Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The con

He arrived at our gate a couple of Sunday evenings ago, gripping the wrought iron and somehow looking a shade nervous: sweating, timid. My husband was gone, leaving our guard Yokaneh, and the kids and I.

When I heard him speaking with Yokaneh, I stepped out of the door and greeted the man in Luganda, smiling at him, trying to ease his anxiety somehow, to welcome him without opening my gate. Because I've been counseled not to open for strangers--a culturally acceptable practice--I spoke to him through the parallel bars.

He handed a wrinkled receipt from a local clinic, filled out in ballpoint pen for an eight-year-old girl named Jane. She was being treated for typhoid; his daughter, he explained. He'd known someone who'd worked next door (i.e. at eMi) in 2006. The mzungu--Joel, by name--no longer lived in Uganda, but my visitor was wondering if possibly someone could help him still. The bills were too steep for his daughter's treatment.

It's at moments like these where I'm starting, out of habit, to just pray for wisdom as soon as I encounter them. It's as if my faith is being tested. What's it really made of? What does it look like here? Goodness' sakes, Lord, what do I do? The obvious biblical reference would be the parable of Lazarus, who waited at the rich man's gate for scraps from his table. Still, it's far from a perfect parallel. When Helping Hurts--though it's not gospel, per se--has done a lot to remind me what happens when I make conscience-soothing efforts by flashing my cash with my white-lady presence as opposed to truly offering relief, development, or whatever's needed "as fits the occasion" (Ephesians 4:29). Unfortunately, the legacy of "hurtful helping" has sometimes prolonged or worsened the suffering of a lot of Ugandans. And things are far complex than my naive little eyes usually know. Solution: Ask Somebody who does.

The amount my visitor was indirectly requesting, African-style, was relatively small; maybe the equivalent of $40 USD. Still at a loss, I simply offered to pray for him and his daughter there through the bars, so pray we did.

Yokaneh piped up behind me that Stephen, a Ugandan who handles much of our local staff administration, was up at the office; the man could go and talk to him. Perfect! Someone who would hopefully know better than I how to handle odd situations like this (i.e. a perfect stranger asks me for money presumably because of my ethnicity, i.e. economic status). Again, the question in my mind: Am I just saying "be warmed and filled"? (Again, looking at the verse, not a good parallel.)

As a gesture, I offered to escort the man up to the office. Yokaneh took a polite step forward. "I don't think that's a good idea." Got it. Yokaneh is doing his job, and I am fine with that. Despite sharing height my shortest sister (at 5'1"), the guy is a superb guard.

When the man turned the corner, Yokaneh relaxed. His rhythmic African accent: "Dat guy ees a cone man." I.e., That guy is a con-man.


"Patrick"--the guard at eMi, who often chats with our guard over our brick wall, hanging out in the avocado tree (quite literally)--"whistled and told me he was coming. A couple of years ago Janet Strike posted his picture on the door at the office and said that if we saw him, we should chase him away. Every once in awhile he comes back with a new story: His family's been in an accident, what, what." ("What-what" is Ugandan for "etcetera, etcetera".) "He goes to jail, then comes back out and starts again."

Well. I bent over, expelling air in relief. Here I was, thinking, what does it say about my faith when I turn away--well, delegate, at least--the man at my own gate?

"You can only give money to people you know here," Yokaneh says. Another Ugandan went so far this week to tell me not to give money to Ugandans (!--after I was lied to yet again, praying again, being spared my own naivete again); to simply give things people need.

Compassion is so...complicated sometimes.

Thank God for answered prayer.

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