Chad and I got a very chatty cab driver the other day. Pak (Mr.) Haji told us he has 12 children and is poor. His title, Haji, implies that you have some money, because it signifies that you’ve done the Hajj pilgrimage. But he told us the only way he’d gotten to Mecca was by working in Saudi Arabia. Usually the people who join the work-abroad programs are pretty desperate, so that all made sense.
White hat worn by men who’ve done the Hajj
We chatted away in a perfectly friendly fashion until we got to our destination, when Pak Haji suddenly turned and said, “Can you help me? I’ve had to take one of my children out of school because I don’t have money. I can’t afford the school fees.”
I felt bad. We have money and he doesn’t. But I also felt mad. Why did you have twelve kids, I thought, if you can’t afford to send them to school? And your financial strategy is to hit up random foreigners for money? We don’t tote around enough cash to pay for a year of school fees, so how are we even supposed to help anyway?
We gave him a few thousand extra rupiah, which is a pittance, and got out as quickly as we could.
Chad and I talked about it quite a bit that afternoon. Chad is perhaps more of a revolutionary than I am, and he argued the guy was just confronting the obvious injustice conferred by our backgrounds and trying to solve it in the simplest way.
But I saw no reason for Pak Haji to have so many children, since birth control is easily obtainable here. Furthermore, the evidence suggested he had more than one wife, and I’m totally opposed to polygamy. (There are all sorts of complex socio-economic arguments against it, but my objection is simple: men are allowed to have multiple spouses here, but women aren’t. It’s pure sexism!)
Of course, on the other hand, the person who’s really at stake here is a child. We should probably pay the school fees, if only so that s/he ends up making better decisions than dear old dad!
There is no resolution to the Pak Haji debate. It’s one you have every day as someone from a wealthy country who’s living in a poor country. You have money and a lot of people don’t. On one extreme, you get paralyzed by guilt and just throw money at everybody you see. On the other, you get hardened enough to walk past the lowliest street beggar without surrendering even a 100-rupiah coin (worth about a penny). My attitude is a sliding scale that changes a hundred times a day.
I suppose a partial answer is to give money to charity, so I’m renewing my effort to do so. I’ve been slow to choose one because even in the case of nonprofits, you have to watch out for corruption. I’d feel better about saying no to someone like Pak Haji if I knew we were giving to a good organization to help kids with nutrition and school fees. And maybe I’ll donate to a population-control group, too!