Monday, April 19, 2010

You Lie! Maybe! I can't tell, actually!

A Senegalese man knocked on my friend's door this morning. He was crying a lot. He said that his son had just died of meningitis and he needed 75,000 cfa ($160) to bring him back to his village to be buried. Could she help him? She had never seen him before.

"He really did look upset," she said. "He really was just crying and crying. I gave him 10,000 cfa and hoped that he was lying."

On the one hand, the high-road hand, you give some money and hope, I guess, that you're being had. That there's no dead son, just a good actor, making his rounds through a rich neighborhood, to whom you gave the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you don't start thinking about how that sure seems like a lot of money to ship a body home. Or that, even if it is a reasonable amount, and even if it's a true story, it's not the best use of your money (you could feed 30 streetboys for three days with 10,000 cfa).

Dakar, Senegal, is a scammer zone. Now that my aura of newness has worn away, I don't see them anymore. But when I first arrived, despite what I thought was a foolproof, traveled-the-world-and-have-seen-it-all visage, I was swindled in 15 minutes by a man, Amadee, to whom I gave 30,000 cfa ($70), basically because he asked me to. And then within seconds he disappeared into a crowded street while I "waited" for him on said street. I spent about five minutes reviewing whether the French words I had learned thus far (My name is Linda. I live in Virage. I am fine, thank you) could in any way be combined ask anyone for help. And who would they be? And what would they possibly do for me? Then I went home.

What's so sad to me, even still, is that I had thought Amadee and I were going to be friends. He was a musician, he spoke English, and he seemed cool although, looking back, he definitely did a few odd things. I looked for Amadee on the street for months (he is graying and missing one front tooth) before finally forgiving him and more or less laughing it off. But it did not feel very Buddha-like. It did not feel like generosity. It was humiliating. The idea that one might consistently give people the benefit of the doubt here, well, it's not a reasoable approach. Which leaves you somewhat coldly assessing the story of a man bawling on your porch.

In the past few years I have taken to never lying for my own convenience. (I will sometimes, if pressed, still under-guess a person's age.) But if I have an appointment scheduled and I can't find a way to cancel it with integrity, I make myself go. I remember one hike I was reeeaaallly dreading, I went on about it for two days, I could say this, I could say that, but all my excuses were either misleading or just not true. (The truth was, I didn't like this person and didn't want to spend 90 minutes with her.) Then the morning of the hike, she sent me an email which said, "Not gonna make it for today. I'm sorry." Voila! No lie, no explanation. A lesson learned.

Lies are never harmless. If nothing else they erode the public trust. When you live in a place where scammers abound, that truth becomes very obvious very quickly. Although it does provide the unexpected comfort of leaving us to hope that some sad stories aren't true.

Update April 19th: General consensus seems to be, it was a highly unlikely scenario and almost definitely a scam.


Katy said...

Such a great post. I've been thinking about it a lot since I first read it. All the little things like, "oh, I'll have to check with my husband and see if we have anything going on" when I know danm well we won't be going. Or telling my daughter something is "all gone" when, in fact, we have more but I'm not giving it to her. All of it. You're right. Nothing good comes from that.

Anonymous said...

I'm a sucker too.

(I check in on your little family from time to time. You really have a fascinating and well written blog. Best wishes to you!)

Carina said...

We were on a walk just a few weeks ago when a very emotional/in a hurry man approached us. He told me of his sister who was in labor and they didn't have the money for a natural birth at the hospital here. She needed a c-section and could only afford to go out to the a "other" hospital. He had found a ride, he had the money for the hospital, but he just needed money for the diesel. Lie or not, who am i to say. We handed over the money because I felt as though it's not for me to say whether or not he needs help. But when it happens again and again... he came by the house (don't know if he knew it was our house) just last week and said that his friend had eaten some mushrooms and needed the doctor, could we help? same frantic voice. same nervous look. when do you say yes and help, when do you call them on their lie...?