“Breaking” a Beggar

Break, def: to “block”; to thwart; to speak disparagingly of to a third party in order to completely ruin a person’s lofty goals.

Last Saturday I went to the Accra Mall with the girls so that they could play in the outdoor playground and to join my BFFFL (best friend for freakin’ LIFE) for lunch. It had been a pretty hectic day. We left early that morning to go to a naming ceremony (and subsequently left the gift for the baby in the taxi we took) and were hungry, tired and aggravated by the time we got to the mall. After nourishing ourselves on salty, low nutrition fare, the girls happily played on the secondhand  inflatable jumpy castles with the 50 or so other kids whose parents could afford the 5 cedis per hour. (Some people spend 5 cedis in a week in Ghana.)

As Nana Darkoa, my BFFFL, took over watching the kids in the play area, I sat and leisurely sipped a soda. It was good to be off duty for a change. My “vacation” in Ghana hadn’t been much of one up until that point, and it was slowly begging to take the shape of one with the few moments that I was able to loose myself in a cool breeze and a cold Coke. My few moments of blank bliss were disturbed when a stranger sat down in a chair opposite me.

“Hello sister,” he said.

Ugh. What did he want? Some hulking man with huge cheeks had already asked me if I was “Kate” from Berekum, and a hairy Arab man had just gotten done ogling me for the better part of the afternoon. I didn’t really want to be disturbed.

“Good afternoon,” I replied.

“I was standing over there watching you, and prayed that God would give me courage to speak to you,” the man said by way of introduction. “I saw that you were watching the playground and must be here with your children.”

I felt my eyebrows rise.

“You see, I am and AIDS patient, and I have come to Accra for treatment.”

His tone was so gentle and convincing that I really began to take notice of him for the first time. He was a dark skinned man, with pallid skin, sunken eyes and several missing teeth. Those still in his possession were horribly aligned, and seemed to shift with every word he spoke. He was a slip of a man with a whisper of a waist. He didn’t seem well at all. Despite his ill physical appearance, he was neatly dressed in a light gray shirt and neatly pressed dark dray slacks. He carried a small black attaché.

“I came from Anomabu to get treatment for my AIDS this week,” he continued. “The treatment is free, but unfortunately they do not provide for my transportation or the diapers I have to wear. I have also left my elderly mother alone in the village, and I have to have tro-tro fare to get back to her. As I am talking to you now, my diaper is full, and when I leave here, I have to purchase a new one before making the journey. I have 10 cedis on me, and only need 12 cedis to get home. I thank you for not exposing me or sacking me from your presence.”

His voice trailed off and he ended abruptly, quietly looking at the floor in silent expectation.

When coming to Ghana, I know that I will be the object of one con or another, and I’ve pretty much seen them all. I allow for one person to “get” me on every tri before I deliver a swift “no!” to anyone who looks like they may have their hand out. This AIDS one was a new one on me! For a grown man to sit there and tell me he needed money and that he had soiled himself – even as we spoke – and was languishing in said soiled diaper…well, he couldn’t be lying. Could he? I felt guarded compassion rise within me.

“My brother. Look, I am a Christian, and if you need anything, I will give it to you, because that’s God’s love,” I said. “But just be honest with me: Is what you are saying true?”

His eyes widened and he raised his hands defensively.

“Oh my sister! It is true!” he exclaimed. “I can even show you my AIDS card.”

He hoisted his attaché onto his lap and pulled out a tattered wallet. As he did so, he spoke of his mother and her suffering not knowing how long he would live. He paused short of producing the document. This distracted me. I pulled out my wallet instead.

“Here is 10 cedis and 5 dollars,” I said. “This should be enough to get you home.”

“Ohhh…thank you, my sister,” he said. “Would you allow me to say a word of prayer for you?”

I nodded. He prayed that Jehovah almighty would bless my children and I, and would bring to fruit whatever I was in Ghana to do. It was a rather long, elaborate prayer.  I asked him if I might pray for him as well. I kept mine short and on target.

When I was done, he thanked me again, although adding that he wished I could have done a bit more for him. I reminded him that he only needed 12 cedis to get home. I had just given him 10, plus a 5 dollar bill.

“Oh, it’s just that I need the diapers too….”

“There’s a forex bureau in the mall. You’ll be alright,” I said resolutely.

He said thank you again and got up and left. Nana asked me what that whole deal was about, and agreed that he did indeed look sick. Satisfied and pleased that I had fulfilled some level of Christian conviction, I patted myself on the back with a modicum of pride.

My husband called me the  following afternoon. I told him about the begging AIDS man.

“What about his soul?” he asked.

“Well, he offered me prayer first, so I assumed he’s saved,” I replied.

I heard my husband nod his approval on the other end.

For my part, I thought about the man all week. Had he been able to change the money? Had he been able to change his diaper? Did he make it home safely? Thoughts of him invaded my mind until I saw him again…yesterday. At the mall.

He was wearing the same get up, only this time with a stripped collared shirt. Slow recognition sparked in both our eyes. He smiled sheepishly (and somewhat impishly) and I held his gaze until he disappeared behind a giant stone pillar. Heh! That thief! Suddenly, he re-emerged and sat down in an open seat where a young, attractive couple was sharing an intense conversation. I watched as the young man leaned in to hear more. The young woman’s eyes softened and the corners of her mouth turned downward. I could not take the scene unfolding before me anymore. At the moment, Aya walked over to me and announced she had to go to the bathroom.

“C’mon!” I barked.

I strode over to their table where Mr. AIDS man was launching into this monologue.

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “Is this man telling you he has AIDS and asking you for money to get home?”

“Uh. Yeah…” said the man in surprise.

“I JUST gave him 10 cedis and 5 bucks on Saturday. Don’t part with your money unless you really want to,” I advised. “He should be in his village/town by now.”

I spun off on my heel with Aya in tow. The AIDS man followed me. He was 50 feet behind me with an intent, aggressive look in his eye. I dared him through my slitted  lids to say a word to me. He never did, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the afternoon.

Now, I of all people know that times are hard, and we all have to do what we can to get by…but I will break anyone who uses two things people must never toy with to suit their own advantage: AIDS and the name of the Lord!