Hurray, it’s Friday! Another week gallops by in our corner of Africa. Friday is, in my opinion, probably the best day of the week as it means that a) I won’t be woken at 4am by my husbands alarm clock for two days and b) I also won’t have to drag the three Littles out of bed and have them dressed, fed, watered, bug sprayed and on the school bus by 7.25am. There is one con, however, and that is that the traffic gets worse, especially when it coincides with the last working day of the month. Lots of people get paid today. The police know this and some of them take advantage by pulling over motorists to obtain bribes for any small motoring misdemeanour. This slows the traffic down even more than usual.
Although this does have a detrimental effect on those of us who want to get somewhere in a reasonable amount of time, it does provide a fantastic selling opportunity for street vendors. As we made slow progress through the traffic today it felt like a very long superstore drive-through. You can buy all manner of things from world maps to razor blades, tea towels to dog leads, popcorn to pornography. So far I have only been brave enough to buy phone cards and a bug zapper (a tennis racket-shaped electrocuting device – allows me to commit mosquito murder with a flash of light, a pop and a satisfying smell of roasted mosquito). These vendors take their lives in their hands by walking between lines of traffic, dodging motorbikes and stepping over holes that could swallow a man. Having sat in a lot of traffic jams and contemplated the pros and cons of each item for sale, I ve concluded that popcorn is probably the product I would choose to sell as it’s light and relatively easy to carry, Dumbells would probably be the product at the very bottom of my list (although it would protect against bingo wings).
The reason for sitting in traffic today was that I was meeting a pal (JR) for lunch. JR is the country director for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). MAG is a charity that removes these unexploded devices. Due to a long and bloody civil war Angola became one of the most landmined countries in the world. There has been peace here since 2002 and since then many people who fled parts of Angola during the conflict have returned to their homelands. The landmines and other unexploded ordnance do not understand a ceasefire and blight the countryside preventing people from using the land for housing, farming or building schools and healthcare centres. She splits her time between Luanda and the provinces. When she is here I like to meet up to hear her stories and, my goodness, my idea of a challenging day is quite different to hers. I am almost too embarrassed to mention my ‘first world problems’ in her presence. Who cares if all the apples were bruised in the supermarket or that the maid was making the bed when I wanted to take a nap, when she is having to deal with a situation where one of her team has been injured in an explosion during a mine clearing exercise. I wholeheartedly admire her and the job she does. If I had my time again I would be working as a doctor for Medicine sans Frontier or similar, although my Mum often points out that I m not good with the sight of blood so I would be more of a hinderance than a help. Instead, I ll do what I can with the orphanage and make sure we put some of our money back into the Angolan economy by hiring people and paying them fairly.
As I arrived back at my compound I saw the homeless man who regularly sleeps on some cardboard under a dirty sheet against our compound wall. He was sitting on the pavement in the shade of a palm tree. I see him regularly walking in the area looking for food. His territory seems to stretch in a 1.5 mile radius around our compound. I have often seen him sifting through the bins outside a restaurant when I m out running. Being homeless in a developed country must be terrible but being destitute in a developing country is a very desperate situation to be in. He has no one looking out for him. There is no national healthcare system, no high profile homeless charities and too many people barely making enough to feed and cloth their own families to worry about anyone else. The worse case scenario is you catch one of the many tropical diseases on offer here, best case scenario is that someone in a charitable mood offers you some money or clothing. Today, I was feeling charitable. I have been collecting mens clothing and shoes for an HIV/TB hospital in Luanda so I had a collection of items that might be suitable for him. I sifted through my pile and found a clean sheet, some t-shirts, a pair of trousers and some old shoes. I stuck them all in a plastic bag and grabbed £70 ($100) in local currency out of the safe to give him. I dashed up to the compound gate in the hope that he was still outside but he had wandered off. Disappointed that my charitable itch would remain unscratched, I popped round to a friend’s house. We discussed plans for the orphanage and she gave me a large children’s puzzle to return to someone who lives a few houses down from me. I put it into the plastic bag along with the homeless man’s supplies and left. As I walked back to my house I spotted the homeless man through the fence. I ran over to the gate and asked the guard to let me out. Approaching the man, I said “Good Afternoon” and “for you…” as I offered him the plastic bag. Without looking at me he pointed to the patch of ground next to him, so I placed the bag down as indicated. Then I held out the money. He took it from me and without saying a word he placed it on the ground next to the bag, his gaze remaining fixed on the passing traffic. Realising that this signalled the end of our exchange and with a twitchy security guard next to me, I turned and the guard escorted me back through the gate onto the ‘safe’ side of the razor wire. The guard relaxed and I sauntered home, not knowing if I had done the right thing or not.
About an hour passed. The Littles arrived home and I was just starting to make dinner when it hit me. I had just accidentally donated the beautiful wooden (and not replaceable in Angola) children’s puzzle to the homeless man! I raced out of the house, shouting to the children not to follow me and I d be back in a mo. I reached the gate and attempted to explain to the guard (with actions) what had happened. He had no idea what I was talking about but opened the gate and followed me out onto the street. The plastic bag was still against the wall where I had left it, but there was no sign of the man or the money. To my relief the puzzle was still in the bag. I grabbed it and went home. I wonder what he must have thought when/if he had opened the bag and seen the ‘shape sorting clock puzzle’.
I wrestle constantly with the question of how to help these people. I know that giving them money doesn’t help in the long-term and may just be fuelling an alcohol or drug problem. They may eat and drink well today but their lives will just return to the way they were before once the money dries up. If I asked him what he would like me to do he wouldn’t hesitate to say “I ll take the money”. My view is that this man is at the bottom of the pile and anything anyone is willing to give him has to be better than pretending that, by giving him stuff, we are making him reliant on handouts. In this place, the handouts are all he has and all he will ever have.
It serves as another reminder, and we are surrounded by them here, of how incredibly lucky we are.