The oldest one walked up to me. It was the Sunday afternoon of a three day music festival and everyone seemed keen to get outta dodge.
I was making my last trip from the campsite to my rental car. He looked as if he was playing a part he had only ever been told about but never given the script for. I watched him shake off his doubt and walk over to me, chest out and strutting, until he was standing right in front of me.
“Hello Madame,” he declared, “May I have some money? Please.”
It seemed very clear to me that he had been told, at one time or many, if you ask a white person for money, there is a good chance they will give it to you.
I knew that I had some cash left in my wallet. And I knew that, following my conversation with this young swindler, I would be promptly vacating Swaziland, thus eliminating any need I might have for Lilangeni, other than its souvenir value.
But I knew that by just handing these young boys cash, I would be inherently perpetuating their belief that white people are just light-skinned ATM machines, willing to dole out money just by being asked. I didn’t want their hopes to be dashed when the next whitey rejected them. So I struck a deal with him.
“Okay. I’ll give you some money. If you let me take your photo.”
I held up the big black camera that was hanging around my neck.
He nodded okay.
“Can you ask your friends to be in the photo too?”
He turned around and motioned for his two smaller companions to approach us, speaking to them quickly in Swati.
As they stood there posing, none of their faces smiled, except for the oldest of them, who wore his smile like a subdued costume that had been given to him to wear, to oblige, to play a part. I clicked the shutter and thanked them. The oldest one stepped forward again, this time with his hand outstretched, waiting for what was owed to him.
I scrounged in my wallet and saw that I had two bills: a 20 and a 50. I had a decision to make. And I didn’t completely understand the value of Lilangeni but I knew it was pretty comparable to South African Rand, and I also knew that giving 50 rand to a few street kids, while generous, might cause some future problems for those street kids. Such as, someone else stealing it, or harming them to steal it, or parents thinking that they stole it, and the incurring punishment that would follow.
I gave them the 20, and winced as I did it, already regretting the fact that I would have no use for this 50 Lilangeni bill, and that it could benefit their lives so much more than mine.
When the leader of the rag tag trio saw the denomination of the bill I was handing him, he squealed with delight.
“Oh miss, miss! Thank you miss!”
It was as if he was a light bulb that had just switched on. The sanguine, guarded face in the photograph I had taken seconds prior, was now jubilant. He ran back to his two companions (I wonder now if they were his little brothers), and the three of them ran to me tugging on my sweatshirt and hugging me.
It felt wonderful and also wrong, as if I had become, in that moment, the very embodiment of the ‘white savior’ complex.
I wish I had taken an ‘after’ photo, but the boys ran off too quickly before I could think to ask them for one. I imagine how different their expressions would be in the after photo, studying the photo I captured, and imagining how their faces transformed once I gave them the cash.
I thought about my encounter with them for the entirety of my five hour drive back to Johannesburg.
What would I have done differently, if anything?
What could I do to actually help them, other than giving them a 20 Lilangeni bill?
And was it my responsibility to help them? Was it even my business? Or was it absolutely my business, by coming to their homeland for a weekend festival, to somehow give back to their community , even if in the smallest of ways, after using their village as the picturesque but incidental location for my weekend holiday.
The biggest question I kept arriving at, and the hardest one I found to answer was, “Should I have given them the 50?”