Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pressed but not crushed, part 2

I went to see Paulina in the spring, at the family compound where she was staying with her mother. She still swung her hips and insisted on a feast of coconut fish for her guest. Edwiggy crawled around with a little doll. The Tanzanian pop radio and children’s shouts were a more pleasant background than the busy road where Moses lived in the city.

Here in Moshi is where she had first met Moses. He had grown up here, worked at a shop selling rice and sugar and soap. Her mother would send her to the shop for tea leaves. Sometimes Moses bought her a Coke and induced her to linger a few minutes at the store.

“He was charming,” she told me. “Different than he is now.”

“Has he tried to call you?”

“He calls, but I will not go back,” she said as though it was that easy, as though she could simply toss him aside, like the chaff she was sorting out from the rice. “Once he pulled his gun on me.”


She was working at a hotel in here Moshi when he asked her to come live with him. She weighed the options—a meager job cleaning at a tourist hotel, better than most of her schoolmates, but long hours for low pay—or keeping house for charming Moses-from-the-shop. As soon as she arrived in Dar es Salaam, she knew he was different—drinking, drugs, sleeping with other women. The police job and his co-workers were pushing him in a direction she didn’t know how to handle. He came home angry and didn’t have much to say other than to ask about dinner.

When she was pregnant with Edwiggy, that’s when he first started beating her. In her seventh month, scared for Edwiggy’s health, she went home to Moshi. Her mother trekked to different markets every day to buy and sell sweaters and coats, thrift-store throwaways from the U.S.  Paulina could only sell coconuts from home and help with the laundry and cooking. She didn’t know if her mother and siblings silently resented her as another giant belly to feed. After all, she’d gotten fat in the big city.

She delivered the baby in Moshi. Moses pursued her. She convinced herself he had beaten her because of the pregnancy. He’d be better now that the baby was born. She returned to Dar.

The beatings resumed after a few weeks. She started to get scared when she found messages from other lovers on his phone. She was terrified of AIDS; the Tanzanian public health campaign had been in successful in getting the word out about condoms and HIV testing. The marketers, the government, the newscasters could talk about it. You just couldn’t talk about it in real life, with your lover; no real man would consider wearing condoms. All Paulina could do was question him. “Why do you have messages from other women on the phone?”

Every question meant a beating.

One night, when Edwiggy was only a few months old, Moses came home wasted, complaining about the food she’d prepared. She snatched his phone in suspicion or retaliation. He pulled out his gun.

Paulina talked him down. She lived with him for several months after that. She slept with him, cooked for him, and raised their child. He never apologized.


After a day of coconut fish and storytelling, and watching Edwiggy try to stand, it was time for me to go. I stood to leave. That’s when she brought it up again. “Do you have the money to help me start a business?”

She had a vague plan about going to Nairobi to buy secondhand clothes, to sell them at markets like her mother did.

I had dangled money in front of her eagerly once, in hopes it would make her leave an abusive relationship. Now, after more thought and other experiences of being ill-used for cash, I balked a little. I feared she didn’t have a good business plan, might become dependent on me for help. She and Edwiggy were safe now. Did I need to help beyond that?

But she still needed to provide for her daughter. And I had offered her help. I gave her $100. “Use it for business,” I said. “Be careful with it.” Another woman I knew had begun raising goats, sheep, and chickens on the same initial amount.

When I came back to see Paulina one last time before my departure from Tanzania, she asked me again for money. “I haven’t started business yet, and I had to use $25 to take Edwiggy to get her shots,” she said.

I swallowed and told her I didn’t have any more to give.

In retrospect, I was wrong. She had used the money to provide needed health care for her daughter. I could have encouraged this. I could have helped more. I could have done research on micro-lending groups, tried to refer her to someone to help. I could have found more seed money, sat with her to make a business plan, stayed an extra day and gone with her to invest in inventory. But it was so complicated, and I needed boundaries, and I was tired of being asked to be a savior, tired of these murky situations, and I was going back to America, and I knew nothing of business, and what more could I do?

I gave her a big hug and promised I’d come back one day.


When I think of Paulina, I think how it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that she had such a heavy load, that there was nowhere to turn for sustainable income or assistance, no way for a woman with a primary-school education and an infant to make it in her country, no legal recourse for the wrongs that were done her. It isn’t fair that I couldn’t, or didn’t, help her more.

But I also think of her grin, the gap in teeth when she giggles, her sing-songy voice, her hospitality, her caring father and mother, her great love for her daughter, and how she doesn’t give up.

I have a feeling, or maybe it is a hope, or only a desperate prayer—that she and Edwiggy are doing okay.

This post is a part of my Women’s History Month project, “Honoring Women’s Stories.” You can read more about the project and see other women’s stories here.


  1. I meant to comment on this when you first posted, but alas: Babies interrupted. Now I'm getting back to it.
    I wanted to say that I've been in those shoes: Trying to help and hating to create dependency and fearing that no matter which way you step, your foot will wind up in the wrong place. When Jesus said, "give to the poor," it sounds so easy, but the reality looks so much more confusing. I know a lot of people who have been burned by giving money toward a specific thing, and then finding out the money went somewhere else. I've been confused by being told such-and-such should cost so much, and then the number just keeps getting doubled.
    I try to give money locally, now, whenever I can. I've had the founder of an organization personally tell me, Hey here's where your donation went.
    For me, generosity has become a lot about trying to loosen my own grip and live with open hands. It's hard. I fail a lot.
    I keep trying to remember, too, that Jesus says the poor are blessed and that the rich have way more obstacles to the kingdom. I consider myself rich, given the state of the big world.

  2. Yeah, thanks for reading and for your comments. I completely agree. Relationships across inequality divides are bound to be messy no matter what, and I think that's partly why we tend to avoid them, but I figure bumbling awkwardly in relationships w/ folks who are in a different situation is better than ignoring them altogether. And I would be a different person without my relationships w/ folks in Africa, DC, or wherever.