There is a certain ethos of sharing that happens when people are poor and there is no government safety net. People have to rely on family, that first, and then on neighbors. The one who gives today will be the one who receives tomorrow. I recall a family gathering at Minga’s where one of the running toddlers fell on a piece of glass and got a deep gash in his palm. The gash bled profusely and stitches were clearly needed. His mother went around to the assembled family members, each of whom emptied his or her pockets of change and small bills until enough was raised to take the little boy in a taxi to the clinic in the next town. Everyone gave, with the sure knowledge that on another day, he or she might be the supplicant.
Minga’s generosity went far beyond the norm. There was no particular reason why she should have taken me under her wing back in the Peace Corps days, other than that she saw my ineptness with assembling my cot, hanging my mosquito net from the rafters, knowing how to cook over a fire and being able to cook anything at all — killing a live chicken was not in my repertoire. She intervened forcefully when she saw me open a can of Spam that had clearly sat in the heat for a long time at the tienda, maybe years. Black goo came out of the can. In she marched, taking the can from me and declaring that I would eat with her family.
We volunteers got $75 a month for our expenses, and I could have bought groceries for us if there had been any to buy. To give you an image of how barren the shelves were, imagine a supper for eight — Minga, Roberto, me, and five children — comprised of a huge metal pot of white rice and a single friend egg cut into strips. Try cutting your breakfast egg into eight strips, one slightly larger for Roberto because he did manual labor — Minga did too, but she did women’s work. Look at the size of a single strip. You can choose one that has a little bit of yolk. Now add a scoop of rice. A small tin bowl will make the serving look larger. There is no adding milk, or fruit, or vegetables or salad or bread. No second helpings. Lord knows no dessert. Still hungry? Take a cup of water — not too much. Minga has to carry all the water the family uses every day several hundred yards from the well.
Minga gathered me in because that’s who she was, not because she had any of what we might consider “extra”. She was generous then, and until the last day of her life.
If there is a single word that sums up the guiding force of Minga’s life, it’s that: generosity of spirit, generosity with the few things she had, generosity in giving her labor and her love.
A deeply generous woman has just died, and attention and respect must be paid.