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Published: April 24th 2009
“The problem we Africans have is that when we see you people with light skin, we admire you and we want to have what you have. We want to walk in your shoes - but we want them to be your
shoes. We don't want to know where you got them so that we can work to get a pair of our own.”
These were the words of a philosopher in the guise of a waiter at the cafe I went to this morning. I have so many thoughts about what he said, especially given that my day began with two well-fed, healthy-looking 16-ish-year-old girls asking me for 100 shillings when I stepped out of our gate. They pretty much crumbled when I asked them “why”. I think because the only reason they could have given me is “because you are a mzungu and that's what mzungus are for.”
I have a daily struggle here with balancing my white-middle-class-PC guilt with frustration at exactly what the waiter, Richard, was talking about. When Devin and I lived in India, it was very clear who was a beggar and who wasn't. I don't recall ever being asked for money there by somebody who wasn't missing body parts or who wasn't clearly living on the streets (or working for a con-man ala Slumdog Millionaire which seemed pretty true in our experience). Here, it is not uncommon even for people with jobs to ask for a handout, and there seems to be no social norms discouraging it.
I was actually very heartened by my interaction with Richard. He was maybe 20 years old - I'll forgive him the fact that he said I was “big in years.” He kept saying “I have my two hands and I can make things happen. I can learn from people like you who have been around, and expand what I know and am able to do.” (I didn't have the heart to tell him that the 1,000 shilling tip I had given him - about 50 cents - is more than I've made in months). It is people like him who will make changes happen here.
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