I’m currently reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun. Kapuscinski was the first African correspondent for Poland’s state newspaper, and this 1998 collection of short stories details a series of acute observations Kapuscinski made during his 40 years of exploration. His stories range from firsthand encounters with Ugandan madman Idi Amin to life-threatening battles with cerebral malaria and the 12-foot-long pythons of the Sudan. From his descriptions, the guy seems to be more of an Indiana Jones-type figure come to life than a Polish journalist (only the Indiana Jones of The Temple of Doom days rather than 2008′s disappointing Harrison Ford disaster). He escapes near death in the Sahara with only a canteen of water, figures out how to use black magic to his advantage in Ghana, and walks side-by-side with Hutu militiamen in the Rwandan mountains. Amidst all these tales worthy of cinematic frenzy, though, are also encounters with ordinary people that he’s met over the years, descriptions providing a connect-the-dots game of who’s who among the easily forgotten of this continent. And thus far, the story that’s stuck with me the most is one set during dinnertime in Ethiopia. Kapuscinski describes the event, saying, “More beggars crowded on the other side of the dirty window, staring at our plates. Men in tatters, women on crutches, children whose legs or arms had been blown off by land mines. Here, at this table, over this plate, one didn’t know how to behave, what to do with oneself.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: The people I’ve met here in Mozambique can’t be compared with those that Kapuscinski saw in Ethiopia. He was living in Ethiopia during a time of famine. I’m merely visiting Mozambique in a time of relative plenty. In reading the following, please don’t interpret my words to be melodramatically linking the state of affairs in these two countries in any way. However, what I do feel to be similar is the reaction that I sometimes have here. A few days ago, I sat eating at an outdoor diner waiting on a ham and cheese sandwich when a blind man and his seven-year-old son came by my table begging for food and money. Their clothes were tattered, their appearance ragged, and their demeanor depressed. Just as Kapuscinski says, such a sight makes a person “not know what to do with oneself” as you observe it over your full plate of lunch. However, creating even more inward confusion and a sense of not knowing how to behave is having the knowledge that this sight is common here. This father and son team waits outside this restaurant daily. When they beg, they do so only from white people. Quelimane, however, is a big city. There are many Mozambicans better dressed than I. But the father and son let these people pass by, while the foreign tourists are the ones who are targeted. The boy and man are still hungry, they are still poor, but they are also aware that poverty is a business.
So what does one do to address this? It’s one thing to be confused by poverty; it’s another to be confused by the cycle of poverty beneath the surface.
May we all use our confusion to address these needs.