(My apologies for such a lengthy blog – but I hope you’ll find it’s worth the time. Sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.)
It was early morning at the market place in Uganda and my friends and I were picking up everything we needed to make the afternoon lunch: rice, some green leafy things that looked like a cross between lettuce and a slightly stunted pine tree, lentils and yes, the best cuts from a recently butchered goat.
And that’s when I spotted them, nestled between the spices and plastic bowls and dishes: shoes. Hundreds of pairs of shoes sitting on a huge table outside the entrance. Not just any shoes – but crocs – nice and durable and comfy for walking on the Ugandan roads. A voice inside my head repeated a saying I had heard many times: “A man in Africa who has shoes and a bike is a rich man.” Passing the merchant a hundred dollars worth of shillings I picked out fifty pairs of shoes and threw them into a couple bags. I was going to make fifty people rich in Africa, well at least partly rich.
We drove to Soroti, about an hour’s drive, and met up with a few of the ladies from the village and got down to the cooking. They put me in charge of the meat and give me a huge knife, almost machete like, that I accepted with more than a slight feeling of trepidation. I started to hack at the meat, but after a few attempts I came to the conclusion that the knife needed to be sharpened.
Now I carry a few items of necessity in my pack but a knife sharpener is not one of them. So I did the obvious, I asked. And in asking I once again proved that I was a muzungu. The woman gave me the most peculiar look, the kind of look most Africans give to any muzungu who is guilty for asking such stupid questions. After pointing to a large rock that was sticking out of the ground she gave a little laugh and started to walk away. I was still confused. Sensing this, she took the knife and walked to the rock. Passing the knife back and forth over the rock with the expertise of a Zulu warrior she sharpened the knife then passed it back to me. I smiled sheepishly and offered my thanks, “Apwoyo matek.” At least I knew how to do that right.
While the meat and the rice and everything else was cooking I figured that this was as good as a time as any to pass out those shoes. I savored the moment. I was going to help these people. I was going to do good and feel good.
I pulled out the bag, set it down and opened it, revealing the colourful shoes in various shapes and sizes. Now I don’t know where everyone came from because they certainly weren’t there while we were slaving over the fires and cooking the meals, but suddenly I was surrounded. I looked at each foot that was presented to me and provided a near perfect fit feeling much like Prince Charming or maybe even like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. I was giving. I was kind. I was Super Samaritan!
But then it all went wrong.
People that already had shoes were hiding them and coming up to me barefooted, and people that I had given shoes to were hiding them, then coming back for more. One woman was indignant that I didn’t have her size and demanded that I go to the market again and bring her back a pair. She wasn’t too picky on the colour, which was nice, but still, she was very demanding. I was not impressed.
My feelings of doing good, of practicing the old saying, “’tis better to give than receive,” were crushed. I felt like a balloon that has lost its appeal to a young child after several unsuccessful attempts to blow it up: used, spit on and deflated.
I got my plate, filled it and sat down, wanting to be alone with my misery and thoughts. Then the meeting began.
The whole purpose of this meal was to invite all of the chair persons of the different committees and learn about the progress in each of the targeted areas of development: health and sanitation, wells, agriculture, education etc. etc.
Which we did and yes, I was impressed. But then something happened. As if on cue and in response to my mood of rejection and dejection, Puluth spoke.
The head of the education committee had cited off a list of accomplishments: The schools were built, new teachers were hired, desks and chairs were being built in a nearby town and the kids were eager to return to classes. Except for one thing. They needed school supplies.
Puluth stood up and immediately took control. She’s twenty-five-ish, well spoken, intelligent and has the position as manager of this project. But she’s a woman and in Uganda that means you really have to prove yourself.
“You know I love you,” she started off, waving her arm and passing it over the crowd. “But I am not going to give you school supplies.”
The group was quiet. I heard a bit of murmuring, a kid cried and a cow mooed in the distance.
“I want you to imagine this,” she continued. “Your son is in need of a pen, so he come to me and I give him a pen. In a few week his pen dries up and he is in need of another. So I give him one, but shortly after he loses that pen and he must come to me again.”
I looked around and saw a few mothers smiling. They knew the story well.
“But imagine that we do it like this. I give you a couple of goat. You breed the goat, you get milk, you feed your children the milk, you sell the excess milk, then you buy the school supply— yourself.”
The men and women were quiet, and then one person started clapping, a few more joined in and within seconds everyone was standing and clapping. Including myself.
Puluth had just told them the story about the joy and value of being able to help yourself.
They got it, and I finally got it too.
My journey as an author, giving voice to those who can't - or won't - speak.