It was past 9pm, past curfew, shops closed and streets dark as I returned from distributing snacks to the rickshaw drivers. The only people outside were others sneaking home from “essential” tasks and small groups of men hanging out near their doors to take advantage of the cooling air.
I don’t remember what I first saw from the fight, but I knew it was a bad one.
One man was being confronted by three or four others. Both sides were pushing and punches were thrown, though a few bystanders attempting to break up the fight helped keep the damage from being worse. Figuring it was easier to stop one man than to stop many, myself and a few others were able to back the outnumbered one up to his door.
I can’t convey how sad the scene was. The man, who I now could tell had been drinking, tried to get around me and reengage. A teenage girl, tears streaming down her face, begged her father to come inside. Three other little daughters echoed her pleas. The youngest, who appeared only three years old, couldn’t stop wailing.
Behind me the other men were also trying to attack again. Conflicting stories were coming from the neighbors and I couldn’t tell who the aggressor was. But as I began talking to the man, I did find out that he was a widower, that the little girls had no mother, and that during lockdown he had had little work and the kids had nothing to eat.
Most of my confrontations with violence last mere minutes. This one lasted two hours. Usually my intervention gives one party the opportunity to back down while saving face, but in this case both sides had too much ego to let it go. I hoped to at least stay long enough for them to sober up and make wiser decisions. But while I was there I talked and talked to both sides, doing my best to help them see a better path. They had difficulty moving beyond blaming the other.
At one point, while the widower was speaking again of the lack of food in his home, I took a risk and told him, “Look, I work for an NGO. We distribute food to people. If you stop this dumb stuff right now, if you stop fighting and get inside your home, I will make sure your family gets food.”
He was taken by surprise by my suggestion and favorable towards getting food for his family, but still refused to step inside. Was it pride? Was it overwhelming anger? Was it (as he claimed) concern that if he didn’t stand up for himself now, these guys would just jump him and beat him later?
Whatever it was, around 11pm I finally gave up and walked away. But I couldn’t stop thinking about his family.
Thirty-six hours later, a friend and I pulled up in a car loaded with 24 bags each filled with a week’s supply of essentials. He hadn’t fulfilled his end of the deal, but I couldn’t let his family stay hungry. We distributed to him and all his neighbors, both sides of the road, including his enemies. When we came back with another 24 we ran out of houses to distribute to, but some of the neighbors directed us to a nearby street where many poor people lived, and they were grateful.
Did it make a difference? I don’t know. Our conversation was brief the second time around, just me noting that I had fulfilled my promise and asking him to take care of his side of things. He expressed gratitude. Over the next couple of months I saw him on the street once or twice but didn’t talk at length.
The themes of this blog are choosing nonviolence over violence, choosing service over power, and choosing to give up wealth over retaining it. Rarely have I had the opportunity to so clearly exercise all three at once. At the least, I hope I modeled a different way, responding to a bad situation with love, and I pray that different model makes a difference someday in at least one life, his or a neighbor who saw.