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Wrestling With Lions - Africa Day Four

(Monday 12/13/99)

I am trying very hard to catch up here, so I may be a little more brief than Iíd like (probably as brief as youíd prefer, though!) I am actually writing four days after the fact, so Iíd like to catch up quickly so I donít lose any details.

The day started off poorly.As I was making some lunch or breakfast (the line gets a little blurry when you wake up a bit later in the day, say at noon) I stepped on a big sliver of glass.It wasnít a big deal really, but my first thoughts were ďinfection leads to gangrene leads to AMPUTATION!Ē

I pulled it out and we cleaned my foot thoroughly with soap and water, as we did not have any antiseptic (itís in our huge shipment of boxes en route.)Iím not sure if I mentioned this yet, but we donít drink the water here.Anytime we want water to drink or use with food in any way, we boil it and then put it in this large water filter thing.I call untreated water poisonous water.Half way through washing out my cut with the poisonous water I realized that this might not be the most medically sound practice.If it can make you sick to brush your teeth with this water, wouldnít it make sense that pouring it into an open wound would be a bad thing?This set off a whole new round of panic.

Kim, who, mind you, is a doctor, but not a real doctor, calmed me down and explained that you can only get sick from ingesting the water.Of course, a couple of minutes after she gave me her expert medical opinion, she was using strapping tape as a bandage.My suspicions are growing...

Toe Surgery  (the pink and blue blobs to the left are the scissors and packing tape)

Anyway, the point of the story, if somewhat poorly made (give me a break, Iím trying to hustle here), is that I freaked out over something that I wouldnít have thought twice about if I was back in the States.In some instances I believe that it is certainly justified.There are definitely times that you have to be more cautious than usual, but I jumped the gun a little bit on this one I think.

We left the guesthouse to go into town to look for a stereo.Everything runs off the British electrical system, which is a different voltage, and I think, a different AC phase.To top it off they have different shaped plugs here also.If you want to run something from the US here you have to have a transformer, a plug adaptor and a surge protector, as they donít have the steadiest output here either.Some things we wanted to take with us, but others we thought would be easily available here.Oh, and then there is the television thing.Kenya also uses the European/British television system, PAL.US televisions and VCRs donít work here.If you want to play American tapes, which, thanks to Zacís priceless Simpsonís tapes, I will, then you have to get a ďmulti-systemĒ that handles both systems.Youíd think that they would have figured this problem out years ago, and it is only going to get worse with digital television, Iím sure.Anyway, we set out to buy a CD player/stereo.As it was Kenyan Independence Day, Jamhuri Day, a good number of the stores were closed.

As we walked through town we picked up two street boys.I have never felt more confused and lost in my actions as I was with these two boys.They were in really bad shape.They both had clothes that were hanging in rags off their bodies.Although I donít know if they had any diseases really, it could have been malnutrition, but they didnít look well.They had bumps on their face and runny eyes.Although these boys didnít look like those pictures of African children that you see in a famine, with stick arms and legs and ironically huge bellies, to look at them was to have your heart broken.I donít know how to tell you how bad I felt for them.

They followed us a dozen blocks and when we went in to a store they waited for us.We ended up talking to a security guard, and he hollered them off, but as soon as we were out of sight of the guard they came back.One of them spoke pretty good English.He gave a running commentary on the places that we passed.

ďThose are shoes,Ē heíd say at a shoe store.

ďClothes.You buy clothes?Ē heíd say at a clothing store.

ďIím hungry?Can you give you some money?Ē heíd say throughout.

If I am to be honest here, and I do try, then I must say that I donít know how much of my feelings have to do with a genuine concern for their well being and how much it had to do with my own personal discomfort by their presence and persistence.I think I felt most uncomfortable because we were forced to either give them money or be rude to them or ignore them.Since I talked to them when they first came up to us, it was impossible to successfully ignore them.Once they felt as if we were paying attention to them they couldnít be shaken by just not interacting with them.

Some of you my find it hard to believe, but it is so hard for me to be deliberately rude to someone, particularly a stranger, and particularly, I suppose, a kid.I donít think Iím necessarily the friendliest person youíve ever met, and I have been known to be rude, on occasion, to close friends, but strangers are a different story.I guess Iíve got to really like you before I can be mean to you.

My natural response to people I meet on the street is bewildered politeness.Iím usually so genuinely surprised that someone is talking to me that I verbally panic a little bit, but in an overly polite way.So when these boys came up to me, my first confused reaction was to be nice to them.But I knew right away that all they wanted from me was money.And I knew right away that I shouldnít give it to them., but I donít know for sure why I shouldnít and maybe, I still am not sure.

Anyone that lives in or has visited any city, even Ann Arbor, knows this dilemma.When a homeless guy comes up and asks you for money, what do you do?I feel bad for these guys: living on the streets canít be much fun.Anyone whoís doing it, for whatever reason, has my sympathy.I admit that it is harder to feel that sympathy for people with problems like drug abuse or mental problems.But then again, wouldnít you have to have problems of one kind or another to live on the street at all?Itís even worse when they become, in some way, more human.For example, if you actually look them in the eye as you say, ďSorry, man.Canít help you.ĒOr if they actually talk to you instead of just holding out a cup or something.Or if theyíre funny or have some other kind of ďhook.Ē.

I have always rationalized not giving money to homeless people because I think that they would take that money straight to the liquor store or a dealer.Working next to Maize Ďní Brew has certainly solidified that conviction.On the same tack, street kids in Africa are notorious glue-sniffers.Looking at these kids, it was easy enough to believe.The one that was talking in particular had something wrong with him, maybe.I donít know if he was really high or if I was manufacturing evidence based on what I was told was going to be true.Itís impossible to know the difference in this situation.

The other rationalization for not giving money to these kids is that if you give money to them it just makes it harder for them and for the other white people that they meet.I guess the argument is, perhaps insultingly, along the lines of why you shouldnít give food to animals when you are out camping.Youíve all heard it before, so I wonít go over it again.But I didnít see any of these boys following other Kenyans for blocks, just wazungu, and in that way, at least, it holds to some degree.

But man, these were just kids; kids who didnít have a fraction of the opportunity of even the least well-off American.It is hard not to be melodramatic with the symbolic incarnation of African misfortune following you down the street begging you for help that youíre not going to give.Itís also hard for me not to deal with the experience by talking or writing about it and making it a narrative drama with a great deal of digression.

I guess Iíve gotten away from the reality of the situation by going off on a pseudo-liberal rant of sorts.Iíve gotten away from what happened, and will continue to happen until I figure out a way to deal with it.What happened is that I didnít know what to do and mostly hid, behind Kim.When I poked my head out I only made things worse.As with most things, it will get better with experience.I have confidence that I will find a way to approach this that I will find socially, morally and personally defensible, or at least an approach that I can live with.

Iíve gone on a bit here, so Iíll give you a break.

And hereís a link to 12.13.99 Part Two