Sitting in an air-conditioned Ola cab on Saturday evening in Bangalore’s notorious traffic, I was heading to a friend’s party when an older gentleman in a long white kurta and a white cap approached.
Clutching his long walking stick, he looked close to my grandmother’s age — she’s in her early 90s. His feeble back seemed about to give out. His hands and shoulders shook as he extended his hand to the cab window. He motioned between his mouth and my window, clearly asking for something to eat.
My mind raced and so did my heart. I debated: to give or not to give?
My heart said yes, YES!
But my mind ran through phrases I have heard: “You give him a handout or a hand up. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Does he really need food, or will he use the money for alcohol or drugs?”
Before I could decide what to do, the traffic cleared and the cab sped away. I glanced back at the man, now struggling to cross the busy highway, tightly clutching his walking stick, taking one step at a time.
I have had many sleepless nights lately not just about him but about everyone I see in poverty around me. I hail from Uganda but am living in Bangalore, India now. Both countries have about the same economic and social challenges. I thought I had figured this begging thing out. I do what I can to help. For children I either buy them food or buy the pens, pencils and other paraphernalia they are selling. For the elderly, the differently abled, the hungry barefoot man on the street, I try to share a meal the way I would with my friends — to the bemusement of onlookers and the confusion of the restaurant owner.
But on Saturday night, I faltered when I faced the elderly man.
My cab fare was 350 Indian rupees. That’s about $6. I keep thinking how I surely could have spared a meal for this man. I could hardly hold my tears back thinking about him. What if this were his last day and all he needed was a decent meal? What if he were truly hungry and begging was his only option? What if? What if?
Where is my humanity? What has happened to me?
Many of us struggle with these questions. For me, I feel a personal tie to the people I see begging and selling trinkets. I have been in a similar position.
While my paternal grandfather had wealth in the form of cattle and land from serving as a royal guardsman for the King of Ankole, my dad and his siblings lost it all during political turmoil in the late 1970s. They were forced to squat on other people’s lands. My mother had cattle and land, but both of my parents and four of my siblings died by the time I was 10 years old. My uncle kept all but four cattle from me. I had almost nothing.
Fortunately, I had my grandmother, whom I went to live with.
But what if I had not?
What if when I went to sell eggs and milk to earn money for school fees, passersby looked the other way?
What if I was afraid to travel 300 miles alone to ask the president of Uganda for a high school scholarship?
What if I never met American sponsors who afforded me a college education?
So much of life is chance, and sometimes you can be the chance for someone else. You can help make their life better.
For this reason, I give to people I see on the streets. And I don’t just give pennies. For a grown man or woman, I give enough for a meal. For a child selling merchandise, I buy enough so the child can afford that book or uniform so he or she won’t be kept out of school.
I don’t presume to be building a different social order by offering alms to the poor. I know that to eliminate poverty, many issues must be addressed. But I hope that by opening my heart, I let others know I am unhappy about the injustice in the world and I am doing my part.
Some people may think I am gullible. Perhaps I am, in some cases. But that is the choice I make to show solidarity with all human beings.
The next time I see someone like the man at my cab, I will not hesitate but will listen to my heart and give. What will you do?
James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a Global Fellow at Acumen. He is currently working with LabourNet, a nongovernmental organization in Bangalore, India, that seeks to improve the lives of workers.