I hear it almost every day, in almost every village. “I’m asking for sweets”, “I’m asking for money”, or… food, a job, your earrings, boots, bag, etc… It’s called out from the hillsides as I walk along the roadway or it’s something someone says as they walk past me. Over and over, day after day. The first few times I was so concerned and confused, I wanted to help but not to give in an inappropriate manner; also I never have “sweets” and as a volunteer I don’t have money to give. While volunteers live in village and live as much as possible in sync with socio-economic norms, no matter what or how many times we tell people we don’t have these things to give, the expectation is that we do and so the requests keep coming.
Where did this come from? Especially the expectation of “sweets”? Rumor is missionaries used to bribe people to come to church by giving them sweets and its still part of the expectation of visitors. Somehow that doesn’t seem like the whole story. I put the question to Hali, our new Maliba Trust Manager who replied, “Oh, they are just greeting you! especially the children, once they have learned to say “I’m asking for sweets, or money or whatever, they can talk with you in English and they enjoy that. If they also get sweets or money as a result, that’s nice too. If an old man stops you on the road and says I’m asking for a job, or for you to give him money, and you probably don’t have a job or money for him, it’s no problem. He can now go to his friends and say, “did you see, we were talking about money and a job for me.” This also explains the wonderful response I get when I reply, “I have no sweets, and I have no money”. The response is most often something like, “ho lokile, bye bye he (hay)” or “okay, good bye, then” said with a warm smile and a wave. I now understand we’ve had our daily conversation, in English, and on we go.
A terrific evolution of this practice happened when we added a small library at the Ha Mali Community Center and the requests switched from asking for sweets to “I’m asking for books”. And the best yet was when this beautiful young man caught up with me the other day as I was struggling up the hill with a heavy backpack and two very full shopping bags. As he approached I expected the “sweets” request, then he surprised me by saying, “M’e Mpho I’m asking for your problems”. “My problems?” I asked, he pointed at my pack, “oh, my problems”, I understood, and gave him the pack to carry. We were soon joined by two of his friends, they took a bag each & we continued up the steep hillside together. My wonderful companions knowing they’d be getting some fruit for their efforts and me with no problems.