The African

I received his friend request on Face­book in Feb­ru­ary. I don’t usu­al­ly respond to this kind of calls from strangers. His name, Ange Michael, intrigued me. I’m not sure why. I shrugged and agreed. I’d prob­a­bly know who I was deal­ing with soon enough. I know about these scams that try to solic­it mon­ey from you and can ruin the lives of well-mean­ing people.

Angel Michael con­tact­ed me immediately.

“Thank you for accept­ing. Every­one refus­es when all I want to do is expand my cir­cle of friends.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion has not stopped since.

Let me start by telling his brief sto­ry. He lives in Côte d’Ivoire, in a small town called Giber­oua. On Google Maps, it’s just a satel­lite pho­to with very lit­tle infor­ma­tion on it. Obvi­ous­ly, Google Street has not been there. It is use­less to ask Ange Michael for his address. Street num­bers and even street names do not exist.

Ange Michael is 27 – 28 years old and grows cocoa. His father died of malar­ia in 2009. The son had to take over the hectare of cocoa trees on his own to sup­port the fam­i­ly. His moth­er works as a house­keep­er, and, year in, year out, Ange Michael man­ages to pro­vide them with the bare neces­si­ties. He does not live with them, how­ev­er, and has his own house. He would like to get mar­ried, has a girl­friend who is still study­ing, but as long as he can­not live decent­ly, he can­not get married.

The work is hard, very hard. The sun some­times hits very hard. Life in Africa, as you can guess, is often a mat­ter of sur­vival. Our dai­ly dis­cus­sions often revolve around this.

What Angel Michael shows me about his life is not new to us all. As a teenag­er, I was involved in a char­i­ty, and we often watched doc­u­men­taries about life there. Even today, the news on TV shows us the mis­ery that plagues the planet.

Noth­ing seems to have changed in this way since I was a teenag­er, except per­haps one thing. The African now has a cheap smart­phone that allows him to tell his own sto­ry. But noth­ing has real­ly changed. That’s the ter­ri­ble thing.

I show him how I live, the city, the metro.

“Every­thing is order­ly in your house. Cana­da is Eldorado.”

I want so much to tell him that it’s not. Of course, the coun­try is rich, we live well, we have enough to eat, at least I have enough to eat, where­as he often spends a meal, goes back to work. How can I explain all this to him ? An old Brazil­ian friend of mine used to preach to me :

“Your mis­ery is noth­ing com­pared to the Brazil­ian one.”

You could say the same thing about the African.

“One day, if I die and have anoth­er life, I want to become a Cana­di­an”, Angel Michael told me recent­ly. “Some­times I won­der why I am in the world. But let’s not talk about all that any­more. You, Guy, seem to under­stand my suf­fer­ing, and I thank you for that.”

As a sub­scriber to Kiva, an orga­ni­za­tion that funds com­mu­ni­ty-based micro­fi­nance banks, I quick­ly turned to them. But noth­ing for the Ivory Coast, strange­ly enough. “There are such small banks there,” Ange Michael con­firms, “but they only last two or three years, often tak­ing the mon­ey they have col­lect­ed with them when they fail.”

There are also coop­er­a­tives of cocoa farm­ers, but again, they are not for small farm­ers like him, who only own one hectare.

So he works alone, some­times with the help of his broth­er Franck. He is in good spir­its and has plans. His cousin is a dress­mak­er. He dreams of open­ing a bou­tique with him, a small shop sell­ing acces­sories and fab­rics. Before his father died, he want­ed to become a cus­toms officer.

I obvi­ous­ly feel guilty for being what I am in front of him. It is not every day that one is con­front­ed with the mod­esty of this african life in such a direct way. I often tell him that every­thing is rel­a­tive. I may have a good salary, I can afford to spend mon­ey, but I also have to pay my house, my debts. My teeth cost me anoth­er $2000, and it’s not because I’m not care­ful. In this coun­try, there is mis­ery, vio­lence, pover­ty. Yes, every­thing is rel­a­tive, but still.

The human race seems inca­pable of tak­ing care of itself. They remain eter­nal­ly care­free and do not care about the fate of others.

Despite this, Ange Michael smiles, cher­ish­es our friend­ship. At least the Inter­net allows her to dream and also to ask for help.

We were talk­ing about the yield of his field. He admit­ted to me that he didn’t have the mon­ey to put fer­til­iz­er on it, that it took him about ten bags to cov­er the hectare, or $300. Usu­al­ly, traders give cred­it, and the farmer pays when he har­vests. Things are chang­ing. Africans don’t seem to be help­ing each oth­er ; they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the luxury.

Ange Michael also speaks harsh­ly about his coun­try. The farm­ers around here do not orga­nize them­selves. Some peo­ple, of course, are get­ting rich at the expense of the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. Noth­ing new under the sun…

I don’t under­stand it. How to help then ? No bank, no loans (and you have to save up over there to be able to bor­row…), no com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, just a peo­ple silent­ly endur­ing their fate.

I sent him the $300 via Mon­ey­gram for his fer­til­iz­er. He cried, telling me that God was return­ing it to me a hundredfold.

“He owes you mon­ey, not me,” I said.

He is cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing clean­ing his field. The work is hard. After that, he can put the fer­til­iz­er on. The cocoa tree is frag­ile. “In six months,” says Angel Michael, “the fer­til­iz­er will take effect, which means a high­er yield.”

Despite my good salary and the expens­es I have to pay, I can­not help him all the time. Angel Michael knows this and is not ask­ing me for more at the moment. I know that his lips must be burn­ing to ask for more. After all, it’s all rel­a­tive, isn’t it ? He would like to help his younger sis­ter go to uni­ver­si­ty. He still has hope. He will get mar­ried later.

If sev­er­al of us gave him $20, $30, $40, that would be a nice sum for him. At the very least, it would sweet­en his life and feed his dreams.

There is GoFundMe to raise mon­ey for indi­vid­u­als, but it does not serve Africa. There is always a “but” when it comes to Africa… a con­ti­nent that is so rich.

I would like to send this text to the Ivory Coast embassy here in Ottawa to tell them that here is a man who is proud of his coun­try and who works hard. But will the embassy (anoth­er “but”) be able to do any­thing ? Prob­a­bly not. The coun­try is poor, and every­thing is amaz­ing­ly com­plex, even nat­ur­al for humans…

“If you don’t have mon­ey and go to the hos­pi­tal, they don’t touch you. You die.”

That’s Ivory Coast. At least that’s what the African tells me.

I want­ed to be a mis­sion­ary when I was young. Real­i­ty catch­es up with me. I will be called naive, per­haps. I can’t solve the world’s prob­lems. I would still like to offer a “but” of hope : but sure­ly there are ways to help togeth­er. I could do it for the peo­ple here, and I do it too. I can­not car­ry the weight of the world’s mis­ery on my shoul­ders alone. I can at least use the pow­er of my writ­ing to give it a face.

Ange Michael is on Face­book. Do not hes­i­tate to say hel­lo to him. The young man has a future. I am con­vinced of it. I make it my most pro­found prayer.