A lady turns up at our gate. She’d seen us at Mama Velo’s wedding near her home. She wasn’t a guest at the wedding and doesn’t know Mama Velo but somehow she’s tracked us down. She asks for money.
Primary education is free in Tanzania, but all children require a uniform which parents supply. She says to us she didn’t have the money for clothes for the children so they can’t go to school. Could we help out?
We’re told a normal thing to do in this kind of situation is to ask the amount and then give a contribution towards it. People don’t expect you to give the full amount, and often the amount they suggest is seriously inflated anyway. But this time we just give her TSH5000 – about $3, a day’s work for some people.
She asks me if she could work for me, maybe water the garden, but Mama Velo does that. I say I’d like to meet her two children, the ones she wants money for uniforms for. She says she’ll return later that day.
At 5pm they come back.
I ask the 6 year old who isn’t that much bigger than Elliot if he wants to play on a ride-on we’ve been given recently, but he doesn’t know how and isn’t that interested, even after I show him how.
I give them water and some cinnamon cookies I’d made earlier that week and get a bit more of their story. Her husband has left them, but she says life wasn’t good with him anyway and he beat her. She has no other family to care for them (her home town, Tanga, is on the coast) and she has no business or way of generating income. I find out that they’re Muslims (not immediately obvious since she doesn’t wear any veils) and I ask her if the mosque provides assistance but she says it didn’t. The kids just hang around at home with her.
She stays for a while and I try to make idle chatter, but it’s stilted. Everything I say she brings back to how she has nothing, and it seems like she is waiting for something. I give her some bananas and some flour to make ugali. One of the kids asks me for rice as well and she asks me for money for clothes for the children. I say to her that I’d given her money for clothes that morning, but she tells me that she used that to buy food for the children. I say I’ve given her money and now I’ve given her food, but they could come back next week and we’ll discuss it again, this time with Mama Velo there. We say goodbye and they leave.
What would you do in this situation?
I feel so culturally out of my depth in this kind of situation. I feel incredibly sorry for her – she seems desperate. I come away feeling almost dirty that I haven’t given her more.
I also feel guilty because I’m annoyed that she’s come at this time. I was just about to give Elliot dinner. He’ll now be late to go to bed and his behaviour is starting to get a bit crazy. It’s inconvenient for me, but what’s that next to her neediness?
I have no way to help her long term and no idea of what implication my actions now might have. I have no way of knowing if her story checks out or what community expectations there are about who helps her.
Have I been compassionate or brutal or stupid or all of those? I have no idea.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.