Saidi Mahamudu is a conundrum, just like his body. He has a small physique: shorter and thinner than his peers. This I presume is the result of his malnourished lifestyle. Yet, he has abs. Say that this paradox isn’t an anomaly. He’s black. He’s African. He has the genes. Fine, I could concede on the body commentary, but as I interact with Saidi, I see even more contradictions, and I end up constantly revisiting how I perceive the Poor.
I have helped Saidi on a number of occasions, each being a bit more perplex than the previous one. The first was the KOICA scholarship. Saidi was obviously poor, in fact dirt poor. Even the bajaj driver who drove me to his house commented how poor his family is. Saidi was an eligible candidate in every criterion, an excellent student in poverty; except he has already received a scholarship from another institution. That cunning bastard wanted to hide this fact, but upon pressing him, he pleaded that he needed the money to buy shoes and stationary.
Saidi Mahamudu, a model student taking advantage of white guilt?
Whenever students run for student government, they are interviewed by the teachers (a bizarre, bizarre ritual). Saidi was running for Head Boy (equivalent to school President, which he won), and apparently he unsuccessfully ran for the position the year before. When asked “how did you feel when you lost last year?” He answered, “of course, I was very angry.” Such frank admission of negative emotion is rare in Tanzania, and all the teachers were both mildly surprised and pleased.
Is this an electoral campaign scheme or pure honesty?
I helped an NGO launch an experimental solar lamp distribution project. Knowing how poor Saidi is, I helped him be the recipient. He in fact received two solar lamps because the first one broke down. Two notes. 1. After a month upon receiving, he moved in right next to my house. Ms. Chibwana, the next door English teacher, was going off to University, and wanted Saidi to house-sit for a while. Not only did he get to use her fluorescent lamp, but also her television and radio. 2. I asked him to write a thank you letter. The first half of the letter expressed his gratefulness, the second half asked for more help, such as shoes and books.
As poor as he may be, he does get a lot of things he wants, somehow.
Not so long after he moved in, I saw him with a cell phone. Surely he cannot afford one can he? I asked how he got his phone. He said it was his friend’s.
To believe or not to believe?
Saidi was severely reprimanded for being with a girl in the student government office at “odd hours.” According to Ms. Ngattenda, the beacon of morality, Saidi likes girls. Yet, he is one of the most religious students I know, with a clear prayer mark on his forehead.
Sexually promiscuous or pious? Necessarily a dichotomy?
I was on my way out and saw Saidi do laundry. We greeted, and he asked whether I will be selling my laptop when I leave. Sorry Saidi, you’re number eight on my waiting list, but you shouldn’t buy it for A-Level. I think it’s a bit premature and there’s a high security risk at secondary school dorms.
What the fuck? You want to BUY my laptop, which costs thirty times your scholarship?
My interactions with Saidi have challenged my perceptions on development practice. Whenever I was the donor, facilitator, or giver, I wanted to find the poor and discover who is worthy of the material goods that I wanted to give out. It was an empowering act, something that will level the playing field. It was an opportunity to give to the few unfortunately poor who have potential, those who will become financially successful and come back to their communities to build a school or a well. The recipients are simple: poor, smart, and well-behaved. Saidi is all of these, but somehow, maybe because I do not see beyond his abs, he seems to be much more.
What is really interesting about all this is that Saidi will probably be much more than the simple identity that I have previously perceived him to be. Later in his life, he could be rich, cunning, and a complete womanizer. He could even ridicule me on how simple-minded and narrow I have been towards him. At the same time, as I ponder my identity as a volunteer, I have trouble conceiving myself as anything more than the rich, guilt-conscious donor who is looking for the simple poor so that I could do something while I am in this poverty stricken land.