I recently learned something about myself and my work through the painful experience of a friend…
You have won!
In today’s world of lotteries, casinos and hard times, those are welcome words. If only they were always true.
By now most of us have figured out how to filter those incessant business offers from rich African widows out of our inbox, or at least we know how to kill them all with a vicious burst of semi-automatic fire from our ‘delete’ key. Going on rampage. Almost feels good.
But sadly, the con artists around the world keep trying, and there are always those who are naïve enough to lose money. And often, it’s the ones who can least afford the loss.
Like a Palawano.
For nearly 30 years now, we have worked in the Philippines among a minority group on the island of Palawan, helping them in a number of ways. In the old days, people used to call these groups “tribes.” Now that term is offensive to some, but not to the Palawanos we work with.
The Palawanos are mostly preliterate, subsistence hunter-gathers. Some have adopted “new” technology like plowing with a water buffalo. My anthropologist friend has jokingly said that the Palawanos are “400 years southwest of Manila.”
Over the years we have done translation and mission work, taught literacy, provided basic medical care, developed a community health program and trained medical workers, launched agricultural projects, tried to help with land rights issues… anything we could do to make the Palawanos’ life a little better. We raised our kids there. It’s home to us. And after four generations (the Palawanos often marry young), we now have “great-grandchildren” in the community.
But the outside world keeps encroaching, and sometimes the Palawanos ask our help in dealing with it. Five years ago, I took a few hours to write up a step-by-step instruction manual in their language for how to use a cell phone. That was for the first two Palawanos to own cells phone in our area. Now it seems they all have phones, even the kids. I have 31 Palawanos’ numbers in my phone.
So I helped them learn to navigate menus to call their cousin, or send a text to their child who was stranded on the other side of a flooded river.
But we never thought to warn them about phone scams.
Here in the Philippines, where many people do not have constant internet access for email, the scams come by text. And it happened to one of our close friends, a Palawano “nephew” who married our oldest daughter’s very good friend. I’ll call him Tomas here (not his real name).
YOU HAVE WON 560,000 pesos! the text read. That’s nearly $13,000… a lot of money to a man who might make $3 on a good day, but is usually satisfied with no cash and a couple family meals’ worth of food wrestled from the ground after a long day’s labor.
There really are legitimate lottos and raffles in the Philippines. Your chances of winning are slim, as always, but there are winners. Our neighbor in 1981 built a new house with his winnings. But you have to buy a ticket and enter the game. The phone scams claim you have won a random drawing where your cell phone number was selected without you even trying. Lucky, lucky you.
So Tomas called the number of the fictitious manager of the Philippines National Charity Sweepstakes company. Yes, he had won, they said. All he had to do was pay the lawyers’ fees up front so they would process his claim and wire him the money. Uh oh. A more worldly-wise man would have smelled a rat, but our friend could only think of how that money would help his family (actually, I personally think it would have destroyed him and every relationship his family had, once the flames of jealousy started in a community like his… but that’s another story.)
So he sold his water buffalo and hiked to the nearby small town and wired some money. Over $200. Soon he got another text. That’s great, but sorry, the lawyers say they need a little more. Unexpected paperwork, you know. But don’t worry. You’re getting so much in winnings, you won’t miss it.
Tomas wired more money. Nearly $200 this time. This time he pawned some of his land to get the cash. That was a big part of the acreage he uses to feed his family. He even sent the scammers pay-as-you-go PIN numbers, in essence paying for their cell phone charges as they talked him into sending more money.
We need a little more…
Next, our friend Tomas borrowed money from someone who had some extra cash he was using to pay for his son’s rabies shots. He promised to pay the guy back with interest that same afternoon once he got his winnings. Then he sent another $200. But it was someone else’s money this time. Money desperately needed for medical care. And he waited for two hours at the remittance office, but his winnings never came. Then there was another next.
We need just one more payment…
Then we finally heard about it. We live in a nearby city now, about a day’s travel away from the village where Tomas lives. Some other friends told me what was going on.
So I immediately phoned him and told him it was a scam. And he stopped. He never made that fourth payment. The following week, he came out to Puerto Princesa and I took him to the NBI (the Philipppines’ equivalent of the FBI) so he could file charges. Not much chance of recouping the money or catching the crooks, but who knows? The cash remittance offices here all have CATV cameras. But very likely the men are long gone, just like the money.
Our friend had been warned by several others, but he did not believe them. He figured they were just jealous. Now he wishes he had been more willing to listen.
At first I was angry at the dishonest crooks who stole from a poor man. I still am. But since then I’ve also thought about this a great deal. What else can be learned here?
Certainly, there is a clear reminder that there is evil in the world. We need to be careful. We should listen to warnings, slow down, be humble enough to be guided and corrected.
The thing that personally struck me hardest was how important relationships are. Our friend didn’t listen to anyone else’s warnings. But he believed me because of 30 years of relationship, decades of mutual give and take, all those times when we treated his kids’ malaria, when we paid to have his wife rescued from jail in Malaysia (long story… ask me someday!), when he helped roof my house, when we trained his wife to be a community health worker, when we sat by her in the hospital…
I had entrance into his life. I had the right to speak and be trusted.
Being heard is a great privilege, but it’s a frightening responsibility, as well. I could selfishly take advantage of my relationship with him, and be no better than those phone scammers. Or I could simply be unwilling to help. But sadly, even though I want to help, I can’t always be there in time to save the day. In that way, it’s a lot like parenting. I have to accept that.
But an important lesson for all of us is this:
We won’t have any significant impact of those with whom we have not taken the time to build a relationship. That is true whether we are teachers, aid workers or writers.
It’s all about people, giving them something they need, but even more, letting them know we care.
Before we can be there for someone. We have to be there with them.
I’m learning more and more what this means. How am I gaining others’ trust? Who do I need to turn to for counsel? Who has earned the right to be heard in my life?
How about you?