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(Paddy Molloy for The Globe and Mail)
(Paddy Molloy for The Globe and Mail)

How losing my money belt helped me understand humanity Add to ...

Lots of people talk about “finding themselves” via travel. While I’m not sure if this has come to pass during my time spent globetrotting, I've had the experience of someone finding something for me.

I have always believed that while cultures change, people are essentially the same: All societies produce some members who are quite reprehensible and others who are selfless and compassionate. Nowhere did this hit home more than on my own particular “lost and found” day, which occurred while I was teaching in Sierra Leone in 2008.

On the day in question, I was cleaning my clothes at a well adjacent to the abandoned convent that served as our temporary domicile. I had just got back from school. Tired and looking forward to an evening of reading in my room, I let my mind wander.

It was at that moment that I did something incredibly stupid. For reasons I cannot now discern, I took off the money belt I always wore. When I gathered up my clean laundry, I forgot all about it.

About 15 minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. Standing there were three children between the ages of 7 and 9. One of the younger ones was holding my money belt. Wordlessly, he put it into my hands. Then he smiled.

In a state of near shock, I scrambled to find something to give them in the way of reward. I managed to pull out some leones and hand them over, throwing in a soccer ball in what now seems an insultingly insignificant extra token of thanks. They thanked me profusely and left.

There is simply no way I can overstate the significance of this event. Inside that money belt were both my friend’s passport and my own. Not only does Sierra Leone not have a Canadian consulate, it doesn’t even border a country with one. We were in a remote region with no other identification. Losing those passports would have been extremely serious.

That’s to say nothing of our money, pretty much all of which was in the belt. In 2008, Canada was third on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a ranking of the quality of life in 179 member states. Sierra Leone was dead last. We had about $2,000 (U.S.) in the money belt, more than double the annual per-capita GDP of Sierra Leone at the time. It would be like somebody in Canada finding a bag with $100,000 in it.

In fact, it’s hard even to quantify the value that money had: Here, a proportionate cash injection would likely just increase the level of comfort in someone’s life; there, it could make the difference between life and death.

There was absolutely no hesitancy in the children’s manner when they returned the money belt. I’m not sure if they’d looked inside, but they knew who I was – the only foreign, white man in town – and that it was something meant to be kept close to my person. They had to assume it contained something valuable. And they gave it back.

I’ve spent a long time reflecting on the social and moral implications of this incident. Is there a natural sense of right and wrong transcending our physical experience at play, as suggested by religious writers such as C.S. Lewis? Could this be an incredibly pure instance of exercising some sort of social contract or golden rule ideal? Maybe it’s just = an example of how much potentially disapproving parents scare young children.

In any case, they were in a position of power and they did the right thing. When it came to the reward money, however, I had the power: even more power, because my obligation was strictly moral rather than legal.

After the shock wore off, I felt guilty for giving them such a paltry reward for such a significant action. I felt sympathy for the children in light of their bleak prospects. Most of all, I felt inadequate.

As citizens, we all have some realms in which we have authority, and some in which we are compelled to submit to the will of others. Like everything else in life, these power dynamics rarely manifest themselves in absolutes, but exist along a spectrum. The majority of people have much more latitude, for example, in deciding how to raise their children than in how to conduct themselves at work.

Yet it is too often forgotten that with increased power we are more – not less – compelled to process the specifics of a given circumstance and come up with an ethical mode of action. The utility of a civil society can only increase if those who are shielded from the results of bad decisions still choose to exercise responsibility.

Without clear guidelines, it can be difficult to know what the right course of action is. We just have to do our best.

If I could do it over, I would have made sure those children were aware of the importance of what they had done and given them a more fitting reward. I would have sought out their parents to thank them too. These are the things I tell myself now.

Taking your role seriously as an individual with moral agency applies at home just as much as on the road. We have the power to lend a hand to someone in distress, help a confused pedestrian find his way or mentor a new employee. And even if we find ourselves lacking in this regard, we at least have the power to appreciate the significance of others' actions.

When I travel now, I try to always remember to have my money belt – but also to remember what it represents to me. Everyone has had their own money-belt moment. Find yours, and never leave it behind.

Paul McGoey lives in Toronto.

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