An African Beggar
I would like to tell a little story that symbolizes what the Peace Corps meant to me.
My story takes place in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown is a modern city surrounded by beautiful mountains and golden beaches, but my story is about a beggar and me and takes place on the busy streets of the city.
The beggar, whose name I never knew, had a horrible case of leprosy. The fingers were almost all eaten away, and he could walk only with the help of a cane. His clothes were ragged, and he wore no shoes, and daily I would see him limping through the busy streets of Freetown begging for money. People threw money on the ground as the man approached. No one, naturally, wanted to get too close to a leper with such obvious disfigurement.
After weeks of trying to beg money from me without success, he blocked my way one morning and demanded that I give him money. I threw a few pennies onto the ground and rushed away, but I knew at once that I could not continue to give him money. I hadn't come to Freetown to give money to beggars. I had joined the Peace Corps to help another country and learn another culture.
That day I asked a Sierra Leonian woman, to whom I was teaching secretarial skills, what I should do about the beggar.
"He doesn't really want your money," she replied matter of factly.
"Doesn't want it?" I asked. "He demands it!"
"This man eats well. I see him at every store in town and the storekeepers throw him food. This man wants something more from you," she said with a shy smile and a sideward glance at me. "This man wants your respect."
I thought about what she said that night and the next day when the beggar came up to me, I shook my head no when he demanded his pennies. He started carrying on and yelling things in his own tribal language, but I just kept shaking my head with my hands folded in front of me. It would have been easy to reach into my bag for three or four pennies, but I knew I could not give in. Suddenly, the Freetown skies seemed to open and it began to pour. I raised my umbrella and turned to walk away. The beggar had grown quiet as the heavy, tropical rain beat down on him. I stopped walking and turned and walked back to him.
"Stand under my umbrella until the rain passes," I told him. He gave me a surprised look but remained under the umbrella. We never spoke a word for the few minutes it continued to rain and when the sun reappeared, I closed my umbrella, smiled, and waved good-bye.
The following day I saw him again. This time, instead of demanding money from me, he smiled and waved and continued limping down the street. We had both gained something that day: respect for each other.
Maybe this story seems insignificant to you. I didn't change the world. I didn't build skyscrapers and I didn't end world hunger. But maybe, just maybe, that beggar and all the other African lives I touched during my two years there may remember me as I can, clearly and fondly, remember them.
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