Generally speaking, old men are the safest and wisest people in Kenya. I’m generalizing here, but it’s generally true. I have advised new-comers from the US working the in slums, “If you are ever in some kind of trouble, look around for an mzee to help you.” (Mzee means old man – but it’s a term of respect.)
The other day I was picking along a muddy road when I noticed an mzee coming towards me. I rehearsed in my mind my respectful greeting in Swahili. As he got closer he smiled and stretched out his hand, I took it into a hand shake and greeted him. But he didn’t let go. He started with how happy we are for the rain even if it means our shoes get muddy.
Still gripping my hand, he then began a story about how he lost his job because of advancing technology and how needy and poor he was. This produced in me a very uncomfortable feeling. I have made it a matter of practice to never hand out money. But I should have been carrying something I could give him, why wasn’t I carrying some peanuts or bread?
Inevitably, the mzee asked for some money. The moment came for me to refuse him. I kept wishing I had been more ready, more practiced for how to handle his request. I’ve been through this enough times. I said I was sorry him, but I couldn’t help. I walked away feeling so badly.
Why couldn’t that have been different? I’m praying for him, and for my next encounter with the same kind of request.