As I walked to the market on Saturday with Alan, he explained to me how he had finally saved enough money to put a tombstone on his father’s grave, and was going to do so that afternoon. It had been a year since his father died and several years since his mother passed. At age 32 he was an orphan. He talked about how he was in college when his father died, but had to drop out to take on the responsibilities of raising his younger siblings. His story, though very sad, was not unique.
A woman approached as we neared the tracks, the part of town where the poverty becomes much more visible. She stopped Alan and began talking to him in Nyanja. He sincerely listened to her story and then retrieved 5,000 kwacha ($1) from his pocket and gave the money to the woman, no questions asked. Now Alan works as a cleaner at the lodge where I stay – which means he has a job, which is better than many Zambians, but he is by no means making a lot of money. And whatever money he does make is used to support many people, as he had just explained to me.
As we continued walking, I asked him if he was worried that he was being scammed. Two months in Zambia (and five years in San Francisco), I was growing cynical. He told me the woman’s story and said there was no reason not to believe her. (I can think of a few, I thought to myself). I then asked him how he distinguishes if the truth is being told in other situations…I had yet to master this art and was constantly leery of being manipulated. He replied that it was not up to him to question the integrity of others. But is up to him to help those in need…the burden of being more fortunate. (Fortunate? An orphan who had to drop out of school to raise his brothers and sisters….I thought).
We parted ways and I continued thinking about his unwavering trust and faith in the good in people. I also thought about the countless people that I said, “Sorry”, before I even heard their full story. I then thought about the man who threw the sandwich back in my face because he wanted money for alcohol and was not really hungry, as he claimed. Or the homeless woman who said, “I don’t think you’re pretty….no I don’t think you’re pretty at all” as I passed by her begging in Dolores Park. I decided that while Alan was an incredible person – I would continue to help with discretion, but perhaps ease up a bit on the cynicism.