Universal Trust

If trust is a sacred thing between friends, how much more is it when it's between strangers?

My friend Ayoub called with an emergency: he was traveling in Armenia, had lost his wallet, and had nothing to pay for his food and lodging. Could I do him a big favor?

I’ve never met Ayoub in person, but we’ve been cyber and phone friends through the social networking organization called “Couch-surfing” for almost two years. He is Tunisian and living in a place called Monastir, and we’d managed to stay in touch every couple of weeks even while I was in Loitokitok. Now he was in trouble and needed me to do something I wouldn’t do except with my family and closest friends – loan him $150 via Moneygram. I’d seen the signs and trademark red telephones for Moneygram before, but had never wired money in my life. Nor had I ever loaned anyone $150 before. Should I?

Those “Nigerian” style money scams came to mind.  But this was a friend. Still, that didn’t help much.  We all know that the best way to lose a friend is to loan him money!

Then I remembered a situation I’d recently had while I was in Mombasa: I’d met a talented jewelry maker named Robert, and had wanted to purchase some his gorgeous pieces. I’d spent hours picking out 10 of his finest handmade necklaces and earrings and we’d been negotiating a good price. Finally I got him down to 4,000 Kenyan Shilingi for the whole lot, a bargain for me but also a good sale for him for just half a day’s work.  But when I reached into my pocket I realized I had less than half of that amount. Slightly embarrassed but also not wanting to nix the deal, I offered take a few pieces then and pay him what I had. In the alternative, I offered to come back the next day and do the entire purchase then. Problem was I had classes in the morning, so I asked him how late would he be there. 

“Just take it all now,” he said, “and come back when you can with the money.”  I balked, but he smiled.

“I know you’ll come!”

This young Kenyan artist had never set eyes on me - me, a foreigner, a mazunga – and yet was willing to let me walk away with 10 pieces of his creations on mere trust.

True, he knew that I was a fellow jewelry designer, too - “professional courtesy,” and all that. And probably figured that if things worked out now we might strike a deal to continue selling his jewelry in the U.S. when I returned. As a salesman he undoubtedly understood the importance of closing the deal now; that if I left with nothing, maybe I’d never return. But that wasn’t the only time someone had trusted me to “take and return” during my time in Kenya.

One of my Peace Corps friends, Martin, was incredulous. 4000 shilingi was around $400 - a months worth of wages for most Kenyans. “There’s something about you, Karen,” he said. “People just seem to trust you.  It’s never happened to me.”

He shrugged. I blushed, hoping that this “quality” would endure through life’s trials.  

So about an hour after Ayoub’s call I walked over to my local CVS Pharmacy and spotted Moneygram’s trademark red telephone. “How do I wire money to Armenia?” I asked the friendly customer service agent on the other end.

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