It was around lunchtime in Arusha when a man approached me over my right shoulder. First, I noticed the half-eaten, hastily mangled mango in his hand. Then the mango bits strewn across his upper lip, just sitting there as if on purpose, the juice smeared across his chapped mouth, pouring down his chin. Then I looked at his shoes, brown and moldy, with holes littered near the toes, sans socks. Next was the odor wafting from his clothes, which had surely been stewing for hours as he walked the African sun. Finally, the unshaven beard and bits of scraggly grey hair sprouting from his head in each and every direction.
And then he spoke.
It was unintelligible, not because it was Swahili, but it was broken, muttered Swahili. Regardless if I could have comprehended his words, his two-minute oration ended as abruptly as it began. Mango peel in his right hand, eyes wild as a burning forest fire, he went along his way, never minding that the two foreigners he approached couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was seeking a connection I wasn’t capable of giving him.
I watched him saunter down the street, his head up, oversized clothes wearing him, his frail body devoid of nutrition and substance. The steps weren’t unyielding, but they weren’t seeking direction either. This man belonged to the streets, the unpaved dirt roads his partner in a life that was meant to collide with mine, a moment I’ll never forget, a pair of eyes I’ll see in my brightest and darkest hours.
I’ve met this person before. Not this exact man, per say, but his counterparts in different countries. I’ve seen this man begging in New York City subways, strolling the beaches of Trinidad, taxing the Mexican highways, pleading in front of the Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto and praying along the back alleys of Istanbul. Around the globe I’ve come face to face with him. But this was different.
Perhaps it’s because he spoke to me directly, looked me in the eyes, pleading man to man that I understand what he was trying to convey. It made me incredibly sad I couldn’t connect with him. Could I have given him a few dollars? Sure. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem, at least I don’t think, and it would have only upset me more. Charity only goes so far. It takes action, an understanding of complex situations, intricate webs that demand time and energy, which is what we’re trying to accomplish in Tanzania.
I don’t know what will happen to my unnamed companion, but I hope for the best, that his feet are swift, his mind sharp, his soul pure and the mangos bountiful.
Witnessing extreme, widespread poverty for the first time freezes you. Thoughts, movements and words go missing, as though you never learned to think or walk or speak before. Your brain vacuums everything you’re witnessing, but the part of the brain that’s supposed to form words, well, that malfunctions. Only after you have some time to cool down your head, take a step back, rationalize and process what you’ve just seen, are you able to form a phrase, any phrase, and even then it’s extremely difficult. I’ve been thinking about this man for the past two weeks, and am still at a loss for words.