What would you do? How would you respond (or not) when…
Three boys, all wearing their school uniforms of white shirts and green shorts, start following you down the street. They’re about 8-10 years old. You slow down and they slow down. You stop and turn around and they find something to get distracted with and start following you again. After a few moments one of them walks right up to you and says, “Give us money…?”
You step outside of the place referred to as the Mzungu (Acacia) Mall with your single small scoop of dulce d’leche ice cream. You take your first bite and almost groan with pleasure. A young woman with a basket of bananas on her head sees you smiling and walks over to you. “Bananas, miss?” “No thank you.” “Buy something from me? I’m hungry, miss… buy me something to eat?”
A man thrusts his hand out to you as you walk by him on the street. “Hello…” As you walk ahead he continues to call out to you, “How are you?” He mutters to himself in his local language then continues with, “You are beautiful… I like your tattoos…” More muttering. “I want to _____ you.”
These three situations (and oh so many more like this and also very different from this) have occurred over the past several weeks while in Uganda. In the first scenario, I unexpectedly and a bit surprisingly responded the way I imagined my younger sister (who has spent many years living overseas) would, in a pseudo-shocked yet firm and playful voice, “What? Are those good manners? You walk up to a stranger and ask for money? How about saying, ‘Hello. How are you?’” The boys ended up slinking away while chattering to each other in their local language.
The ice cream scenario occurred in my first couple of weeks here. Immediately after the young woman’s request for money and food my mind filled with possible responses, “She’s got bananas on your head – why doesn’t she just eat those if she’s hungry? Should I buy some bananas from her? Do I give her my ice cream? Do I offer to buy her ice cream? I’m not going to just give her money…”
As my mind ran through these options, my body responded by shaking my head, turning away from her, walking inside the ice cream shop and sitting down at a table. I felt ashamed at my selfishness: I just desired to eat my scoop of ice cream in peace. I felt guilty: I had just easily spent more money at the mall than she probably earned in several months selling bananas. My ice cream itself probably cost more than all her meals for a week.
I watched judgments arise that I had walked away from her. I heard my younger sister’s voice telling me it’s okay… “handouts encourage more of that behavior… focus your energies on where you’re giving girls and women a hand up.”
I let go of judging myself and committed to learning from the experience and to playing with different kinds of responses going forward, knowing these situations would arise again. This way, I could get out of thinking there was a right or wrong way to respond and instead, be in exploration and discovery mode.
The third scenario with the man on the street occurred this morning. I chose to ignore him. I figured he would get tired of the one-way cat calling and leave me alone. But as I walked up to the shop and leaned in through the metal bars to talk to the owner, Carin, he stood by the street continuing to call out to me.
I continued ignoring him but it got to a point where it was hard to hear her over him. I turned around without making eye contact, gave him the Ugandan hand gesture that means go away (hand up as though to say goodbye but the fingers are folded down and waggle towards the person), and turned back around to talk with Carin.
He kept calling out to me so I asked Carin if she would tell him in Luganda (the local language) to leave me alone. And she did! It didn’t work but her support gave me a boost of reassurance. I’m not alone.
I finished my transaction and walked away from the shop, away from the man and in the other direction. He called out to me a couple more times and then finally stopped. I went forward with a story to share and who knows where he faded off to.
Moment to moment there are all kinds of different scenarios and different responses available to me. And the choices I make lead to different kinds of interactions…
The group of boda boda drivers on my street used to stare at me as I passed by every day. I felt intimidated by them. They were like one big group of testosterone trying to penetrate me with their dark eyes. They’d call out to me, asking if I wanted a ride. Then they stopped calling out to me, knowing I didn’t want a ride. I was choosing to not be friendly with them, not wanting any smiles or greetings from me to be misinterpreted as an invitation for more.
Then I was introduced to one of the drivers and started calling out hello to him as I passed by. The invisible walls of separation began to dissolve.
A little while later I started talking with the woman who has a small roadside shack of a store across from the boda boda drivers. As I talked to her she started to tell me how the men were calling out to me, asking how I was. That was the turning point.
I turned and faced the men and used what little Luganda I knew to interact with them. Just this morning we exchanged greetings in Luganda, along with smiles and laughs. As I walked passed them I got excited to learn more Luganda so I can surprise them with different greetings tomorrow.
Different responses, different interactions, different possibilities…
The other day as I walked along a small dirt path by the busy road between Oasis Mall and Garden City, I passed a young thin girl sitting on the ground. She wasn’t actively begging… she didn’t call out to me or have her hands out. I got a few feet passed her, then turned around and handed her the small ginger cookie I had in my bag. As I set it in her hands the boda boda drivers nearby talked in an animated way… they seemed happy that here was this mzungu giving the young girl a treat.
I smiled at the girl, she smiled at me and I went on my way. It felt like a random act of kindness, not a handout. It turned out to be a lesson learned…
Awhile later, as I returned to Oasis Mall, that young girl was not the only one sitting on the dirt path. I passed her and then saw two young girls sitting together; further on was a mama and her child and then right near where the path ended another child sat, all of whom looked up at me with either their hands out or asking for money or food. What had I done with that simple seemingly innocent random act of kindness?
Encouraged more begging.
I laughed and learned and continue to learn and choose, moment by moment.