from me.” And then I turned to go into my room, but he stopped me stuttering his request again. “But, but. but…” That’s when I lost it and the Creole swearing started. “What the #%$@ do you want from me? Get the #*&! outta here and leave me the %&#* alone, you hear?” He didn’t hear. So I picked up my broom and started towards him. He ran down the hill but stopped halfway and turned around to look at me again. I threw the broom on the ground and bent down to pick up some rocks to throw at him. That’s when my towel slipped and my neighbors across the field from me, all young women, who had been watching by now got to see a pasty white Iowan moon. I threw the rocks anyway before arranging my towel and yelled some more cuss words at Pastor O as he ran away.
My three roommates who were watching the whole thing from the steps were laughing hysterically at the whole event, so at least I provided them with some entertainment for the afternoon. And my antics worked for several months at least as it took that long for me to see Pastor O again, but he’s certainly a lot more careful what he says to me these days and definitely doesn’t talk to me when I’m naked. But I apparently didn’t wound his ego too much because he recently offered to give me his church as a gift. Thanks, but no thanks, Pastor O.
No, I don’t recommend throwing rocks, threatening with broomsticks, or swearing at beggars or even acquaintances asking for help, most of the time, but I simply offer both of these stories as ways to show that I don’t think there are any clear cut answers and anyone that tries to apply rules and formulas to these situations is making a mistake if they don’t even offer the person the chance to tell their story. As I’ve written in my previous posts on the subject I think we all have to realize our role as human beings, in whatever community we find ourselves in, to make sure that all other members of that community can fulfill their role while still realizing the beauty that life has to offer. Sometimes that could mean giving some change, sometimes that could mean trying to raise more significant funds to help someone, and sometimes, maybe, you just gotta get naked and throw rocks.