I would like to write a blog entry about a single phrase, one that I hear many times daily and one that provokes intense and conflicting feelings. The phrase is “estou a pedir,” literally “I am asking.” I hear it from cloudy-eyed old women, spoiled children, destitute mothers, teenagers with cell phones, neighbors, colleagues… pretty much anyone. They’re all asking me for something. Sometimes it’s legitimate: “I am asking you to help me with my English,” “I am asking for a glass of water.” Sometimes it’s questionable: “I am asking for your phone number.” Most often it’s unacceptable: “I am asking for 5 meticais,” “I am asking you to marry me,” “I am asking for your hair (i.e. I want you to shave it off and give it to me so I can weave it into mine).” I am confronted with this daily. How do I reconcile all of these requests of “estou a pedir?”
I’ll give you an example. I was walking to town in the hot sun under my umbrella. I was practicing my Xangana, saying “dishile!” (“good morning!”) to some of the passing women. Despite the fact that they had enormous sacks on their heads and babies tied to their backs, they would wave and smile. With the fourth woman, older and without anything on her head, I got a wave and a smile and then some mumbled Xangana I couldn’t understand. She repeated in Portuguese, “I am asking for one metical.” I felt betrayed. I had come to expect this from children, but from a grown woman? I was disgusted. How dare she? You can’t buy more than a small biscuit with one metical. She was grinning at me. Was she teasing me? If she really needed money why not ask for more? These were the thoughts going through my mind at the time and I said to her, in Portuguese, “Are you asking me for money?” She nods. “Are you a child?” She nods. At this point I turned my back to her and stormed off.
As I continued my walk to town I cooled off (I say this figuratively, the sun was still blaring) and tried to understand the reason behind her behavior. How did she see me? A white girl with nice clothes walking to town under an umbrella, someone who clearly has money to spare. This woman had grey hair. She must have been alive before independence from the Portuguese (1975) when Mozambicans were still being exploited by their mostly white colonizers. She lived through the civil war that followed, arguably one of the most brutal internal conflicts in modern history. What had she seen? My heart softened. I forgave her. When I got to town another old woman approached me for money. I told myself, “If you give to her then everyone will begin asking you. You’re on a Peace Corps salary. If you start giving you will quickly run out of money.” But then I thought, “It’s just one metical. It will buy one biscuit. She may be very hungry…” I didn’t look at her and kept walking.
Another example. Yesterday a girl maybe 14 years old with her hair in braids showed up at our doorstep. She said she knew the prior volunteer and proceeded to walk into the house and sat on our couch. I asked what she wanted and she got shy. I sat down next to her. She said that the former volunteer had told her that if she ever needed anything she could come ask the new volunteers. I thought perhaps she was looking for advice and asked, “What do you need?” She replied, “Running shoes.” I was taken aback. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you running shoes.” She looked at me silently. “We are not here for that. We are here to help you with academics, advice, but not to give you things.” She sat on the couch silently for a long time while Valerie and I chatted about what we would buy at the market. We said we were leaving soon. The girl stayed on the couch, flipping through a book about yoga. I sat down with her again. “That’s yoga, it’s a type of exercise. You can do it without running shoes.” I felt like a jerk. I asked her about school and home and how many brothers and sisters she has. I asked how she knew the other volunteer. I invited her to come back some day and chat more. I still felt like a jerk. She finally left when our friend arrived to take us to town.
What did she need running shoes for? Just that morning I had gone for a run, enjoying the freedom and clarity of mind it granted me. Did she want to get in shape? Maybe she wanted to join a girls’ soccer team. Was lack of shoes the only thing holding her back? Sports teams are a powerful tool for building confidence and life skills. It could make the difference between staying in school and leaving early to start a family; between saying “yes” to unprotected sex and having the courage to say “no.” I was being too hard on myself, but the reality is that I could have found a way to give her running shoes. It would have cost a pretty penny and I don’t have much to spare, but I could have made it happen.
These are just two examples of the many cases of “estou a pedir” I run into every day. Valerie and I have talked about it on many an occasion. At first I was insulted and resentful. I wanted nothing to do with people who would blatantly ask me for money and things just because I am a “mulungo” (“white person”). Now I find myself with more patience. I try to see myself in their eyes. Why did they come to me? Can I help them in a meaningful way without giving them things? How do I explain my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer?
I understand now the importance of my reputation. The way people see me will determine whether I can succeed at making change in my community. True, even on a Peace Corps salary I am living a life of comparable luxury. I eat well. I have money to spare. But it’s so important that I make my role clear. If people see me as a charity it will be difficult to get them to see me as a teacher, an advisor, a colleague, a friend... But to what extent can I justify withholding my excess from those who are so clearly in need? This is the question that plagues me every day.