Travelling to and working in Africa means meeting people, for me. The work we do is important in the long run, but there are plenty of people in whose lives you can play a role in the short run as well. You can’t save the world. You learn to say no. I guess this is a story about how I chose not to say no.
Meet Philip Tambala:
He wasn’t a beggar. I bought his “calendar elephants” of wood (12 elephants, from large to small). I paid too much for them so he could buy seed (too much = I didn’t haggle). I even bought 6 more in order to make a down-payment on fertilizer.
My only request was that I wanted to see the receipts.
We met on the first day.
Two days later he was back with a long story about why he didn’t have the receipts with him (bought on the black-market). But he needed a lot more for fertilizer.
I explained that I had done my part. I appreciated his situation, but I wasn’t made of money. I still wanted proof of what he had done.
He was a fast talker. His command of English was amazing, but his mastery of logic and disposition was somewhat confusing.
He came back more and more. I was firm. Not a penny more.
But his story made sense.
After 10 days I put him together with the Chief Exectutive Officer:
All I wanted to know was if his story was straight or not. You really need fertilizer after planting corn (once knee-high and once again as “top dressing”). Each bag cost, subsidized, around 6 USD. But the coupons for claiming the subsidized price were not getting distributed. The market price was about 5 times more, per bag (50 kg), and he needed 4 bags. That’s starting to look like 120 USD and I wanted assurance.
The CEO and him had a long talk. After two hours I came in. I asked if I could see the fields and we agreed on Friday (the last day of my visit).
We had had a long running discussion and our agreement felt like a resolution.
The day before we were supposed to go they, my colleagues, started hesitating about taking me there. The CEO more or less made sure I would be safe, but there were other security aspects.
It was well-known that blood-suckers were attacking the people. Ripping up holes in roofs, sneaking in at night and sucking out blood. Anyone coming in a vehicle might be seen as coming to negotiate with the chief about when they could come and suck blood. They would then stone the car and us before asking why we were there.
But on Friday morning I came to work early, 7 am, and Philip was waiting for me. He was for real.
We bought the fertilizer and headed off. The kids greeted us.
The girl on the left took a liking to me.
That’s her in the background, disappearing into the hills with my green camera bag (and all my cameras) on her back.
I called her back.
Told these guys to keep trying, I used to work the streets of East St. Louis.
And his oldest son took the last one (the fourth one I had sent out in good faith days before).
Philip’s sister-in-law died and in a matriarchy her husband was required to move out of the house, but also required to leave the children behind. There were four.
Philip is now responsible for 8 children, one wife, two grandmothers and himself.
The property is still owned by the mother’s family, but they are not there anymore.
He was telling the truth. He had planted the seed and he did need fertilizer (I had already come to trust him so I had brought the fertilizer sight unseen).
His youngest son is sick with malaria, the deadliest kind.
This is where they live. The outer room is about as big as a coffee table and the inner room is about as big as two coffee tables.
No pictures. I was invited in but had to tactfully leave after a minute of fighting off the mosquitoes and holding back puke.
He can’t afford a roof yet (I think I see some work cut out for me in January when I go back).
He paid about 85 USD to have others build the house for him (he baked the bricks himself right there in the front). You didn’t need to ask what they were smoking.
I was privileged to be allowed such a personal tour of his family, but the trust is there now. Africa is about people and you don’t dump each other.