She’s been called the South African scam lady, a witch, thief, and liar. She’s said to have an arrogant attitude and a bad temper.
She’s fair game for social media ridicule by expats who comment on her weight (it’s a lot), clothing (not fashionable), and hair color (strange and variable). They warn us to be on the lookout. They say she’s after our money. They say the police want to interview her and I hear she’s even been arrested a couple times.
The lady tells people that she’s been mugged, lost her passport and all her money. She says she wants to return home to her family. She tells others that she is with a non-profit organization helping build an orphanage. Allegedly, according to the highly unreliable gringo grapevine, she physically assaulted a student in Quito with the assistance of a male companion.
With the heavy turnover of foreigners in Ecuador, she’s likely been fairly successful in her work. She’s been spotted in Cuenca, Quito, Guayaquil, Manta, and most recently in Montañita. Warning photos of her in action appear on various expat forums.
Some expats have a different view of her. They feel sorry for her. They say she needs help, she’s broken, she’s down on her luck.
According to a study in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, 70% of panhandlers say they would prefer a minimum-wage job. However, many felt they could not handle conventional jobs because of mental illness, physical disability or lack of skills.
Most of us have had our own experiences when we found out that that “war vet” on the interstate exit ramp never served in the military; that the man’s daughter isn’t really in the hospital; and that the “homeless” guy in the park actually has an apartment just across the street.
But do we know their real story? Maybe he’s a not a war vet, but he has other problems, problems that wouldn’t elicit a big donation if he told you about them. If you think a beggar’s daughter is in the hospital, you’ll be more likely to hand over some money than if he told you he’s unemployed and has no job skills.
The same question can be asked of the South African.
It’s hard to know if you can trust the stories you hear. In Cuenca, refugee families arrive by bus, describing their struggles in Colombia. Should I believe them? In Guayaquil, a fourteen-year-old boy with tattoos sat next to me on the bus and told me about his sick mom and his absent dad. He wanted money to help the family. Does it matter if it’s true? Does it matter if he is actually using the money for something I don’t approve of?
In the case of the South African lady who has captured the fancy of so many expats, the evidence is overwhelming that she’s not telling the truth. What she’s doing, of course, is trying to sell a story and to make a living in one of the world’s oldest professions (although admittedly not the oldest). She’s selling a service, just like Cuenca’s many street musicians and jugglers. Maybe the discussion should be about the quality of her stories, not their truthfulness. Mark Twain made a good living telling “stretchers.”
In Ancient Greece, a distinction was made between beggars and the “active poor”, with the latter being accorded a higher social status. I wonder: is developing a scam, traveling across a foreign country, and dodging the police and in-the-know foreigners considered “active poor”?
Many religions have prescribed begging as the only acceptable means of support for certain classes of adherents. Christians even worship a homeless panhandler. Jesus’s status was poor, and he identified with the most wretched parts of society. “The Son of Man has no place to rest his head,” the New Testament says.
Perhaps there is something more to this so-called South African scam artist. Maybe the expat obsession doesn’t stem so much from her so-called “lies”. After all, I’ve known of much more dangerous threats and crimes being carried out by Ecuadorians.
Could it be that what bothers so many expats is that she’s a foreigner, like themselves? That she is, in fact, one of us? She understands that expats and tourists fear losing passports, being robbed, and getting stranded in a foreign country. She knows how to play that card.
Another possibility is the fear of some expats of being duped and fooled … and maybe their inability to appreciate a well-crafted story.
What do you think?
Photo credit: DiscoverCuencaEcuador.com blog