Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Story of Ronnie Pt. 2

By the time we finished eating, Richard and Shohan, who together founded and ran a local NGO, showed up to meet us. I called them to figure out what to do with Ronnie since they knew the lay of the land. With Shohan’s translation, we found out more info: Ronnie was 11 years old, had never been to school, and sells flowers that he gets from a local shop owner. Rhumi is his friend and sells the flowers with him. Through Fariya’s earlier translations, she said that Ronnie wanted to stay with me at my house. I knew Richard and Shohan would know what to do better than me, and one of the families that their organization works with was kind enough to take him for the night.

The next day I came over to Shohan’s in the afternoon, and first took Ronnie to the hospital for fresh bandages and then talked to Richard and Shohan about what to do. We decided it was best to first send him back to his father to see if he would take him back. Ronnie agreed. I sent him off with the father of one of the Basic Needs families, and gave the father enough money to cover the trip and two days’ lost wages. I walked Ronnie to the rickshaw, which he and the father would take to the bus, and there were several hugs before he started shedding tears. It was hard to see, especially when I thought about the uphill battle he had ahead of him and where he might be five years down the road.

The next day things took a disappointing turn. In the evening I headed over to Shohan’s to call the escorting father to get the lowdown. Unfortunately, Ronnie had previously been stealing from his father in the village and from his sisters, who were in Dhaka. He would stay at the father’s house for a few days, steal money and then go to the streets of Dhaka. In Dhaka, he would split time between the streets and his two sisters’ house, from where he’d also take money. This pattern had continued for a while. The escorting father said Ronnie was very smart and knew the streets well. He had become so used to living on the streets that it seemed he was comfortable with it.

As a naive tourist traveling around the world for a year, I expect this sort of stuff to happen (…just maybe not in the first two weeks). All along the way I was trying to be very keen on any trickery, checking with multiple sources to see if his story was straight. In the end though, it’s pretty hard to guard against things like this if you’re trying to help. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’d probably try to be more careful, but it’s pretty difficult to say no to a kid with such a basic need. Just the other day Ronnie called me (I had given my phone number). He was back in Dhaka. Between all the noise and rough English, I was able to make out that he wanted to stay at my house. I told him no, and haven’t heard from him since. Call it cruel, but I’m coming to understand that you can only really help those who want to be helped – some people just want a handout or just want to be left alone. There are far too many hard-working people in poverty, looking for a little extra support to pull them out of poverty. The trick is to identify these people first, I think. Hopefully I will figure out how to do this in future situations like this.


  1. Rob, great story. I really enjoyed the read. I posted some other comments but apparently they didn't stick. Oh well...if only I could remember what I wrote. Anyways, interesting story about Ronnie. I see it as further evidence that the best means of poverty alleviation really is wealth creation through (social) business. TechnoServe has demonstrated that to me. I'll keep you updated with what happens on that.

  2. sounds like youre smart enough to take this experience as a really powerful lesson in the mindset of some in despair. disappointing is the right word for the situation, but your help with his wound could have very well saved his life. regardless of what type of kid he is, you can feel really good about that much :)

  3. Your comment "you can only really help those who want to be helped - some people just want a handout" sure hit home. Sometimes we want more for people than they want for themselves. Thank you for taking Ronnie for treatment and not just turning your back on him. I'm sure you will meet many more Ronnies and I'm sure that you will always do the right thing. You are a good man and a wonderful son.