A 21-year-old on a bike came to me one morning and asked in English when I would tutor him. I told him in slow English that I wasn’t tutoring anyone until I was more settled in my site village. Then he asked what many people have already asked: “Can I come to your home?” “No,” I said, “But if you want to practice English, I walk to Bezary’s shop every morning. You can meet me on the streets and we can talk then.”
A few days later I ran into the 21-year-old again. “This afternoon, do you want to come drink coconut with me?” he said. I agreed. At 2:30 sharp he appeared at my front door.
We began walking under the hot afternoon sun and had a really slow and belabored English conversation. Two minutes into the conversation he told me he was going to Paris next month. Someone in France had apparently sponsored him to go and work there. He spoke in nonsensical broken English about someone writing him a letter to facilitate his going to Paris. “What is the matter regarding this affair according to you?” I didn’t understand.
We continued walking down a dirt path through a relatively wealthy neighborhood of town. He said he needed to pick up a machete from his friend’s house for the coconuts. He also said he wanted to introduce me to the person who was writing a letter for him—and quite possibly a friend, I’m not really sure—to go to Paris next month. He said something about money, and I began to realize that my 21-year-old friend on a bike was pretending to be my friend in the attempt to weasel charity money out of an ostensibly rich foreigner.
At the edge of town we took a machete from a house and continued into the outskirts. A young boy and girl went with us. The further we walked out of town, the quieter I became. I couldn’t take my eyes off the foot-long machete he held. He again tried to explain his business of letters and Paris and needing money today. “According to you, what is the matter regarding this affair?” I still didn’t understand.
Finally we reached an area of dry coconut trees and piles of coconut shells. The young boy climbed the trees with ease and pulled the coconuts to the ground as the 21-year-old stood next to me with his machete. His pleas suddenly became more frantic and he switched languages from awful English into slightly-better French. Thirty seconds later he switched into desperate Sakalava. I understood more of his Sakalava than his English and French combined. He said something along the lines of, “There’s a man who’s writing a letter for me in French so that I can go to Paris. He needs money today or else he won’t write the letter. But I don’t have money to give him! For weeks I’ve been giving him money and working little by little to pay it off, but I don’t have money for him today, nor does he want me to work for him. If I don’t get money for him today, my friend and I won’t get to go to Paris.”
The 21-year-old’s money scheme tainted the fun coconut outing we could’ve had. As I drank coconut milk that the young boy prepared with the machete, I told the 21-year-old that he should ask his parents or friends for money. “I don’t have any friends here,” he said desperately. “And my parents live really far away in another town. I can’t get money anywhere.” I didn’t care anymore. I only wanted to get back into town before the 21-year-old butchered me in an area where no one would witness it.
Someone—Jesus, Vishnu, Tao, take your pick—was looking over me that afternoon. After fearing for my life for half an hour, the young boy tied some coconuts together and we finally walked back to town with all my limbs intact. We walked by my site partner’s home, and I made the excuse that I needed to visit her. The 21-year-old then became very explicit: “Please, I need money. Only 12,000 Ariary. I promise I’ll pay you back Wednesday, I’ll even give you my ID card in exchange. Can you help me?” I explained that although I was a foreigner, I wasn’t rich; the Peace Corps only gave us enough money to live like other Malagasy people.
“OK,” he said. “Well, thanks anyway. Hey, I’ll see you later. I’ll come by your home tomorrow afternoon.”
Yeah, sure, buddy. I’ll make sure to be there.