An interesting thing happened to me today(7/5/07). I went outside to fill the water bucket for the huge jug of juice we make every afternoon. One of the kids who has consistently tried to trick his way into food walked next to me the whole trip, pestering me about finding him some food when the time came. I did my best to explain why he couldn't be inside and why he might not get fed, but he just kept at it, telling me he's hungry and all that. After a while I started to ignore him, or tell him that it's not up to me, and he eventually came back with, "It's because you're white." This made me stop. I turned around and looked him right in the eye and told him that has nothing to do with it. He insisted that the difference in our skin color was the reason I refused to feed him. I pointed out that all the other kids we feed are black like him, and apologized again, but there was nothing I could do to convince him so I walked away. It was a rather shocking thing to have a young kid, I'd guess he was about 10, play the race card. And the thing is, I can understand where he gets that impression. A lot of the time I look around at the Khayelitsha center, and am put off by the power structure operating. All these little black children being told what to do and scolded by the group of white outsiders. Unavoidably we are put in an impossible situation, where we are there to help, but we end up being forced to become disciplinarians when the kids misbehave. Our skin color is an obvious distinction, and while there are black and colored tutors there, Emma and Talisa are more or less in control, and I work the door, so the big bad bosses have pale complexion. The fact that I would treat a huge group of crazy white kids just the same is irrelevant. We can't just let these children run wild, that would be chaos and no one would get anything done. But when we become authority figures and impose punishment, we are all of a sudden oppressive.
The problem is, that although I may understand the theoretical underpinnings of my presence there and consciously mold my role into that of a benevolent helper-outer with the communities best interest at heart, I am inevitably seen as a rich umlungu and therefore expected to give them some of my supposedly vast wealth. One kid asks me for 5 rand everyday. And I am always being asked for food. And it's hard to deal with kids banging on the door, kept out by a steel cage, while I am relaxing with my PB&J, reading a book and chatting with my friends. If I'm honest about it, I eat right before and after I go out to Khayelitsha. I don't need that sandwich, so why won't I just give it to the kids? We've talked about this before, how we aren't there for charity and we don't want to create a sense of dependence, but not giving them what they ask for doesn't seem to make them any less dependent, it only serves to turn us into the bad guys, the selfish haves denying the righteous have-nots. And the thing is, even if I did help that kid out and sneak him some food, there is no doubt in my mind that he would eat it quickly or hide it and try to trick another tutor or crawl back in and get more. That isn't pessimism, it's the reality I've experienced over the last two weeks and I can't tell you how disheartening it is. Something that you thought was generous and kind getting thrown right back in your face like that is enough to discourage the most charitable of instincts.