Little street vendor

September 17, 2007 | 46 comments
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She is a little street vendor who put up shop next to the entrance of the church with the long name.

***

A few weeks ago, I returned to Kinshasa. An assignment at the Catholic University there. I had longed to be back in Central Africa where, as a teacher, I had shared part of my life with nuns, priests and prostitutes. That was thirty-five years ago. Friends warned me: things had continued to disintegrate. I would find more lewdness, filth, perils. The population had tripled. Kinshasa, they said, had become an immense garbage belt upon which eight million people tried to survive.

I also wondered about the pioneering Mormon presence in Congo’s capital. I looked forward to attending Church in one of the new wards.

The plane landed after dark. Sister Leonie, a black nun of the congregation of Sainte Marie de Matadi, drove me to the suburb of Limete, where I would stay in the compound of the Catholic Radio Station. The ten mile ride along the boulevard Lumumba, once a desolate road I had taken many times, now fiercely exhibited Kinshasa’s expansion. As our minivan sped with the intense traffic flow through the night, we passed thousands of people packing the broad and jagged sidewalks of the boulevard, walking, talking, selling, buying, begging, mile after mile. Shadows in colorful pagnes, crossing the four lane road amidst the six lane traffic, kept popping up in the headlights of the vehicles — at least of those that still had headlights — and managed to elude collisions like toreadors the bulls. Honking bulls spewing black clouds of fumes.
– Masina, Sister Leonie said. It’s grown a lot since you were here. Very much peopled.

The crowds, convening on the boulevard’s sidewalks from miles of dark slums beyond, were moving in the glow of erratic streetlamps and shimmering oil lanterns, against the backdrop of sheds, minuscule stores, crude cafe terraces with an occasional flickering neon, unfinished houses looking ruinous, teeny markets, junk shops, crumbling factory walls with barbed wire on top, ramshackle bars with blaring loudspeakers. As we passed those bars, wafts of cadenced music pierced through the minivan and left as quickly. The odor of scorched earth and smoldering trash. My eyes got moist. I did not have to wait for daylight to recapture Kinshasa’s spirit. It was still here, that unexplainable harmonious anarchy, relentlessly exorcising despair and reconstructing life. It was still there, that self-confident, sensual music which, in the midst of misery, testified of an impudent verve against fate. I felt home.

***

She is a little street vendor sitting next to the entrance of the church with the long name. Her miniature merchandise is displayed on a tattered board, two feet by one, precariously resting on a cardboard box. She organized it in tidy rows: a dozen suckers of dubious color, roasted nuts in teeny-weeny heaps, chewing gums sold a piece, and, as surprising feature of the day, a number of small, Swiss cheese-spread triangles in their silver wrapping. Who knows how long past expiration date, and in Kinshasa’s heat!

They call it the informal economy, an immense network of vendors and revendors, partitioning the goods over ever smaller sizes, down to the tiniest display in some rutted alley, down to a child or a decrepit oldie waiting, hour after hour, for a business deal of a few cents. Upon that partition, and the proportional gains on sales, millions depend for their survival. In this world of tens of thousands of street vendors, scattered along miles of decaying sidewalks, our girl at the church entrance is a particle, an infinitesimal cog trying to be indispensable in the machinery of subsistence.

She is around nine, perhaps ten. As I slow down walking towards the gate, her timid smile to the white mundele I am speaks of innocence. My years of experience teaching in a suburban girls’ school in Kinshasa allow me to deduce details of her life. Her dress is just a piece of cloth hanging over skinny shoulders. Worn out from beat washing on stones, worn out by the wear of sisters before her, the pattern and colors have wilted. But it is clean. The fraying edges have been sewn. She is no thrown out street child, not one of those thousands in rags and dirtiness, thugs and victims at the same time, abused by police and military, vulnerable to assault and rape as they hide at night in gutters and corners.

Mbote. Ndenge nini? I greet her with hello and how are you.
From my Lingala, grey suit and age she must infer I am some missionary priest who has served for decades in Congo. The whiteness of her teeth spreads over her face.
Malamu, mon père, melesi­.

Polite, well raised. Her frizzy hair, trimmed to keep it cleaner and facilitate the chase for lice, has been deftly tied in flat squares separated by clear hairlines. Checkerboard style. It testifies of the patient hands of a mother, or a big caring sister, and thus of a home. But her meagerness, her indigent dress, the insignificance of her shop point to a home deep in the slums, in a shag of dried mud under remnants of asbestos sheets. Her bare feet are grey from walking over ashes of burned garbage. Even so, an innate dignity in her posture eclipses dejection. Her trustfulness shows from her naive acceptance to sell that handful of little Swiss cheese triangles in silver wrappings, which, somewhere along the chain, a wholesaler has slipped in — from looted luxury merchandise.

What strikes me is the choice of her vending location. Why here? This street, ending in a cul-de-sac, is quiet. The ward meets here in a villa, surrounded by the high wall common to all superior houses. The wrought iron grille has been opened. A few families stroll in. The little vendor only earns disturbed glances from mamas who drag their children inside, away from the temptation of the treats.

– Can you sell anything here?
– I will later on, she beams. The mass is long in the church with the long name. Then the children deserve something. They know I’m here.

I am awed. She has it all figured out in consequential steps where even the three-hour block becomes useful. But her strategy is not only about the few cents more at the end of the day to help feed her family. She epitomizes a creativity that still gives meaning to life. Nothing in her countenance betrays the dismay that her future is beyond all hope of enhancement. In realms like Kinshasa, where for slum-dwellers degradation and impoverishment are on an irreversible course, inventiveness still nourishes anticipation.

– You’re going to school?
Her face clouds over briefly. I shouldn’t have asked. I remember the struggles we teachers faced to convince parents to let a girl continue at school. That was many years ago when the system still functioned. Now underpaid teachers in dilapidated schools expect from parents, who can afford it, to help supply salaries. Only a fraction can. If the budget is tight, boys get precedence. Girls are put to work to care for younger siblings, haul water, enlarge cesspits, cut stones to gravel, tan leather, walk endlessly head-carrying chock-full basins from rural sites to urban markets, vend along sidewalks.

– I went two years. I can read.
A sense of worth speaks from her lips. She cherishes the memory of those two years of elementary learning, in an overcrowded class on crumbling benches. The eager faces I taught in such circumstances indeed bore witness it was a privilege, paid by parental sacrifice. Since this girl’s countenance conveys that she is from a home where values have managed to outlive deprivation, I can imagine the pain when the decision fell to close her door to schooling, to the prospect of progress, to perhaps, at the end of the cycle, the emancipation to a better job than guarding two square feet of trivial foodstuff, which she is not allowed to taste herself, even if famished.

I can read. She says it with hushed pride. She knows of the treasures hidden in books she will never have. She knows of the power of documents, identity papers, certificates that others have. She can now read publicity boards advertising the goods of a world beyond her reach. The skill to convert letters into language gives her an aura of rehabilitation, even if it is only a voiceless adornment to her frailty — a frailty both tender and austere, as she chastely pulls her dress a little further over her bony knees.

For how long? Girls of shantytowns… As poverty strangles them further, as disease strikes their family, as vending opportunities are lost, many end up in prostitution. In Kinshasa, an eleven-year old can already make a dollar, twice as much without a condom, dicing with HIV.

Inside the villa, everything is oddly familiar. Pictures of temples and of President Hinckley. The bulletin board with announcements from the Relief Society and the Elders’ Quorum. A box with tithing slips and envelopes. Subscription forms for the Liahona. In the hallway people greet and chat. Two giggling boys chase each other. Meetings proceed as scheduled. We sing in French from the same hymnbook as used in Bordeaux, Geneva, Papeete and Quebec. The Priesthood, all black, blesses and passes the Sacrament. Talks about charity and sharing the Gospel with others. In Primary the children sing with African zest Je suis enfant de Dieu.

One must hear it from the street.

A returned missionary teaches Sunday school.

“… Now, brothers and sisters, we need to respect the Sabbath day. That means no shopping. But for the past few weeks we’ve had that vendor girl at the gate and it’s becoming a habit for some of you to buy from her as we leave the church. I know your children won’t like it if you don’t buy them treats any more after church. Some will cry and yell, but you need to teach them to honor the Lord’s day. We shouldn’t chase that vendor away, but if you don’t buy from her, she won’t come back.”

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46 Responses to Little street vendor

  1. Julie M. Smith on September 17, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Beautiful post. Perhaps there are cultural conditions of which I am unaware that would make this impractical, but I wonder if the teacher could have asked the parents to simply give the girl the money without taking the candy. Surely there is no rule against charitable giving on the sabbath?

  2. Adam Greenwood on September 17, 2007 at 9:41 am

    That poor little girl. I wonder if the Sunday School teacher was right about the motives of those who were buying–trying to keep their kids quiet vs. trying to help the little vendor girl. I wouldn’ be surprised if he was.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on September 17, 2007 at 10:18 am

    In the face of such poverty, any choice–to break the Sabbath by spending money, to ignore the desperate need and deservingness of poor child on your doorstep–is going to involve sin. Probably every choice will. Such deprivation and inequality damns us all (though the girl will, of course, feel that damnation for more personally and painfully in this life, at least).

    Like Julie, I’d try to give her charity first, whatever sort of dependency that might result in, as a compromise. But if that wasn’t practical, I’d like to think that I’d buy, whatever my feelings about the Sabbath may be.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful and challenging post, Wilfried.

  4. Ray on September 17, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Beautiful, Wilfried. I was crying as I read this post, and the ending absolutely broke my heart. I would like to repost this on our own little blog (my wife and I, basically just for family and friends).

    Jesus broke the Pharisaic constraints of the Sabbath in order to relieve the hunger of his disciples; surely we can relieve the suffering poor (our brothers and sisters) without fearing divine displeasure. Love and compassion and charity trump all else, IMO.

    This is very personal to me. Over the years, we have shared our home with numerous people, usually children who needed a temporary place to stay while they worked out problems with their parents. We have never taken a penny for that shelter; we just can’t bring ourselves to profit from trying to help. One young man came for a week and stayed for over a year, when all was said and done; others drop in without notice just to sit and talk and play with our girls – to get an emotional boost that tells them they are ok and not the scum that they feel like when they are with their own parents. I just can’t imagine turning that little girl away, just because she expected Christian care on the Sabbath. It might be too late, but if she comes back and you can speak with her again, please contact me via e-mail (through T&S) and give me an address where I can send a few dollars on a regular basis for her. I can’t do much (very little, in fact), but I believe we can extend the boundaries of our homes beyond the walls in which we live – and that it is particularly appropriate on the Lord’s Day.

  5. Adam Greenwood on September 17, 2007 at 10:29 am

    In the face of such poverty, any choice–to break the Sabbath by spending money, to ignore the desperate need and deservingness of poor child on your doorstep–is going to involve sin. Probably every choice will. Such deprivation and inequality damns us all (though the girl will, of course, feel that damnation for more personally and painfully in this life, at least).

    Too true. Ben Huff’s father has written some pretty interesting stuff on what the Saints should be doing for Africa, but its probably too visionary, I fear.

  6. Sarah on September 17, 2007 at 10:30 am

    It wouldn’t have been any more sinful for an observant but crippled Jew to pay someone to pull the ox/donkey/whatever from the well on the Sabbath than for a healthy one to do it himself. I don’t see anything wrong (from a Sabbath perspective) with buying things from a desperately poor child who has to walk through a garbage heap just to get there.

    On the other hand, I can see a lot of good in encouraging the members to give her money (or other assistance) without getting anything back.

  7. Nick Literski on September 17, 2007 at 10:47 am

    Wilfried, thank you for this incredibly moving post. You have a wonderful gift with language, and a way of conveying “true religion” that is so much more effective than sermonizing. I wish you would publish some of your writings.

  8. Carl Youngblood on September 17, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Adam, could you please provide links to the stuff written by Ben Huff’s father? I’d like to read it.

  9. Margaret Young on September 17, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Beautiful, beautiful. This is one I want to discuss with my family.

  10. Matt W. on September 17, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I am not sure buying a piece of candy from an 11 year old little girl is going to keep her from becoming a prostitute. Maybe the money for that piece of candy would be better spent on establishing a place where little girls like her can receive greater opportunities.

    If this holds true for the 11 year old, what about the 17 year old mother working sunday morning at mcdonalds?

  11. Wilfried on September 17, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Matt, of course you are right. Quite of few organizations provide help to street children and to those girls in shantytowns. But, if only talking about prostitution in Kinshasa, the sheer number of challenges and needs is overwhelming. For the situation of children in Congo, see also here, and here.

  12. Sally on September 17, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    While just handing money to the child may be a solution, I have seen that encourage begging instead of allowing the dignity of work. The Lord knows the intents of our hearts – I can only envision him smiling if we buy from a poor child on the Sabbath. I look forward to each of your posts, Wilfried – thank you.

  13. Kevin Barney on September 17, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Wonderful as usual, Wilfried. Both ennobling and disheartening all at the same time.

    (Big city lawyers aren’t supposed to cry at their desks, are they?)

  14. cchrissyy on September 17, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    heartbreaking.

    someone needs to add a link in each of Wilfried’s posts to everything else he’s done so they don’t go undiscovered.

  15. Jacob M on September 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    http://scriptures.lds.org/matt/23/23#23 I think this explains well enough how I feel.

  16. Ray on September 17, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you, cchrissyy. I just glanced at the link you provided, skimmed through the posts, ended up reading “Ninety-One Words” – and started crying all over again. I haven’t been around all that long, so I appreciate it greatly.

  17. Kurt S on September 17, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    I was going to comment on Pharisees ignorant to all but their narrow interpretation of the law, but Jacob M hit that piece of scripture. It seems that two offerings could be made – buying from the child and giving what was bought to another as needy.

  18. Wilfried on September 17, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you all for your kind comments. The reaction of the Sunday school teacher deserves our understanding too. It raises questions as to how we can bring our people to more maturity and wisdom in assessing situations, without undermining obedience to commandments. This is not always an easy thing, especially among converts in the mission field who may tend to cling to the letter of the law because of insecurity.

  19. Guy C on September 17, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Good timing on this post (whether coincidental or intentional). Having given the “Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy” lesson to the Elders this past weekend, I find this post very poignant indeed.

    Some have mentioned that giving money to the girl instead of purchasing her wares would be preferable – since charity (work) is considered permisable on Sundays. My caution here, in addition to other cautions concerning begging, is that many cultures (or sub-cultures) consider direct charity offensive. I don’t know the case in this particular locale, but something to consider.

    Ultimately though, I agree with Sally #12… The Lord knows the intent of our hearts. If a member were to purchase an item for the sake of the item itself (self-benefit), then that would not be right. Now if that member were to purchase an item, not necessarily for the item itself but to help the little girl, then the intent of the heart is still in line with the Lord.

  20. Adam Greenwood on September 17, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    It seems many have cast the Sunday School teacher for the villain of the piece, so I’ll go on record as saying that I think he was right. I’m not going to argue the point, because I think Wilfried D. meant this as a tragedy, not a criticism, but I think many here have been too quick to judge.

  21. Wilfried on September 17, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Yes, Adam, though I don’t think that anyone really meant to present the teacher as villain. I think reactions stem more from compassion with the girl. See also my comment 18.

  22. Adam Greenwood on September 17, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Its a book, C. Youngblood, but skimming it looks like this link is much the same thing:

    http://www.mormonmillennium.com/Book1-3-CD/PDF%20pieces/Millennium/Book3pp001-050.pdf

  23. Adam Greenwood on September 17, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Yes, Adam, though I don’t think that anyone really meant to present the teacher as villain.

    They’re calling the teacher a Pharisee.

  24. Wilfried on September 17, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Yes, two of our commenters referred indeed to Pharisees in general, implying the teacher. I understand those reactions, no doubt triggered by compassion for the girl. But the Sunday School teacher certainly was not a Pharisee in it’s most negative sense, for he meant well and the principle he defended is correct. The end of the story gives us reason to ponder our own attitudes: how to find the balance between respect for the Sabbath and charity if they seem to collide. I appreciate the many suggestions in that context. The core of the story is about African children.

  25. Brian D. on September 17, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    This reminds me of how I felt on my mission when I observed people in extreme poverty. I struggled often with my own poverty (missionaries do not live lavishly) and my desire to help out when and where I could. In the end, I offered many powerful prayers, pleading for the people with whom I encountered, but could do nothing to help in a temporal manner. I am confident that the Lord is mindful of these people.

  26. Jacob M on September 17, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    As I am one of the ones who referenced the Pharisees, I need to clarify my position for the esteemable Adam Greenwood. (I am not using that sarcasticly, by the way). I actually agreed with your comment in #2. I highly doubt most of the people who bought from her did it out of anything other than a way to keep the kids quiet. However, I also would have had no problem buying something for the poor girl on the Sabbath day, believing that I would be in keeping with the weightier matters of the gospel. I also don’t think that if I were that GD teacher that I would use the girl as an example. But, at the same time, I do have some sympathy with the teacher. He was trying to apply the lesson directly to the people around him, using an obvious, every Sunday type of experience. Sorry, Adam, if I sounded too judgmental about the teacher, and thanks for trying to keep us on the straight and narrow.

  27. Ray on September 17, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    I might be the other commenter Adam referenced, because I mentioned the Pharisaic constraints. That was not meant to call the teacher a Pharisee. I was *much* (and I can’t emphasize just how much) less bothered by the “buying something on Sunday” aspect as I was by this thought:

    “We shouldn’t chase that vendor away, but if you don’t buy from her, SHE WON’T COME BACK.”

    Those last four words are what broke my heart. Not buying from her is one thing; not putting our arms around her and not talking with her and not thinking that perhaps God inspired a choice daughter to take up a post at our church and not inviting her into our fellowship but, instead, truly chasing her away – that breaks my heart. I want her there – where she is relatively safe, where she at least can hear that she is a child of God, where she can rest with faith that families with children of their own (relatively well-dressed, clean, happy children) will understand her plight and have pity on her, etc. Taking that away from her – that breaks my heart. She’s not an object lesson for Sabbath Day observance; she’s a daughter of God and my spiritual sister – and using her as the first instead of treating her as the second broke my heart.

    Wilfried, perhaps this is a question that you do not want raised or addressed in this thread, so feel free to ignore it if you choose, but do you know if anyone sat down with her and just talked with her about her life, about the Gospel, about the Restoration, about her divine nature as a daughter of God? Whether or not anyone gave her money or bought something from her, did anyone take the time just to love her and listen to her and find something to give her that she could read? “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these . . .” couldn’t find a more perfect application than this little street vendor.

  28. Wilfried on September 17, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Thank you, Jacob M and Ray. And thanks to Adam for triggering your clarifying and helping reactions!

    Ray, you got to the heart of the matter. It’s where I wanted the discussion to go. One of the most challenging aspects for the work of the Church in Africa, such as in Kinshasa, is where and how to start dealing with the immensity of the problems. The little vendor girl is one of hundreds of thousands like her. When you focus on the one, like I presented the situation, it would seem a simple thing to invite her in, love her and have her participate in Primary: that should be done, that could have been done.

    But then follows the rest: How many members do we have in such a struggling ward who can follow up and answer needs that are not only spiritual? How challenging is their own survival? To what point can our welfare assistance stretch? The few local leaders in such a unit, if strong enough to hold on themselves, know how complex things will become when rumor spreads what they did for one and next ten hungry vendor girls will come to the entrance. The reaction of the Sunday School teacher is not tied to egoism or insensitivity. It is also tragic realism when you live in realms like Kinshasa. It is not difficult for the Church in Kinshasa to fill a hall of interested people every day, but in most cases their motives will be to get help to survive. Not profiting from what seems a rich American church, but sheer survival. I would love to hear from American Mormons who know more about the way the Church is tackling these African challenges, especially in extreme realms like Congo.

  29. Kaimi Wenger on September 17, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Great post, as always, Wilfried.

    The vast global disparity of wealth and opportunity is one of the most distressing moral problems of our day. What do we do about it? It makes one’s head and heart hurt, to even think about the scope of the problems.

    Part of the problem, I think, is how easily we divide into us and them. If the little girl were a new convert, she’d be taken in, greeted, taken care of, at least to some degree. Since she’s not, we don’t give her the same treatment. The gap between the two is huge.

  30. bbell on September 17, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Hey Wilfried,

    Gooi Skryf. Ek het dit geniet.

    Your last paragraph in #28 sums up the complexities of the situation in Africa.

    I frankly love African children. My mission scrapbook is full of pictures of little african children hanging all over me. There reaction when they realize you know some words in their native language is amazing. They simply love LDS elders. They would climb up on my lap and look me in my blue eyes and ask me over and over again how my eyes got so blue. They also would pet my somewhat hairy arms and ask where the hair came from.

    My initial reaction when I read it this morning sounded a lot like the commentators above. Then I thought back to my mission in Africa 15 years ago and remembered the strict welfare policies in place and the compelling reasons for those policies. Your local leader is more aware of the pressing needs and the poverty of his hometown and the complexity of the situation more then the first world bloggers who have read your story. He is also probably poorer then anybody reading this post. Hardly a Pharisee. If he has a job and has a home I am confident based on experience that many of his poorer relatives have simply taken their children and dropped them off at his house for raising by him and his wife. This is customary.

    In the early 1990’s there was an entire branch in Namibia that was on welfare. The branch was shut down and a year or so later I and a comp went looking for the people who were previously baptized. The first question that people asked us when we contacted them was when the checks would start coming again.

    Also simply giving this poor little girl money would not solve her problems. She is what 10 years old? Giving her money would result in her mom or older siblings simply taking the money from her or others simply robbing her when they become aware that she has some American benefactors. What she needs is a fair shake in life similar to what a middle class American kid gets. An opportunity to attend school, become employed etc.

  31. maria on September 17, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    The image of your little street vendor has been haunting me all day. I will pray for her tonight.

  32. Julie M. Smith on September 17, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Adam, my thought is that the Sunday School teacher could have maintained a firm commitment to keeping the sabbath while at the same time finding a way to help the girl. He appears to have neglected the second part. He seems to just be encouraging the class to exchange one sin (sabbath breaking) for another (uncharitableness). Another way to put that: he seems to see the girl solely as an occasion for sin and not as someone who needs help (=money). There are solutions here that don’t involve sabbath breaking, but he didn’t encourage those.

  33. Mike on September 17, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    Not to shift the conversation away from Africa, which is deserving of it’s own conversation, but I had a similar experience in Nicaragua:

    It shocked my 19-year old mind that such a place exists only a few hours flight south of Texas. My first companion was a very hard worker and a great missionary. One day we had two appointments one right after the other and across town from each other. As we were accustomed to doing we walked fast–almost ran–between appointments to keep our commitment to be there (although too often the other party did not keep theirs). On this day we were walking up a steep cobblestone street as we passed many people heading to and from the market. One man was very old–his countenance seeming almost dead–walking very slowing pushing his cart of merchandise. He was walking so slow that, in my mind’s eye, he seems to have been not moving at all.

    We took no note of him, as there was nothing about him that set him apart from the others we passed. There were probably thousands like him that I passed during my short time there. Still, later that day I wondered why he was still in my mind–and then I realized why. In our haste to perform our duties we neglected to help a soul in need. How easy it would have been for us to have taken his cart and pushed it for him the few blocks that remained to the market? Sure, we would have been a few minutes late to our appointment, but I don’t remember anything about that appointment, but I still remember that man. I will for the rest of my life. Not because of guilt, but rather out of a desire to remember the lesson I learned.

    It is the same lesson that I am reminded of in your story. I hope my post is not too far off-topic.

  34. Ray on September 18, 2007 at 1:28 am

    I have been thinking about this post off and on for the past three hours, and it just hit me why it broke my heart as viscerally as it did. I know how overwhelming the problem is in Africa, but I also know how manageable, by comparison, it is here where I live. I also know I have heard essentially that same comment so many times in the years since I started college so long ago – in instances where there really were reasonable options and opportunities to make a difference without the threat of mass demand. It broke my heart not just because I ached for that little street vendor, but even more fundamentally because I ached once again for all of those I have known and know who are being treated in much the same way by those around them who should know better – who are surrounded by people who should love them but, instead, just wish they would go away.

  35. Wilfried on September 18, 2007 at 9:01 am

    The latest comments — for which my heartfelt thanks — have certainly helped us to recognize the scope of the challenges when we deal with situations like in Kinshasa, and in many parts of Africa. It is indeed depressing to realize this scope and our inability to provide the immediate help we would like to give. But there are at least some lessons to be drawn: relativization of our own problems, recognition of the fundamental value of moral reform to precede or accompany material assistance (especially at the level of those in authority, considering the rampant corruption), need for more interdenominational agreements and cooperation, need for more practical and adapted leadership training in view of different cultural settings, need for our generous giving to the Church and any other organization guaranteeing effective help, need for more research …

  36. John Mansfield on September 18, 2007 at 10:24 am

    I don’t see why those Kinshasa saints, who I suppose live a year on what I make in a week, would have a relationship with the vendor girl any different from the one I have with the clerk in the 7-11 I drive past each Sunday. Should I stop in next Sunday and hand her a five?

  37. Ray on September 18, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    John, perhaps not, but when you do stop in, if you have a few minutes alone with her, should you engage her in conversation and see where the Spirit leads? Should you try to get to know here a little better, smile, ask about her family or her life in general, etc. You personally might do these already, but I know I need to do a better job of “opening my mouth and letting it be filled” rather than just handing people my money and going away.

    Also, we have to go to the 7-11; the little vendor girl came to us. I think that changes the dynamic more than just a little.

  38. Wilfried on September 18, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Indeed, John and Ray, the topic raises questions of perspective and relations. The Sunday School teacher probably saw the little vendor as he perceives thousands of little vendors: a routine sight, so very much part of his daily life that the person behind the vendor disappears. When I was walking in town with Sister Léonie, the Catholic nun who helped me in Kinshasa, we were constantly assailed by boys, clearly hungry boys, begging for a little money. I would have given each something, but Sister Léonie just pushed them aside, sometimes with a harsh word if they were too pressing. She didn’t seem to give them a single thought, although as a Catholic nun she spends her life caring for others. Living in such realities indeed changes the way you handle things. My experience with the little vendor was different, because we had a moment to interact, though the three questions and the three answers took less than 30 seconds. Afterwards I made a long description of my reactions, feelings and related memories. That changed the perspective of my readers and made the words of the Sunday School teacher so contrastive, triggering the emotions we saw in the comments, but also the differences in opinions. I believe there is a lot to learn from this. On many levels, things are not always what they seem to us, when viewed through someone else’s eyes, inasmuch as we can do that.

  39. Ray on September 18, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Well said, Wilfried.

    I used to work with some non-profit, charitable organizations. Someone I like very much said, to the best of my memory, “Misery hurts only when it’s experienced. The challenge of charity is to experience misery on a regular basis without becoming desensitized to it – since nobody desires to experience it. Nobody wants to feel pain and despair and grief that they do not need to feel. Since we naturally shy from misery and pain, if we are not careful, we will insulate ourselves from those we say we serve and begin to value the process of giving over the receiver of that giving – and that is a dangerous result.”

  40. Bev P on September 18, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    The heartache I felt for this little street vendor, and what future she may or may not have, is matched, I think, by my feeling from reading so many responses. This little girl was not begging. She was not asking people to give her money. She was asking people to buy goods from her, to go away from her having made an exchange, to take something away from her as she would take a little money away from them. She knows with some confidence that she can read. Maybe she already knows she is a child of God.

  41. Wilfried on September 18, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Thank you, Bev P. Your comment adds another dimension to the relation we have been discussing. I had hoped this would come up too. From the viewpoint of the girl, and from her actions, nothing but an acceptable approach: she is looking for an opportunity to earn her daily cents to survive. She does not know about our Sabbath norms. She has also deduced that a three-hour “mass” makes the children deserving some reward: their happiness is also on her mind, while it will also serve her needs.

    Let me add this piece to the story: when I left the church building, some 15 to 20 minutes after the meetings ended (after talking inside with some people), the little street vendor was gone. I do not know if someone chased her away, or if someone told her that from now on “no sales” was the rule, or… that she still sold everything because some members “disobeyed” – deliberately to help her, or under pressure from their children…

  42. Jim F. on September 18, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Wilfried, I think you know how much I admire your ability to capture a moment that defies our analysis, as the various comments have shown. Thank you. These vignettes help me reflect in a very fruitful way on my own life and my relation to my sisters and brothers. And, of course, they convict me.

  43. ed42 on September 18, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Hmm… I think I’d be happiest (most blest?) if I spend the 3 hour block teaching her English, math, whatever and maybe ‘hire’ her to teach me French.

  44. Bradley Ross on September 21, 2007 at 1:06 am

    BYU-TV recently played a 20 minute documentary about Napoleon Dzombe. Watching it stirred up a lot of the same emotions for me that Wilfried stirred up again in this post. If you want to watch the video, it should be available for another week or so. You can see how one African man is helping his fellows.

  45. Bradley Ross on September 21, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    The BYU Center for Economic Self-Reliance is having their 10th annual conference in November. Working through this center might be a good way to help for those who are interested. They are doing some great things with microcredit and microfranchising.

    The little girl in Wilfried’s story was running a little business. Generally speaking, anyone can start up a McDonald’s restaurant because the business plan is well established; all you have to do it run it. Microfranchising is based on a similar idea, but with businesses appropriate to the developing world. Perhaps with the right opportunity, this girl’s family could find a way up and out of the poverty that seems to be their current lot in life.

  46. Wilfried on September 22, 2007 at 12:55 am

    Thank you for your contribution in the latest comments, Bradley. It is very much appreciated.

    Also a heartfelt merci to Jim F and ed42 for their kind thoughts in the comments preceding Bradley’s.