I was just coming back from the pharmacy after picking up some supplies for a minor injury. It struck me how little I’d paid (less than £3) for quite a lot of stuff, and how in a richer country (or an African country that must import everything from richer places) I would have paid five or even ten times more.
Getting into my car, I was just about to pull out and a man started tapping on the window for a ‘small thing’, gesturing he was seeking money to buy food. A boy, somewhere between 7 and 11 years old, was with him. I’m always torn in these situations (which arise much less often than they did in Sub-Saharan Africa) whether or to give or not. On the one hand, it’s obviously immediately helpful to the individuals, but on the other hand it encourages street begging and one of the positives about this society it that is has relatively effective informal welfare systems and institutions that people can call on in times of need, i.e. much better places where vulnerable people (including children) should be rather than trying their luck with god knows who on the street each night.
I decided not to roll down my windows, said “I’m sorry” and reversed out onto the main street. But then as I began to speed up I started to catch up with them again, even thought the rather proud-looking man looked well-fed and clean and wore a nice shiny black leather jacket, it was still an ineffably sad scene, a man and his boy walking off through the night, about the same age as me and my boy, trying their luck for probably hours more until it got too cold to be out any longer. I noticed the boy was wearing a brown housecoat patterned like a 1970s European carpet, a size or two too big for him.
I think it was the housecoat that did it. Later, I reflected it might also have been something to do with the closing scene from De Sica’s ‘The Bicycle Thieves‘. Anyway, I rolled down my window and gave them about £5 (food for a small family for a couple of days). It was the best thing I did that day.