The children were laughing out loud as they strolled along the beach, their worn-out flip-flops dragging through the sand. It was obvious who was in charge, the big sister’s eyes glancing now and then at her two younger sisters as they walked. Their clothes were clean though worn, their hair black and braided, their eyes bright. These children had a mama at home and had money for food, though not for new clothes.
Unlike most of the other children in this area, they showed no interest in the bunch of white people walking past them and for this I was grateful. “These kids still have some healthy boundaries,” I thought, “despite their town being overrun by well-meaning westerners. They’re not being overly familiar. They’re not eyeing us off to see if we’ll give them something.” I was surprised that there were any children left in this area who didn’t beg from us aggressively: “Mana, por favour, eu estou fome. Please, I am hungry. You give me food."
The oldest girl, perhaps 11 or 12, was holding a magnificent yellow flower in her open palm, one finger running gently along the edge of its fluted petals as they walked.
I breathed more easily, knowing they would pass us without begging from us, without flicking me on the arm or putting up a hand for a hi-five from a total stranger.
Then I sensed a movement next to me. One of our group changed his course suddenly and walked across my path, towards the children. My heart sank. Perhaps my view is too extreme, perhaps I expect too much of westerners outside of familiar territory. I see the kids of this area learning from us that it’s ok to talk to strangers – any strangers – if they’re white, and that those white strangers will give them things if they beg loud enough and often enough. We’re perpetuating behaviour that is, at the least, unhealthy and, at the worst, terribly dangerous.
The man from our group didn’t say a word. He walked directly up to the oldest girl and reached into her hand. He lifted the flower, took it from her and turned away. He made no eye contact, said not a word, did not acknowledge her existence or the fact that he was taking what was hers.
She watched him intently, confused and powerless.
He did not see her. He was blind.
As she observed, he came to us and told us all about this stunning blossom – he even knew its scientific name. In any other context this degree of knowledge would perhaps be interesting, but a little girl was staring helplessly at his back, wanting her property from the foreigner who had stolen it out of her hand.
He finished his lesson then turned and placed the bloom back into her hand. He kept talking to us as he walked away, yet still he made no eye contact with this bewildered child. He didn’t acknowledge her or thank her or apologise.
He did not see her.
She was invisible to him. She did not exist.
I stood, frozen to the spot, wanting to fix it but having no idea how to reel back all that I’d just seen. This is the worst of all we bring to this country and I am beyond mortified that I am regularly a part of such scenes.
I have heard the stories of the insensitivities of foreigner-tourists and I have seen the fruit of it again and again in the world in which I live. I’ve wished often for a hole to swallow me up when a visitor to Mozambique says or does one more tactless thing while out of their comfort zone. I’m sure I’ve done it too and been so blind I did not realise. I have wondered how Christians who are learning to love can be so unloving, so monumentally rude, with no idea they’re doing irrevocable damage to hearts and to relationships.
We are the visitors. We do not belong here. We get to stay only by invitation and we wonder why many of “the locals” don’t like having us around.
We are here to serve but to serve, we must see. To see, we must see beyond ourselves.
I said to the person next to me, “He didn’t see her – he took the flower right out of her hand and he didn’t even see her.”
I was furious. I was raging and ready to scream. So why did I not? Why did I allow this moment to pass so quietly? Why did I not defend a child in need of defence? Why was I so polite when impoliteness would have been justified and, dare I say, necessary?
I am tired of being polite, and silent. I am tired of being blind.
“You didn’t see her. She was beautiful and innocent and aware. She was scared. How could you not see her?”
We come here to serve, to bless, to give. There are hundreds of us, marching across this beautiful land like a band of locusts, all wanting to change the world for the better but, in so many ways, leaving a denuded landscape behind us wherever we go. Unless we learn to see – to really see - nothing else matters.
All our work is worthless, our sacrifice counts for nothing, the cost is irrelevant, until we can see with eyes of love the hearts of those whom we serve.
The cry of my heart these past months has been, “God, I’ve become blind. I want to see. I have to see!” Yesterday I saw - and it shook me to the core of my being. She was a child, confused, afraid, and abused by the kindness of strangers.
God help me. Open my eyes. If I am to love, I must see. Without sight, I am blind, and without love, I am nothing.
* Some details have been changed for reasons of privacy.