How Can We Help Poor(er) Women?

A Page from Tom Paulson I was heading home on November 6, 2018, when my sister called me to get her some juice. It was about 8:50pm and I was really tired. I told her I wouldn’t do it but when I got to my junction, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to get her the juice.  It was as I was walking to the provisions store that I saw a woman sitting on the side of the road, with her legs spread out and her hand scratching her head. She was dressed in mis-matched Ankara clothes and she had a look of utter defeat about her. At first glanced, she looked like she had some mental problems; the kind that could not be corrected. And because of how she sat, I didn’t immediately see the children by her side. When I got closer, I saw that she had one child pressed to her body. And behind her on the staircase of the shop closest to the one I was going to, were two other children sleeping on the bare floor. They were covered in dust from rolling on the ground. It was heartbreaking to see that the children couldn’t have been older than 5. I slowed down to really look at her…and then I walked past. I concluded that she may have lost her mind and I didn’t want to be chased down for not minding my business. So, I went to the shop and got my juice.  When I got out of the shop, I looked in the direction she sat and saw that she was still there. At this point, I knew that I couldn’t leave her – with those kids sleeping on the road – without doing anything. It was also at that point that I saw that there were two other children with her, bringing the total number to five. Those children, and the utter helplessness of their situation, convinced me to take the risk and walk up to her.  ‘Madam, wetin happen?’ I asked in pidgin English.  She looked at me and turned away. And looked at me again, as if deciding whether to talk or not.  ‘I need help.’ She responded quietly. ‘Where is your house?’ I asked.  She pointed in the direction I had come from. I asked again, prodding her to say more.  ‘Phase 1 side.’  Those were the only words she said. And hearing that, I made my first mistake.  ‘Ha ahn! Why you allow your children sleep for road like this? E no good now. See as them lie down for bare ground like this. E no good at all. Oya…stand up.’ I remember exactly what I said because I feel so ashamed of it afterwards.  She looked at me as I spoke to her and I could tell that she was equally ashamed to be in that situation. She started to gather her things as I opened my purse and took out money.  N500.  By this time, a crowd had begun to gather, and I didn’t want to be seen giving her money. So, I quickly thrust the money in her hand and said, ‘Oya…get up and go home.’ And I walked away from the crowd that was sending blessings my way as they gathered around her.  I saw some other people giving her money and one man even flagged a Keke for her and her children. The woman was on her feet at this point and that was when I saw she was pregnant; probably in her third trimester.  I realized I had fucked up.  I mulled over everything that happened and when I finally got home and relayed the story to my sister, she confirmed what I had been feeling. I should have done more.  I had prejudged the woman ‘crazy’ before even reaching her. If I hadn’t, I would have seen that she was just a really frustrated woman who was going through a lot. I wouldn’t have waited to get into the shop before making my mind up to talk to her. And when I finally did, I let the crowd rattle me because I am not comfortable with helping people in the eye of the public. But what is worse is that, everything I had learned in the last two years about solving problems flew out of my head when faced with one.  Rather than just give her money, I should have asked a few more questions after she said she needed help. What was wrong? Why was she on the road? What kind of help did she need? Did she have a job? A business? Anything? What skills did she have? Were those all her children? Did she have a home to go to? Did she have a partner? What did he do? Where was he at that moment? Was she running away from him? I know that there are even more questions that I could have asked. The answers to these questions would have better informed how I helped her rather than just giving her a little money. Knowing about the underlying issues that drove her to the road at night with five children and one on the way could have presented me the opportunity to offer her a job or begin to look for someone who could.  But I gave her N500 and left. N500 which was my juice money. N500 which could solve some of her problems for that night and drive her back to the road again the next day.  I am ashamed of myself and how I reacted. I wish I could go back in time and undo my reaction. I wish I had been more perceptive and patient when dealing with her. I wish I had ignored the crowd and treated her as someone with full agency, rather than some I could tell what to do. I wished I hadn’t been more focused on aesthetics rather than her humanity. Because right there is the crux of the matter! I was more concerned about how the situation looked that I did not

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