Thursday, June 14, 2007

How I went to have a shirt made and wound up profoundly influencing Ghana’s leaders of tomorrow (I hope)

June 14, 2007

Trish caught on to the popular Ghanaian tradition of having clothes tailor-made, rather than buying off the rack. Seemed like a good idea to me. Either keep buying Western-style clothes from vendors in the street; or, for the same price, buy African fabric and give it to a tailor, who will cut and sew a memento to be cherished. Done.

I got Francis the tailor’s phone number from Trish, who got it from a colleague at work. I called and arranged to meet him and jumped on a tro-tro.

When I got off at Tech Junction, a mad highway interchange on the outskirts of Kumasi, a grubby old man came at me through the throng of people, his face full of recognition, hand extended. I took it. “You are Francis?” He didn’t speak any English but gestured to his feet, which were old and cracked and gnarled and stuffed into sandals. The right one was wrapped in bloody gauze.

I looked into his eyes, not understanding a word he was saying. He clearly wasn’t Francis, but equally obvious was his desire for me to help him. He saw a white face in the crowd and, through it, salvation. He held his hands out in supplication.

What could I give him? I clapped my hands and spread them, Ghanaian style, to show I had nothing, no alternatives to offer. His look turned reproachful and he gestured to his stomach, then his mouth. Food, chop. I told him I had no chop to give him. I didn’t tell him that there was a dough ring in my backpack that I had already promised to another man, Ado, the 80-year-old who sits outside the British Council and gets sulky with me when I don’t bring him something to eat. So the dough ring was spoken for. What else could I do?

The old man reached in his pocket and pulled out a 500-cedi coin. He held it out to me, urging me with his eyes. “You want me to give you money?” Yes, yes please.

I couldn’t explain to him my principle of not giving money to beggars. Food I’ll always share — well, almost always — but I don’t like giving money because it propagates a bad lesson: that in life you can get something for nothing.

I felt a familiar pang of humility. Who am I to lecture an African elder with chewed up feet? Cold practicality answered. I’m the Westerner with the money he wants, that’s who.

The scenario was a common conundrum in Africa, where poverty reigns and pity is a remedy. But it’s not a cure. Giving 1,000 cedis to this man might slake his thirst or fill his belly for an hour, that’s it. White man’s charity has never been an economic foundation in Africa, and never will be, and I despair every time someone asks me for money because of my skin colour.

Paying him would have been what I call a fuck-off fee; paying him to go away and leave me alone because he was making me uncomfortable. It’s the easiest way out. My hand hovered by my pocket…

Then I saw the children. There were four of them dressed in school uniforms, watching the exchange, listening. I felt my face contort into a grimace of dour hopelessness that is becoming familiar. “Look,” I said to the man, gesturing to the children. “Look, there are children watching.” Their eyes got wide when I pointed at them. “What should we teach them? What should you and I be teaching them, right now?”

He didn’t comprehend what I was saying, of course. He was probably thinking: What have those kids got to do with me or my hunger or my mutilated feet? But he understood that I did not want to give him money. He also understood that I had sympathy; that I wanted to help him, but not this way.

I don’t know how to improve the lot of Ghanaians so that they can take pride in their country, their nation, their culture and not beg for scraps from white men — but giving 1,000 cedis to an old black man in front of these young black boys was not the right thing for this white man to do.

We held hands for a moment, both together, in front of us. “Another time,” I told him, and walked away. (G)

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