Weeks ago I wrote about St. John of the Pens, where I vowed to buy
pens from a handicapped man at beggar’s corner, and also to give to those who ask, at each opportunity. It can be the mother, with child wrapped around her back, it could be “not so blind guy,” who walks the cars, or “one legged man.” There are others, but these are the ones I usually see when driving my kids to school. The way that works for me is to stash several 1000 or 2000 cedi notes in my shirt pocket, and as they approach, I place one bill in their hand. Until this afternoon, I had not seen Johnnie the Pen Guy, or as I have begun calling him St. John of the Pens. Since it has been so long, I begun to wonder, did he really exist or was he sent as a teacher?
“When the student is ready…a teacher will be sent,” and so I wondered, was St. John of the Pens, sent to be my teacher… and am I learning this lesson? You see, I also believe that when a student is ready and does not—or will not—learn the lesson, a bigger more powerful teacher will be sent to teach. Being sensitive to the “teachers” around me, I wondered what could I learn from St. John sent of the pens?
In his book, African Friends and Money Matters David Maranz makes some 90 observations about the relationships Africans have with money and his fifth is “Africans are very sensitive and alert to the needs of others and are quite ready to share their resources.” Maranz has observed a societal shame to being needy and this societal shame operates as an informal regulatory system to keep people from taking advantage of this “societal sensitivity” (to the needs of others).
For example, he observes that in traditional villages, it is the custom for women to begin to pound millet in their mortars at dawn. There is a hidden reason behind this schedule. If the women note that a neighbor is not pounding millet they will send a delegation to discreetly investigate. If it is because their neighbor’s granary is empty, they will unobtrusively send grain over to the neighbor without exposing the problem to the whole village.
But in a changing world, this shame sometimes is not felt by a person; they make their plight made known, whether real or feigned, and do so to glean resources from those who do not know them. “They wander the streets—in both business and residential areas—looking for easy aid as they approach all who pass by.” I would add, also to those who drive up to the “beggar’s corner”. I wondered, what is my responsibility to those who ask for our money. What is my responsibility as a believer, a father, a white person of means, and as a visitor to this country?
Maranz writes “Being involved financially and materially with friends and relatives is a very important element of social interaction” But these people are not my friends and they are not my relatives, even though they call me Daddy, or Suzanne, Mommie. So either I cordon myself off and say “Not today” or I give them something, even if it is as little as a 200 cedi coin (roughly 2 cents). Maranz writes: “Africans cannot closet themselves off from others. They prefer to take risks in allowing themselves to be deceived, rather than risk failing to help someone who is in real need. The phony poor take advantage of this characteristic behavior of Africans. And I would add Obrunies, like Lori & John. We’re in their car, they are giving Fox and myself a ride home from Youth Group, and we hit Beggar’s Corner. Even though it is late on a Saturday, it is being worked, and here comes, “Not so Blind Guy.” Immediately Lori asks, “is there any food?” She is searching around for something to give him, something other than money. I add, “it is something I struggle with weekly, currently, we’re in week two of the always give them something when they ask.”
“It is something you will struggle with the whole time you are here.” Lori says.
“So what do you do?” I ask. Lori and John buy these large boxes of crackers and keep a container in the car so that when ever someone asks for food, she can help. Years ago I was at a pastor’s conference in Atlanta, and us three pastor’s were eating fast food. It sounds like a joke, three pastors, a black, white and Hispanic are eating dinner… We’re in a great conversation when a homeless looking guy, who I had watched work the room, approaches. “I’m hungry and need food,” he says. Immediately the white guy and Hispanic reach for their wallets and give the him a few bucks, the black pastor does nothing.
“What did you two just do?” the black pastor asks.
“He asked for food,” I say.
“And what did you give him?” he says.
“Money to buy food,” the other pastor says.
“Is that what he asked for?” Sheepishly we say no. “He asked for food, you should have given him food.” I look and the guy is still working the room, by now I’m sure he has enough for a steak dinner, so maybe he isn’t that hungry. What would it have been like if we would have taken him to the walk up corner and ordered him a plate of fried chicken? I wonder.
That conversation changed how I related to the poor in our town of Temple, Texas. Before Temple outlawed being homeless, there were often beggars on my drive to work. One day I sort of lost it and vowed that I could no longer do nothing, and so I went and bought five dollars of food. Actually I bought about $20 in food, but put it in packages of five dollars. Each time I drove up to that corner where the man was asking for food at the cars waiting at the stoplight, I would pull over, get out and bring him a bag of food. I did this for weeks, learning his name, and each time he saw me approaching with this big smile on my face, greeting him by name, I could almost feel him saying, “no, no…not more food!” Finally he moved on, and I wasn’t sure just what he was doing with all those packages of food, my hope is he was giving it out to someone who really needed it. I hadn’t thought about that until I heard Lori talk about the crackers.
This week, Emmanuel asked that we start feeding the night guards. There was something that he had noticed about what they were bringing to eat (or not) some nights when they relieved them. “Mr. Steve, it would be good for them to know that when they come to guard your family at night, they can expect a meal.” So, we have been fixing a plate and running it out to them while we eat.
We also dash our guards, which means we gift them something extra every other week, above what the company pays them, when the company pays them. Just this week, the last week in October, the company has just paid them for September. Now the dash comes with an expectation that they will keep up the yard, and wash the car, and all of this costs us ¢100,000 cedi a week (roughly $10) divided between three guards. I didn’t understand it at the time, but maybe this fits right in with the African way of sharing resources. It doesn’t keep the guards from asking for more, or for a loan or advance, and here is where it gets tricky, because I believe they do so, not always out of need, but because they believe we have extra means which they can access. Sometimes I feel like an ATM, but sometimes this ATM runs out.
A few weeks ago we had a Texas Open House for the people at Ashesi. We cooked Texas Chili (two pots, one with beans, the other without), fajitas and all the fixins’, home made tortilla chips (made from toasted pita bread), salsa, guacamole and all sorts of beer and cokes. Emmanuel arranged for four crates of drinks, and the total cost was around ¢400,000 ($40). He wanted me to meet his “sister” who we were buying the drinks from, and then unexpectedly said I should pay for them. I didn’t have that kind of money on me, and so we go to his house, and he pulls out ¢400,000 and hands it to me. “What is this?” I ask.
“It is my daughter’s school fees, but you must pay my sister now.” Inside I laugh at the irony, our guard is loaning me money (from his daughters’ school fees) so I can buy beer and cokes. He is loaning me money and our weekly budget is five times what he earns in a month.
Now I’ve got to tell you about the Ghanaian way of counting money. First of all, the largest bill is a 20,000 cedi (¢) note worth roughly $2. And so when we’re talking about paying ¢400,000, we’re talking about 20 bills. So we go to his sister, I count the wad and he takes it from me to give to his “sister”. Emmanuel counts it, and when it is all there, he gets a grim look on his face and says “it is OK,” (what we in the West would interpret as, “it is NOT OK, and I’m not happy about it”). So Emmanuel hands it to his “sister” and she counts it again, and says “it is OK,” grimly. This was a short interaction. One time we were buying paint for some screens we were having made for the house, paint, a brush, turpentine, and some other supplies, all together about ¢120,000 (12 dollars). I count out the money and hand it to Emmanuel, he counts it, hands it to the boy who has been helping us. We can’t just pick things out, we have to ask for them, and the boy picks it out for us. So the boy counts the money and hands it to a woman across the shop sitting down, she counts it, and gets up to hand it to the man across the shop and stands behind the counter and guess what…he counts it too. Now add to that, each time the grim “its OK” look, and we’re getting to be a pretty depressing transaction.
Each time I have given the guards their dash, they count it, and say “its OK.” I’m not sure what they are expecting, and half the time, I want to short them just to see what they would do. “Nahh, I was just messing with you, here is the rest.” But then something strange happens. It is the next morning, and I’ve been to the bank and hand Emmanuel the ¢400,000 cedi he has loaned me. I’m expecting him to count it and say “its OK,” but he takes it and puts it in his pocket. “Oh!”
Later I say, “You did a very strange thing yesterday. I returned your money and you did not count it.” It’s all there Mr. Steve, I know you counted to make sure.” he says. “Yes, but you always count your money and I want to know why you didn’t yesterday.” “It seems,” he begins and I realize that I’m not the only one who is watching, “that U.S. People,” that’s what he calls us, U.S. People, “It seems that U.S. People don’t like us Ghanaians to count their money.” I’m not sure how he knows it used to bug me, but these days, it is not such a big deal, especially now that I’ve gotten more used to the currency and can think in really large numbers and calculate the number of bills instead of counting out the amount. I’ve also gotten used to “its OK,” meaning everything is in order, even when said depressingly.
Back to Friends and African Money Matters where the author observes: “The African traits of building broad relationships, and the openness to sharing food and other essentials were strategies that were developed in order to cope with continual tragedy and loss. Survival depended upon having friends and supporters among those who outlived the frequent disasters. People learned that it was essential to share their meager resources with others because they might be the next ones to be in need.
I have to admit this is not the reason I give out money or food to those who ask. I don’t do it out of a since of guilt or even for a minute think that they might actually need it. I know that what I do is probably not helping the situation, either, and quite possibly is making things worse, especially, as Lori pointed out, when the blind guys are lead around by young boys who should be in school instead of working the streets. Yesterday I’m in Osu and this boy about Anna’s age comes up and does the universal sign for I need food.
It is one can stretched out, the other motioning, like he is pulling something from his mouth. Actually, it might be the sign for putting something in your mouth, but really, he is just begging. I wish I had some of Lori’s crackers. Sometimes I see school boys-still dressed in their funny school uniforms—begging on me. And I never give to them, in fact I usually wag my finger at them. “You are too young to beg,” I tell this boy. “Please…” he says. “You are too young, you should be in school.” “Please…” No, I say, and I mean it. “You are too young, now go.” So I have my limits, and oddly I’m not upset by this, he really was too young. So why do it at all? I guess the answer has to be: because they ask, and I am in a position to do something, and who knows, they just might be the teacher, and I the student, and this is one lesson I’m don’t want to miss.