I’m in Tanzania. I’ve followed my college sweetheart on a journey across the ocean. As much as young love is carrying us through, neither of us have a foreseeable end nor a clear purpose. l have little idea of who I am or what I’m doing … but I’m happy, free and living in the present.
The daily routine involves driving into town in our rackety old Landrover, pressing the failing brakes vigorously to slow our momentum. But, shopping in town is far more fraught than our failing car. I am frazzled and overwhelmed and intrigued by the children, who persistently come up to the car window to ask for money. This small crowd of faces manages to present themselves as endearing, desperate and independent, carefully calibrating what expression will get a response from me.
I have no idea how to respond. I’m battling the twin forces of compassion and pragmatism. I want to do good, but have no idea what good is, nor how to do the right thing. But, I can’t do nothing.
So I decide to take a plunge and embrace more of the unknown.
I hook up with a likeminded, altruistic and energetic friend.
We ask a local Indian printer to ramp up his old printing machines – dated back to the 1930’s – and to produce rough and ready cardboard vouchers. We sell these in the local grocery shops for the equivalent of 20 cents a card. People buy the vouchers, putting their change in the tins that we had decorated and left across town. They give those extraordinary children a voucher when they ask for money. And we use the money from those tins to buy food and pay a cook. Friends donate a stove and plates and we start a soup kitchen for the children, kindly hosted by a local tree nursery. The children bring those vouchers to us and in return receive a meal.
We hang out, we learn from each other. The children ask for more… and we continue to improvise. We find somewhere to rent and open up a daycare facility where they can get some respite from the streets. It gets cold at night and the children want somewhere inside to sleep. We move the furniture from the day centre outside, and they sleep on the floor. A child wants to go home. We start to visit the families of all the children and help them rebuild fractured relationships. The children want to raise awareness and we start a drama troupe and put on skits about their life at the local bus stand. And so it continues…
15 years later many of these children have their own small people. They have wives. They are professionals with careers where they are making an impact.
Looking back on these years I made many mistakes, and was in many ways blindly optimistic. But, I also intuitively knew that doing the right thing does not necessarily mean doing no wrong. But, doing the right thing does mean doing something. It means reaching out to others. It means improvising and learning. It means building on that learning. We all face moral dilemmas that demand that we question if we will act or not. If we decide to act we are pressed to consider how to do so. In trying to address dilemmas we will inevitably make mistakes, poor judgement calls, and even potentially cause unintended harm. But, we can only build a more just society, if we have the confidence to jump in, to embrace improvisation, to learn when it goes wrong. We can only flourish if I, you and we say ‘it’s my business’ to take that first step.