Just a warning: This post is a little on the obese side. I think you’ll get what I mean.
I want to discuss a little the guy that I am trying to help, and why I’m having difficulty figuring out how best to do it. He is 17 and has been out of school for some time, but wants to go back. He would be in Primary 6 (something like 5th grade). His father died, then his mother committed suicide, then his grandmother was poisoned, and, finally, his uncles stole the land that he and his brothers were supposed to inherit. He doesn’t even know where that land is. I don’t yet have a timeline on these events, and I certainly don’t want to prod.
He told me all of this when I first met him. He was standing at the end of my road and I walked by him on my way to the school. I said, “Ijai biai?” and he smiled and responded “Ejokuna,” then came to walk with me. He was fairly dirty, wearing disintegrating, crappy sandals, and had clothes that were quite well-worn. We had a nice little chat, but he quickly moved into the sad story of his life. By default, I assumed (I’m pretty sure correctly) that he was hoping that I was suggest some help for him. The sad sequence of events leading to his being here sounded like too much to be real, but each one of those things actually happens quite commonly here, so it’s not that unlikely. I was suspicious, but he seemed (and still seems) to be an honest person.
Since this was just a day after I arrived, I still didn’t have anything in place or any work to offer him, which is what he asked me for. I told him that I would find him when I found some work, but was planning on just dodging after that. It just seemed like too much. But this town is very small, and I ended up seeing him just the next day. We chatted a bit and I told him I still didn’t have anything for him to do. He was happy because he had found a brief job that day helping a woman to shell peanuts (called “ground/g-nuts” here) and she let him keep some. Then he was walking by my house the next day as I was reading and I gave a brief wave, which I think he interpreted as calling him over. We chatted again, and I told him, again, that I didn’t have any work for him.
After he left that time, I got to seriously thinking about if I (sh)/(c)ould help him and how would be the best way to go about doing it. I could think of a lot of reasons why it would be a bad idea, but I also couldn’t help thinking that this was one person whose life I could actually, visibly, tangibly improve during my service. But, following the Peace Corps philosophy, I didn’t want to just give things away to him. So I decided to talk to him about coming to my house once a week to do a little cleaning, basically so that I’d have an excuse to pay him something and help him get back to school. I came up with a general plan.
The next morning I saw him on my way into the Monday market and told him, “I want to help you a little, but we need to talk first.” He was ready to listen. I explained to him more about Peace Corps, and how, even though I am an “imusugut,” I do not have much money because I am supposed to be living as a Ugandan, and that I wanted him to be able to go to school, and that the first thing that I absolutely needed was honesty. I explained that, just as I was raised, things will always be better if there is complete honesty at the start than if it comes later, even if the truth is bad. He understood, and pulled out a small photo book that contained some information about him, who his father was, his names (they say “names” here instead of “name”), and a few pictures. Several of the pictures were of him with a Volunteer who used to be up in Ngora (near Kumi) and he apparently learned a lot from. He seems to have internalized absolutely everything that she said.
I told him that I would make up some work for him that he could come and do once a week, and I would pay him for that. I also offered to help him get back to school if he would actually go. Since there are several UPE (Universal Primary Education) schools here, he could go to class for free but would need a uniform, notebook, and money for lunch. So I told him I would help him out with that.
He was extremely happy with the idea, and asked if I would go with him to register for next term. We went to give it a shot, but he was missing his report card from his previous schooling and the headmaster was not there. We talked to the senior woman teacher, who gave him a hard time about not being at school during first term, for not wearing shorts (primary students have to wear shorts), and for havy crappy sandals. The young man, (we’ll just call him John), didn’t really respond (mostly because of the heirarchy thing here), but I cut in and pointed out that he didn’t even own shorts or shoes and didn’t have any money to buy those things. That was the reason he was trying to go to UPE. It was interesting to see the interaction between John and the teacher, and it made me feel terribly sorry for any kid who tries to go register by himself without any kind of advocate. We said we would come back when the HT was there and John had gotten his report card.
Later, while John was helping me to iron my clothes (charcoal irons are the worst. things. ever.), I was explaining to him how to keep track of his money. He had spent nearly all of what I had given him just the day before (which would have been enough, for me, for 5 days of eating out) because he was used to splurging when he had a little, and then going hungry the rest of the time. I gave him a notebook and showed him a little about how to keep track of income and spending, and how to do a little math to figure out how much he needs per day just to survive. He seemed to get it, and came back the next day with some more filled in, and I think he will soon understand that he can start saving some money, even if just a miniscule amount, by being very VERY careful about spending, so that he can end up with a little capital to invest in more ways to save/make money.
But the inevitable happened. While he was trying to get the iron going and we were chatting, he asked if he could call me “uncle.” This isn’t that big of a deal, because children here refer to all adult family-friends as “uncle” or “auntie,” but he is only a little bit younger than me. And earlier that day, when we were walking to the Primary school to attempt registration, he made some comment about how maybe I could write some sort of letter for him as his guardian.
Those of you who know me well know that I am pretty good about setting clear boundaries and talking about difficult interpersonal issues when they need to be discussed. I was EXTREMELY uncomfortable with him seeing me as his guardian, and so I immediately told him so and explained why. He seemed to understand and didn’t seem to be offended, but I know that he won’t be able to help it. I’m providing some stability for him, and there is no one else in his life doing the same, so he will come to see me as a guardian whether or not either of us wants that to happen.
So now I have to figure out how best to set boundaries to keep this from happening. Really, all that I want to do is provide him just enough that he can go to school, and give him a little advice and mentoring. It is simply too much for me, as someone who avoids any kind of dependancy relationship, to be looked at as a parental figure. What would happen if Peace Corps didn’t work out for me and I went home? If he saw me as a guardian, then he would have one more person abandoning him at a really important time in his life. But if it feels more like his employer left, it would be emotionally (though not financially) easier.
So, yeah, now I have to explain to a 17 year-old orphan why I don’t want to be his guardian. And that is the first thing I am going to do the next time that I see him, even though I really don’t want to.
To anyone reading this: Remember that telling the uncomfortable truth and facing difficult interpersonal situations absolutely blows, but once it is over everyone is better off for it. A little hurt at the beginning is a lot better than a big hurt down the road.
I’ll let you know how it all gets sorted out.