My budget camping safari came to a close in Harare, Zimbabwe almost nineteen years ago. I started to write this story once long ago, but didn’t get very far. It’s a tough story to write because it features poor behavior on my part, by the world, and some stubborn things that haven’t changed much even while technology and science have raced like wildfire.
My three-week trip to southern Africa only happened because my dad died suddenly and left me a little money. Stricken by a blindsiding brain tumor, he had less than six weeks between diagnosis and funeral. I was in my thirties then and still not inclined to savings, having little faith in the future, be it due to the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, the random catastrophes that erupt in various places around the globe each day, or simply my lack of faith. So I put two thousand dollars of the inheritance in my first IRA, stuck a larger portion in CDs and a money market account, and resolved to use the rest for something fun, something to spin the sadness into joy.
That’s how I came to visit Harare. For the previous three weeks I’d been part of a traveling island of Europeans, all of whom were much younger than myself and delighted in drunkenness. I was happy to be on my own in Harare for a couple days before flying back to Chicago. The first morning I set out from my hotel seeking breakfast, but found little to choose from, or at least little that I recognized as breakfast possibilities: shops, yes; restaurants, no. The city was relatively quiet that early, with children sleeping tucked into the gutters. Mostly pre-adolescent and clad in sparse cotton garments, they were sound asleep in the city.
Eventually I spied a Wimpy’s and snickered to think it was my only option. Lord, what a monument to colonialism, something North America had all but forgotten, too sixties, but here in Zimbabwe it was modern. Not my kind of food, but I didn’t know where else to look. As I made my way toward the entrance, a tall young girl approached me with a faded, smooth begging bowl.
“Madam,” she beseeched me. “Please, my father is dead and my mother is blind. I am hungry. Please, madam.”
Her hair was clipped close to her head, her plain cotton dress wrinkled and worn. She looked me in the eye with a proud crystal gaze, and I had to admit I had more money in pocket just then than she would probably have in her entire life.
“Come with me,” I invited, nodding at the grotesque hamburger joint. “I’ll buy you some food.”
She seemed surprised, perhaps disappointed, but not unwilling.
The woman waiting at the counter to take my order was not happy to see my guest.
“What would you like?” she asked with a slight accent, glaring at the hungry girl.
I scanned the menu: hamburgers, hamburgers, everything almost at U.S. prices, and finally settled on a “cheese bun” (I had long since ceased purchasing meat, and I was, at that time, ignorant of the prevalence of lactose intolerance in southern Africa.
“We don’t have a ‘cheese bun’,” the cashier replied unhappily, critically eyeing the girl. The child didn’t shrink from the unwelcoming gaze but rather held her head high to survey the scene with an inquisitive air.
My tour group had been treated well everywhere we went, our money a grotesque but effective charm, and I was taken aback by this dispute over what was clearly posted on the menu.
“The bottom of the list there, under junior hamburger,” I argued.
The clerk turned around to look at the menu and then rang up my order, but not before arguing with me about orange juice, another clearly posted item. I was happy to get out of there, wishing I’d never come in, when she handed me the paper bag of meager provisions.
Back outside in the magical sun and gentle din of the city, I handed the bag to the girl. Immediately a boy was at my elbow with his begging bowl, and I could see other young eyes sizing up the situation. Overwhelmed and completely lacking composure, I turned to the girl and said, “Share with him. I shared with you, now you share with him.”
It was an awful thing to do and I cringed even as I spoke the callous words. I should have handed out all the money I didn’t actually need for the remainder of my trip. It would have bought a few more breakfasts.
How much social control and media indoctrination does it take to render us impassive to the way money goes around this world? Blaming the poor for being poor and worshiping the rich for being rich. It’s the kind of thing you have to start teaching young, before kids are really thinking. Certainly before they’re doing any international travel.
A couple days earlier on the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia, I had watched incredulously as members of my tour group paid $60 to bungee-jump while small Zambian boys sold popsicles for ten cents. Those boys are adults now. They have a pretty good idea of where money comes and goes, certainly understanding the distribution of wealth more clearly than my tourmates. I don’t think any of them even thought about the juxtaposition of their money and the Africans’. Perhaps it would be different if Europe and the United States hadn’t made much of their wealth on resources essentially stolen from the countries that are now most impoverished, but as it is, the militarized borders are nothing more than a vicious fortress of greed.
The world hasn’t changed much since my two days in Harare. And I still don’t have a reason for not giving away the change in my pocket.
Jenny McBride’s fiction and poetry have appeared in various literary and other types of journals. She makes her home in southeast Alaska.