Obligations

Posted on August 17, 2012

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*This pic has nothing to do with the post, but we didn’t have a picture of our gate. 🙂

“There is a man at the gate!” Clarissa calls to me from the other room.

I stand and cross the bare room furnished with a couple of spindly chairs and a bench with some cushions to serve as a couch. We have been in our house only a few days.  We still feel like visitors in a museum that has yet to get any artifacts. The house still feels cold, there is no life in it yet. As I walk across the the courtyard the warnings from veteran missionaries are swimming through my mind: people will be knocking at our gate to ask for money, to try to take us in a scam or tell us a heart-wrenching story about a child in the hospital (a story that may or may not be true). I try to evaluate the Kenyan face peering at me through the wrought iron bars.

“Habari” I say hoping not to sound too suspicious. But I do not open the gate.

“Nzuri” The young man replies as we shake hands between the bars. I do not know much about Kenyans yet, but he appears disheartened by my lack of welcome. I still do not open the gate. He wants to show me greeting cards that he makes. He says that “Mama Daniela” used to buy from him all the time. I make a mental note to ask about the former resident’s kids names, to check out this guy’s story. (In Kenya a woman is often referred to as Mama + her first-born’s name)

We have a guest coming soon and I tell him, “I can not buy from you tonight.” He asks if I can buy just one; he has not put them all out to be bought but for me to look. In retrospect I probably should have looked through them, to be polite. But I could see our guest coming, and I knew then it would take more convincing that I really did not want to buy tonight.

As I shook his hand and sent him off, I could feel the sense of loss for him. It is not his fault that a good customer has moved away. It is not my fault either, or my responsibility to be a good customer to replace his loss. It is not as easy, though, to feel free from that obligation in a country with 60% unemployment, and a young man working hard, whose cards really are very nice.

The next day I am unpacking, organizing and trying to find places for our few belongings in a house with no furniture to speak of. I hear the bell at our gate. I walk out to find an older woman there dressed as a house worker. I smile warmly and greet her, but again I do not open the gate. Stories of swindlers are again pushing themselves to the forefront of my mind. I immediately feel guilty for suspecting her.

She tells me her name is Rose, and that she worked for “Mama Daniela” (sounds like the young man last night was legit) sweeping doing house work, etc. She wants to know if she can come back tomorrow and work for us.

Inwardly I am squirming. I am not unaware of the plight of these people.  I admire the initiative, have heard of house workers who have been in homes for 15 plus years, working for various families who have rented the property. However; we know someone from our previous trips here and have already told her she can work for us. Again I feel the tension. It is not Rose’s fault this other family moved away, nor is it mine. It is her life, though, that is affected by me not employing her. I do not know her story, but it is likely that she depends on each day’s work to be able to feed herself and her family.  I can always find someone else to do the job, but she is older, does not speak much English, and looks a bit defeated as I repeat that I have no work for her.

I do not yet have answers, only questions and a sad and sick feeling in my gut. I wish it did not have to be this way. I am sure this is a tension that will not go away anytime soon.

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