At 8:30 on Sunday Oletum knocks at my door. It is my first morning after returning from the Youth Form and I feel a heavy reluctance to leave the warmth of my bed. Oletum knocks louder and I shuffle into slippers and head to the front door.
Although he greets me with a smile, I notice right away that Oletum’s face looks incredibly thin. I did not realize that black skin could turn pale but his has become a light grayish color, turning him into an old and frail version of the teenager I knew two weeks ago.
Oletum hurries through our greetings and then tells me he is very hungry and has a terrible headache. His parents are in Gaborone for the weekend and he and his grandmother have run out of food.
I’ve been away for the week and so I have very little to offer him. I scan my kitchen and find half a package or pasta, one can of beans and a tin of tuna. That is all I have.
Oletum asks me if this food will help his headache and I say yes.
The truth is that I have no idea if the food will help Oletum’s headache. I have no idea if he has a mother and father. I have no idea if I am inspiring an unhealthy dependence. I have no idea if he needs to go to the clinic. I have no idea if his family is registered with the government assistance program.
I say goodbye to Oletum and go inside where my worry grows into anxiety and then fear.
By 9:30 I’m dressed and heading to the tuck shop for groceries. On my way back I walk towards Oletum’s home but realize that his “White House Over There” description is not sufficient enough to guide me. I greet a group of neighborhood kids throwing rocks and they agree to take me to the right hut.
When I arrive Oletum is cooking the spaghetti over an outdoor fire with his wrinkled grandmother looking on from a nearby stool. The color has come back to Oletum’s cheeks and he says his headache has started to wane. I pass his grandmother a loaf of bread and then grill him for a full five minutes. Oletum obliges…
My parents will be back at 9:00 tonight.
I ate porridge for breakfast.
Yes, I’ve been drinking water.
No, our family does not receive the monthly government food baskets.
No, I do not want you to speak to the guidance counselor about registering us.
This goes on until I consider the very real possibility that I’ve Been Had.
I look around the family compound at three white washed brick houses and several healthy-looking chicken. I notice the grandmother’s neat flowered dress. I see melon slices hanging on a clothes line to dry in the sun.
Oletum, what did you tell me your parents do for work?
My father is a driver and my mother works at the Council in Gabs.
And how many siblings do you have?
Four brothers but they are older and none of them live in Kumakwane now.
So there are two possibilities: Oletum has completely lied about being in need or Oletum is being neglected by his parents. Either way I am certain that the family in middle-class and there are options for food other than soliciting handouts from the new American neighbor.
I walk home in a gloomy cloud of irritation and self-doubt.
A few hours later Oletum returns to knock at my door. This time he doesn’t have a story or a need. This time he just stands there and smiles at me.
Oletum comes in and we play cards and talk together for 2 hours.
A couple of years ago Jon and I were walking through snowy Boston streets on our way to dinner. He passed a dollar to a homeless man who to thank him in a thick, dramatic slur. Jon was always giving money to beggars but this time I scowled at him.
That man is drunk.
But don’t you think he’s just going to use the money for alcohol?
Jon walks with a light bounce in his step and stands a full foot taller than me. He looks down into my disapproving glare and smiles.
It’s freezing and the guy is homeless, Jess. Maybe he needs food. Maybe he needs a drink. All I know is, he needs that dollar a whole helluva lot more than I do.
After he beats me at both War and Uno, Oletum heads home to make dinner for his grandmother. I sit in my living room and think of the pasta, tuna, beans and bread that Oletum needed or didn’t but which I replaced for myself within an hour.
Maybe we who Have will never fully understand Paucity. Maybe the closest we can get to compassion is accepting that Reality is Relative and Need is Personal.
We cannot rank pain. We cannot rate the bowl or vessel or emptiness one chooses to fill with that which they receive.
Our job is to pour. To pour into hungriness, loneliness, sickness and little boys who just need to be Heard.