THE INEVITABLE ASK

I will just warn you now before you start reading this that if I were wearing a mood ring right now it would likely be a dark-brown for ‘morose’.  It’s just one of those days, you know?

The feeling is unpleasant for sure.  It is an all encompassing experience, one that saturates your entire person.  It isn’t like that of a virus, like a foreign body that has invaded your person and is sapping away your energy.  No, rather it’s much more emotional, like when you know you are about to get in trouble, or when you have done something seriously wrong.  However, just like the flu, you can’t simply just rationalize the feeling away.  There is no arguing with the feeling, and despite the fact that you are fully aware of how unnecessary it is to feel this way, it will persist to be present until it has decided to leave on its own accord.

Perhaps I should explain where this is all coming from.  The other weekend I made it out to a killer house party, a going away party for a Finnish friend.  While I only knew 4 people walking into this party, I had come to know most everyone there by the end of the night.  I exchanged numbers with most of them and we all planned on hanging out soon.  One of the girls that was there was the first to text me the next day.  I had remembered her from that night and she was a nice enough person.  We had agreed to hang out in town one day, as there was a certain restaurant she wanted to show me.  So anyways, we met up and it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes into the conversation that she made ‘the Ask’.  As she explained to me, she was dead broke right now, had been momentarily evicted from her apartment due to rent issues and needed to borrow 500KSh ($6 CAD) for some food.  I’m taken back by this, as I hadn’t expected this so soon into our conversation, and as I tried to regain my balance I agree to it.

So whatever, right?  What is $6 CAD anyways?  I mean, hell, if she really doesn’t have food to eat (which is highly unlikely), who would I be to horde the KSh to myself?  We have a good time, talking about everything else, and I walk away from our meet up with a strange feeling that there is some funny business afoot.

So now fast forward 6 days to today.  It’s early on a Thursday morning and I’m sipping coffee as I work away on my computer in my guesthouse.  At about 10:00am I get a text from this same girl asking if I’m free, if we can hang out.  Shit.  I stew on it for a bit, weigh my pros and cons, and eventually text her back, inviting her over to hang out for a while.  One of the push factors was how she was going to be joined by another friend, which I figured would diminish the chances of ‘the Ask’ going down when a friend is around.  Right??

They show up and were hanging on my front porch sippin coke.  I only had one can to split between the three of us, but luckily I happened to have three very small glasses, so no one was the wiser.  So here we are, sitting around and talking.  Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I was talking and they were sitting there, just staring.  I could tell right away they were either very shy, very distracted, or both.  Probably both.  At one point my friend asks me if she can talk to me in private about a couple of things.  Keep in mind that we’ve only been sitting around for something like 10 minutes by this point.  I agree and we walk around to the side of the house.

That friend that I was hoping would minimize the chances of ‘the Ask’ going down?  Turns out she came because she is looking for University sponsorship, wanted to know if I / My organization could help.  I dish out the rote response that I have developed by this point in response to this kind of a question, which goes something like “Blah blah not our mandate, blah blah money is all tied up, blah blah here is where you could go.”  Hah, I don’t mean to make myself sound so heartless and callous, but I get asked this question A LOT, so of course I’ve developed a typical response.

Now, the second question had to do with her rent problems.  She explains to me that she owes her landlord 8,000KSh in back payment.  She explains how she hasn’t been living in the apartment for the past two weeks in an effort to avoid her hounding landlord.  She tells me of how she is set to be officially kicked out in the next few days if she doesn’t settle her debts.  She tells me of how much she wishes that she could get her clothes back, how she would love to be in her own bed, how she is tired of living at a friends place.  She needs to borrow $3000 KSh ($35 CAD).  I reluctantly agree.

Now, I can hear you already, saying “Tom, you’re such a fool for giving her money!”  First off, I wish to thank you for reading my blog.  Second, I am afraid that I was quite simply too soft to say no to that girl at that moment.  Here we are, standing face to face, and she is telling me this whole story.  Her voice is soft and quiet; she doesn’t look me in the eyes at all, seemingly strained with each word.  If this was all just a big act, which is a definite possibility, then she deserves and Oscar.  The point is that in that emotional outpour I was taken in by it and, while I was reluctant, inevitably succumbed.

Of course, all of this has to do with the feeling of being used.  For me, the money means nothing.  I don’t care about the 3000KSh.  It doesn’t break my bank and I won’t even be aware that I don’t have it.  No, rather, it’s about this giant tattoo I feel that I have on my head.  You don’t even have to be up close to me to see it, as it usually feels like people can sense it a mile away.  What you’ll find is a big, fat, white dollar sign inked right onto the middle of my forehead, for all people to see.

Anyone who has been following my blog might remember my post on how begging is not really that common in this area.  I made the comparison with India, where you would see street begging on every corner.  Rather than finding incredibly impoverished people holding their hands out to you for your small chance, what I have come to find in Kenya is that the working professional people approach you for an investment/loan of substantial size.  There was that man who started talking to me at the photo shop, who eventually made ‘the Ask’ in regards to his flush pit latrine enterprise.  Then there was ‘the Ask’ waiting for me at the house party in the form of the student who needed capital to produce his rap album.  There is the mango shop owner, the teacher, the cashier at Nakumart, that random guy who stopped me (I had no idea what he wanted it for, but it was most definitely ‘an investment’).  I could go on, but you get the idea.

So while you might not necessarily see someone in dire straights asking for your loose chance, there seems to be this impression that any muzungu like myself has a mountain of cash holding them up and all of the local entrepreneurs, legitimate or illegitimate, are looking for a piece.  And you know what?  I don’t blame them!  Hell, you’d be hard pressed to find a muzungu that isn’t associated with a somewhat established NGO, government program, or what have you.  I mean technically speaking I do have a relative mountain of cash behind me.  However, I will not give the money to someone who has just approached me on the street, or in a store, or at school.  While I am not closed off to hearing them out, the chances that I would actually invest in one of these ventures is slim to nil.

However, then you have those people who are just looking to rip you off, to get a piece of the pie and to run with it.  Believe me, there are countless stories from friends working in this field of how a driver, teacher, employee, ect, received cash and then just took off with it, never to be heard from again.  A common affliction on a muzungu working in this field is for a kind of ‘donor fatigue’ to possess you, to drain you of you sympathy.  After a while, after hearing so many sales pitches, you begin to just empty yourself of any real caring.

Which brings me back to my experience at my house with this friend.  I can tell you exactly why I gave the money.  For one, I actually believe her that she has been temporarily kicked out of her apartment.  This is based on deductive logic and other observations, other than what she has provided to me to make her case.  The other reason is that I wanted to make this my last stand.  While I have every reason to never expect to see this girl again, I also have many reasons to expect her to pay me back by next week and for life to carry on.  I wanted to make this a kind of experiment, to see what exactly would happen once the person had my money in their hands.  If it all works out and she repays me next week, my faith in humanity is restored and life is good.  If not and I never see her or the money again, than I suppose I will have chosen my side on the matter and will just have to move on.  Just another scar on my life’s experiences to build up my toughness.

P.S. If you haven’t already checked it out, please read my previous post on the CES Library Project.  I really need people’s help with it.  Thanks in advance!

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