Taking a shot at Baksheesh

From age 8-11 years, I lived in Moga?dishu, Somalia, with my family. The following was written by my youngest brother, Peter Sensenig, as he recalled his life as a 5-year-old child in Soma?lia. It is excerpted with permission from the book by J Carl Sensenig, ?Children of Ephrata: 101 Stories of Growing Up,? 2012.

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The month-long festival of Ramadan, which celebrates the arrival of the Prophet Mohamed from Mecca to Medina, is rigorously observed in the city of Mogadishu and throughout the country. The month is characterized by fasting from sunrise to sundown.

The particularly religious nature of the month of Ramadan draws extra attention to other ethical requirements in Islam. One such requirement is zakah, the giving of alms to the poor.

In Mogadishu the conventional way to ask someone for money was to hold out one?s hand and say, ?baksheesh.? The term originally comes from the Persian word for tip and is a common way to ask for money in Pakistan and India and had also made its way into the common parlance of Somalia.

Baksheesh. The word was quite familiar to me and my brothers. Every time we went to the market or into town with our parents we were met with an enthusiastic chorus of ?baksheesh? from a host of children with friendly faces. The requests often increased during Ramadan, when people were more inclined to have their religious duties in mind and therefore more likely to give freely.

One hot Friday afternoon I found Andrew sitting in the tree just outside our front gate.

?Are you watching birds?? I asked, squinting up into the tree. Andrew was an avid birder and carefully recorded each new species he spotted in a notebook.

?Yeah,? he said. ?The kites are hunting, I think.?

Watching birds had never really piqued my interest, but predatory birds in action sounded mildly intriguing. So I climbed up in the tree and found a branch on which to rest. We observed a pair of kites circling above us. Soon they flew into the distance.

My gaze dropped to the street below. All that was left to watch were the people and animals passing by. There was always a herd or two of goats wandering around. A mangy dog with its tail between its legs jogged past with its tongue hanging out. Several boys from the neighborhood threw some pebbles at the dog, which quickly decided to find less hostile territory.

No one walked around too much in the heat of the day, but our street was still quite busy with women in colorful scarves and men with traditional Somali skirts passing by.

?Do you know what would be really fun?? Andrew said. He had a sweet milky tone in his voice and wide shiny eyes. I knew what this meant. The purpose of this carefully coordinated tone and expression was both to convince me of the desirability of something and also to dispel any nagging doubts in my mind. Part of what infuriated me was that even though I knew how to spot the technique immediately, it always seemed to work on me.

?What?? I asked with some suspicion.

Andrew collected his thoughts for a moment.

?You know how the boys in town are always asking us for money??

?Yeah.?

?Well, do Mom and Dad give them any??

I thought about it. ?Some?times,? I said.

?But sometimes they don?t, right? Sometimes they don?t have any coins, or they just don?t feel like giving them anything, right??

?Right.?

Andrew paused again.

?You know that it?s Ramadan right now, right??

?Yeah, so??

?So did you know that in the month of Ramadan when someone asks you for money, you have to give it to them. You have no choice. At least if you?re Muslim.?

Andrew was a self-appointed authority on all matters of religion?as well as of science, history and finance.

?Really??

?Of course. It?s the law. But only during Ramadan. In the rest of the year you get to decide if you?re going to give money or not.?

He let this information sink in.

?Now, does everyone on the street ask for money?? he asked rhetorically.

?No.?

?Just some people, right? Who asks for money??

I reflected. ?Children, usually. Sometimes bigger people who can?t walk or can?t see.?

?Right!? he said. ?Most often it?s little boys and girls. And most of those children are about your age. You almost never see someone my age asking for money.?

At this point my sneaking suspicion began to turn into dawning realization of what he was getting at.

?I?m not going to ask people for money,? I said decisively.

Andrew ignored my comment. ?Sometimes it?s women with little babies, but usually it?s little boys about your age who ask. It?s perfectly normal.?

?I?m not going to do it,? I repeated, just in case he hadn?t heard.

?In fact, it?s almost expected. People might start wondering why you?re not asking them. ?What?s wrong with that little boy?? they?ll ask each other. ?If he were a normal little boy, he would say baksheesh to us.??

I decided on a different tactic. ?That only works if you?re poor,? I said.

?Now, we?ll have to do some preparation,? said Andrew, jumping down from the tree. ?You can?t just jump into these things.?

So my training began. The first consideration was my own appearance.

?We?ve got to make you look really poor,? said Andrew. He smeared some dust on my sweaty face.

?Better,? he said, ?but still not good enough. Roll around on the ground.?

I rolled until I was sufficiently dusty. Andrew studied me, nodding slowly like an art critic.

?One more thing,? he said. ?You?ve got to be naked.?

?What??

?Think about it. Do you ever see rich kids going around naked??

He had a point. I looked around. The street was empty. I was either all in or I wasn?t. I removed my dusty clothes and piled them in a bush. We climbed back up the tree. Andrew insisted on climbing first.

As if on cue, a couple turned the corner down the road. The man was dressed in a white suit and sported a hat and a cane. The woman was dressed in fine brightly-colored Somali dress. They strolled casually, chatting and enjoying the view.

?They?re perfect,? Andrew exclaimed. ?Here?s what you do: you approach the man and ask him. He has a woman to impress with his generosity. He?ll give you money for sure.?

I was still hesitant. The couple looked nice enough. They were now one block from the tree in which we sat. ?Go!? said Andrew.

?Just wait.?

?Go now!?

?You go.?

Andrew sighed. ?I?ve explained this to you. I?m too old to do it. It has to be you.? He gave me a push. I scrambled down and swung, Robin Hood style, from the lowest branch, landing in a cloud of dust just meters away from the couple. They jumped, startled by my sudden advent and even more by the fact that a small naked white boy now approached them resolutely, with palm outstretched.

?Baksheesh?? I implored.

The man stared, unmoving. The woman looked around, confused as to whence this diminutive nude foreigner could have come.

I repeated my request. ?Baksheesh??

The man visibly shook his head to clear his thoughts, like Wiley Coyote after running into a mountain. ?Give him some money,? the woman urged him.

Dazed, he reached his hand into the pocket of his strikingly white suit and pulled out a bill. For one brief moment I thought I had hit the jackpot and was instantly rich. Alas, the man came to his senses, returning the money to his pocket and extracting instead a one-shilling coin. He placed the coin in my outstretched palm and muttered a blessing.

Andrew ran out with a tin can and told me to put in the coin. But in a victory won for little brothers everywhere, I stated, ?I think I?m going to keep it.?

Having completed his tenure at Tabor College, Andrew Sensenig has accepted a teaching position at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University.