It took a supreme act of the will (and consultation with my live-in editor-in-chief) not to title this post with a different synonym of ‘manure’.
Perhaps I can blame my 10 years in the Navy on my high tolerance for colourful expletives…either way, there it is.
We have people come to our door often asking for things…money, pharmaceuticals (usually not the illegal kind), food. It’s part and parcel of being wazungu (white) in Africa. One of the more creative is the group of girls who comes to the door during school holidays. With a straight face we are informed, ‘Today is our birthday. You will bake us a cake.’
We’re careful not to give unless it’s for a harambee (literally, “let us all pull together”, e.g. a community fundraiser) for a genuine medical need, someone’s house burns down, etc. This question of “when should I help?” is a genuine and difficult one, and we often recommend When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor to visiting friends or new arrivals here.
All analogies about the early (and current) missionary/NGO semi-colonialist habit of creating dependence aside, the constant call for help does get to be a bit much sometimes. Like yesterday.
John (name changed) is a local who comes to our door regularly. We sometimes buy firewood from him, which we have recently discovered is usually infested with termites. Lots of termites. He shows up on firewood delivery day in a ramshackle 1960’s-era blue pickup piled high with blue gum and wattle logs, spewing enough blue smoke to cause a localised reduction in visibility–which always brings back vivid memories for me of driving through a fog bank on a surfaced submarine early in the morning.
John came to our door yesterday, clutching his cheek. I have a bad toothache. You will buy manure from me for your shamba (garden) so I can buy medicine.
Now this was a first. We have enough of a relationship with John that he understands we won’t just give him money, but we’re happy to buy goods from him at a reasonable price if we need them.
Enter the manure. He had seen us building a chicken wire fence around the shamba (the birds and monkey will strip it bare overnight if we don’t), and deduced we had a need.
But for me, on this day…it was a bit much. Manure? Really? You’ve got to be kidding. Leave me alone, I’m busy, I have meetings and classes booked all day today. I am ashamed to say I was short with him and sent him on his way. When he called me back 4 hours later to remind me that he still had manure for sell, I was even shorter.
And in my shortness, I heard a little voice remind me that we don’t get to choose the people we are in community with…we’re just, well, “in community” with them. And sometimes they come to greet you at inopportune times. Sometimes they are smelly, and when you look at them all you can see is termite-infested firewood.
John was a bit aggressive, I’ll grant, but he had a genuine need alongside his less palatable characteristics. Like more than half of rural Kenyans, he’s desperately poor, living day to day. In a country with a 40% unemployment rate, where a job which earns you around $100USD per month gross is considered a good one (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ke.html), a truckload of manure might feed his family for a few weeks.
Not that they would eat the manure, they would sell it to me and then buy food…well, you get the picture.
I am learning that this is just life here…the need to have healthy boundaries and good economic practices alongside the reality that we eat well every day, but there are people who are hungry within 1 mile of us who have no idea where the money for their medicine or their next meal is going to come from.
And I am reminded that after we bought the last (termite infested) load of wood from John in December, he flagged me down on the road a few weeks later, leaned into my car and said, “Thank you for buying kuni (wood) last month…because of you we were able to have Christmas.”
I mean, really, what do you say to that?