I wanted to be sad when I walked through the townships. I thought: If I get sad, it’ll confirm that I’m a compassionate person, capable of sympathy—real sympathy, where you don’t have to know anything about anybody to feel bad for them (or something like that). I thought: It’ll sort of pinch my brain to make sure it’s aware of what’s going on, or be like a needle poke into my heart to make sure it can bleed. And I thought I would. In spite of whatever New Yorker, male machismo-callousnous I’d tried to build up, I would feel sad. I mean how could I not? With the scrap metal houses smaller than my kitchen, the children and their frowns and puppy eyes, and just the extent of the poverty all around me, why wouldn’t I?
Because that’s just not how it feels. The first time I walked into the township I found that the kids don’t wear perma-frowns, and that every hand isn’t holding a tin can rattling with change. They run and laugh, climb trees, kick decades-old soccer balls, start makeshift cricket games, and my God do they smile. And while there were sidelong glances from some adults (understandable, given how different we looked and that we walked around their neighborhood with technology strapped around our necks that was possibly worth more than all of their possessions), those were more than matched by grins and laughs when we waved and greeted them with “Molo!” People welcomed us into their homes and treated us like family instantly—without that time set aside to size one another up, as seems customary in the United States after small talk shrinks to silence.
I didn’t realize I’d missed my opportunity to check my moral pulse until the sun set and I sat down to reflect after an evening of editing. I thought about how nice the people in the townships were, about how nice people deserve better because they’re nice, about the value of altruism versus the value of money, about wait — should nice people get more money because they’re nice? And maybe they weren’t really quite as happy as they seemed? Barbed fences surrounded many of the homes, though I think that was more to keep the free-roaming donkeys or cattle at bay; none of our translators said they wanted to move away. So how can we Americans or Westerners or the wealthy or what have you, how can we not be that happy with all that we have? Because it gets cold here? Because of a misplaced sense of values? Because the world is a competition and one man’s cost is another man’s income? I don’t know. No matter what the answer is though, it’s sad.