There’s a young woman that lives in the neighborhood nearby my organization’s art gallery where I frequently work. She is seriously mentally and somewhat physically handicapped but seems to be generally well liked and accepted by the community. I know nothing about her family or background but I can usually count on seeing her every time that I’m working at the gallery. She seems to spend most of her time wandering through the streets during the day usually in her thin nightgown that hangs off her skinny frame. I can count on seeing her and her seeing me. I can count on her walking up onto the porch of the gallery where I’ll be sitting, giving me a shy nudge of her shoulder and holding her hand out and looking up at me with a hopeful smile on her face. And I, without fail, will reach into my pocket and dig out 5 gourdes to place into the palm of her hand. And if I don’t happen to have 5 gourdes I will look around at my friends with me and they’ll all reach into their pockets until someone finds some change to give her. I, an unashamed critic of charity and hater of handouts, am physically and morally unable to refuse this girl’s requests.
I know that I am just creating expectations with this girl that I’ll never be able to undo. However, the equivalent of 12 cents is certainly not going to cause me much distress but it certainly brings a smile to this girl’s face and hopefully brightens her day a bit. And for that alone, I feel it’s worth the cost. This girl, though, is certainly the exception because I am notorious for not giving to beggars that I encounter in the city. 9 times out of 10, however, it’s because I honestly don’t have anything to give, which releases me from having to make the decision.
The Haitian proverb says, “You can walk by the beggar but don’t break his calbas,” meaning you don’t have to give him anything but don’t humiliate him either. This is a very fine line that foreigners who are expected to have change in their pockets have to walk in this and other cultures. I walk by the amputees outside of the grocery store. I tell the mother at the bus station, “I’m sorry but I can’t.” I ignore the old lady in the market calling out “blan!” But I don’t feel guilty. For one reason because I know that their begging is based upon an inverted racism that I refuse to acknowledge as legitimate. For a second reason, because we all know there are better solutions to helping people out of poverty than handing out money to whoever asks for it. Does it mean that these people don’t need it? No. But in those momentary encounters its not appropriate to try to educate them on economics or development to justify my rejection of their request. I know that they need it but giving them a handout isn’t providing them with the help that they need.
If I had the time and felt so persuaded to do so, perhaps I could help develop a sustainable program to help those amputees find a trade or skill where they can be productive and make a little money for themselves so they don’t have to sit on the ground outside the store. I could probably help that mother at the bus station find a program to provide her support for her children so that they weren’t hungry and could go to school. I could probably seek out an institution that focuses its work on improving the lives of the elderly for that woman in the market. I could guide them towards some help, but that’s not my mission here in Haiti and none of us can expect to help everyone. Unfortunately, that means that some slip through the cracks and end up seeing begging as their only option. And we can tap into our cultural upbringing and adopt the attitude that they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but when we are also aware of the greater systems that have failed these people, that’s when we find ourselves walking that line where the right answer is very hard to decipher. Or maybe its impossible to see because there is no right answer. You can’t follow your intellect and you can’t follow your heartstrings, so you just make a split second decision of how to move forward with the next step of life and hope that no one gets hurt because of what you decide.
Every time I walk by those amputees outside the grocery store, I think of another man that I know in the city who is missing a leg. I met him while working at a previous gallery in a slightly different part of town. They called it the door to the ghetto. It was a playground for all of the potheads and prostitutes in the city and I got to know some pretty colorful characters while working there. But this man with one leg was in control of it all. He was bald with a pirate-like beard and an imposing presence with a heavy set but muscular build. He was the most respected man in the neighborhood and with one word he could get whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to beg, he was able to reap what everyone knew he deserved. I was lucky to get on his good side and maintain a friendly relationship with him, but I would hate to see what it was like on his bad side. While working at the new gallery I will still see him drive by occasionally in his little red Subaru and he still stops and chats with me before heading on to his next important rendezvous. He’s not a man that requests pity; he’s a man that demands respect. And he’s living within the same culture, with the same obstacles, as well as the same opportunities as those guys at the grocery store. So how has one become the king of the ghetto while others have to beg everyday to survive?
I don’t have the answers and I don’t think anyone does. Like I said, I don’t know if there are any answers. We can chalk it all up to fate. We can blame the government, or the NGO’s, or even the earthquake. We can argue about whether to give money or food or advice, but in the end, there is no reason to it all and it doesn’t serve us to try to find one. There is no rule book on when to give or not to give to beggars. There’s no checklist of criteria that a beggar must fulfill in order to find some change falling into their calbas. There’s just doing the best we can to pay everyone the respect they deserve as fellow human beings while we all muddle through this life together. And every once in a while that might include giving 5 gourdes to a girl who gives us an innocent shoulder nudge and a smile.