who has the answer?

a mzee (old man) just came into my office to ask me for assistance. as is typical of most people who enter the diocese offices, he came into the first small hallway and part of the way around the corner. he stopped when he glimpsed me, and shrunk back around the corner.

hovering…lingering…waiting…

perhaps he was weighing his options. i have curtains in my office now, so it is harder to see/spy me from the outside. (me as in white, not me as in tsf. not my person-hood, my personality or even my job, but my appearance. my color.)
he gathered his courage, as i was also waiting. he is the third person to come into the office this morning to “speak to me” and its only 10:15 a.m. i was waiting to see who it was he’s looking for, what he came to ask me for, or what he needed.
“good morning?” i proffer to the shadow in the hallway.
he does not respond but slowly comes around the corner and darkens my doorway.

“yes?” i offer, wondering if i need to attempt my fake-ngikarimajong for this conversation.
he finally comes all the way into my office and offers a feeble, “good morning.”
it is, again, my turn to wait as he compiles his thoughts. his behind slowly-slowly making its way to my guest-chair. he is moving so slowly it is as if he’s thinking, “maybe if i sit slowly enough she won’t realize that i’m sitting in her chair…” i watch him make this slow-attack on my chair and say, “who is it that you are looking for? bishop is out currently.”
in my defense, a vast majority of people who make their way into my office assume that i am the bishop’s secretary, or that i am the one they must go through to see the bishop. i am not. and i’m not sure if this is because i’m the first person they encounter, if it is because the word “secretary” is in my title even though i don’t do anything remotely close to administrative-assistant-type-work for the bishop.
“no.” he says, “it is you that i am here to see.”
“oh! okay, please do sit.” i respond, gesturing to the chair and wondering if he is a head teacher i have yet to meet, or a teacher, or a parent of a student in one of my schools.

“i am looking for assistance, madam.” he says.

“oh.” i think. assistance, in this setting is generally translated as money. he has come to ask me for money for something. okay, hear him out. its the least i can do, listen to people’s requests/complaints/pleas/appeals.

so i listen, and he weaves a tale of the local government office owing him 120 months worth of payment. how he has traveled to kampala for a letter from the ministry of… finance? he even shows me this letter from the ministry, stating that the local government does indeed need to pay him his back payments. also, he tells me that he has been working on this issue for at least 5 years.

he’s a retired generator mechanic, or so this letter says. something about grease and machines and perhaps cars as well. i wonder if ‘generator mechanic’ was supposed to say ‘general mechanic’…
his story continues with saying that he actually lives in abim now, and came to kotido to try to get money from the local government, again. he is now stranded in kotido and would like transport money to get back to abim and possibly back to kampala. (and, presumably back to abim from there.)
so i ask, perhaps more bluntly than necessary, “so, you have come to ask me for money for transport?”
he looks a little shocked, and i wonder if i have misread the situation. maybe he was really asking for my help in figuring out this issue. it is in this pause that i notice his face. he really is old. or at least he looks old. his thin face shows that his life hasn’t been easy. deep lines on his brow and sunken cheeks from years of hard work and little food. i then notice the rest of his thin and hard body. more evidence of hard physical work and little nourishment.

maybe some arthritis in his hands. trousers too big, but a decent belt holds up the black and white checked wool. a ragged red t-shirt underneath his mostly clean cream and red button-up shirt. local sandals made from tires.
as i’m noticing him, reading what his body is telling me, he answers. “yes, sister. i have come to see if you can sympathize with me and assist me.”

i sigh. (internally)
on the inside my mind is running a mile a minute, my heart starting to pound.

i hate this.
i hate when this happens.
i hate not knowing what to say or do.
i hear jesus’ words “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”
i also hear the words i spoke yesterday to a student i just started to sponsor… promising him that i will be able to fund him to the end of secondary school. (he is in his final year.)
his face–young and promising. intelligent and serious about school. a good boy. embarrassed to have to ask for money, but eager to learn and do well on exams– flashes in my mind’s eye. two other young people i assist from time to time come to mind.

a silent internal appeal is made to
god.
jesus.
mary.
jesus-god.
allah.
g-d.
zeus.
hera.
ceiling cat.
the auspicious one (shiva).
spaghetti monster.
hanaman the monkey god.
anyone who will listen and tell me what to do, whats right.

is he telling the truth? did he come to me because he’s going to everyone, or did he come to me because he assumed that i had money? does it even matter why me?

“even just 500 for tea, madam.” he says.

i sigh, audibly this time (but not a BIG sigh. just a small one. not the exasperated kind.) and try to think if i even HAVE 500 shillings with me. i conclude that i have two 10 shilling coins and maybe a 500 coin. but i potentially gave the 500 coin to a woman yesterday.

as i’m trying to remember what is in my purse he adds,
“you know. i thought about hanging myself.”
thoughts of money, other people and deities are gone.
a familiar thinness of the air makes it difficult to breathe. this happens when someone says such things in my presence. this feeling is not a new one to me, i have heard these confessions before. i have sat with people struggling to decide if they truly want to live or die. in my mind i cancel my day. questions are forming–what and how do i ask this man? how do i go about figuring out ‘where he is’?

i realize that he is staring at me, searching my face for clues of what he’s just said. he continues,

“i would die easy. i could just do it. i planned it. but the gods [he points toward the sky] would judge me.” he then genuflects, looks at the ceiling and back at me.

still in my thoughts, brow furrowed, still wondering what to say…

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4 thoughts on “who has the answer?

  1. i have no idea what to say but feel i need to say something…anything. my immediate reaction is to cry but that helps nothing. my next reaction is to ask you if there is anything i can do…which i doubt…but if there is. you know who to ask.

  2. You tell of your encounters, experiences, relationships with everything so well. I appreciate your reflections and sharing. Peace.

  3. Who has the answer? I’m not claiming to know. But the right start is definitely: ‘What would be the most loving response to his dilemma?’ And that is a personal call, depending on what you feel you can offer him.

    This is personal opinion as well, but having grown up in Africa when it comes to being asked for money, I always ask questions – even the very hard ones first – and then consider offering assistance. And very rarely is my assistance in the form of money, because I personally believe handing out what little small change I have is going to make no real difference. Would 500 for tea really have changed his apathetic mindset? It may well have perked him up for the afternoon, and who knows? As you yourself asked ‘Is he telling the truth?’.

    Recently I was asked by a stranger for money to attend a relatives funeral. The request is all too common in my experience – and is very emotive – designed to encourage a sympathetic response and put one on the back foot. But I consider empowering people to stand on their own two feet far more valuable than handing out change. I tend to ask what the person would do if I was not there. In this instance the lady who asked had not even gone to her neighbors or nearby relatives – a far more appropriate course of action.

    ‘i hear jesus’ words “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”’ – the greatest good one can do for their fellow man is not just to share with them your riches – but to reveal to them their own.

    God bless.

    • robin, thank you for your comment. i have been meaning to reply for quite some time, but figure that better late than never.

      i agree that a great place to start is asking what is the loving response. i also think that along with that should be “what is the sustainable response” as well. sometimes these two things don’t line up, and sometimes i act outside of that, but having both of those questions in mind helps keep me honest and grounded in reality and connected with what i’m feeling, too.

      this seems to be along the lines of your questions of what would the person do if you weren’t there. that comes up a lot, too.

      something that struck me when i first read your comment was “the greatest good one can do for their fellow man is not just to share with them your riches- but to reveal to them their own.” i couldn’t agree more.

      empowerment is a tricky thing, but this is where real “development” and meaningful change can happen within a person and for a person.

      thank you for your thoughts, the comment and for keeping me thinking and reflecting.

      blessings.

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