"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


they're begging me for something, Lord, but I don't understand

I guess I've gotten used to saying no. But I've been noticing it a lot more this week. I don't know what to do. On the one hand, you know people need money. On the other, you know if you give them money, they'll expect more tomorrow – as will 25 of their closest friends and relatives. Part of me rebels against that and part of me wonders why that's such a problem for me. It's not like it would hurt me to give a dollar to 25, 50, or 100 people. But I don't like that idea of creating more dependency in a place where the mentality is very much that of "there's nothing we can do about our situation."

When I taught the poverty class, we spent most of the first six weeks of the semester talking about the causes of poverty. They divide into two basic categories: individualistic and systemic. While far from perfect, this fits in with most political views on the causes of poverty: conservatives tend to believe that people are mostly poor because of bad personal choices while liberals tend to think people are poor because the system (be it economic exploitation, lack of educational opportunities, or whatever) makes them poor. Your take on what it takes to help the poor depends on your view of the cause: if you think people are poor because they're lazy, you'll want to force them to work by cutting welfare benefits. If you think people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control, you might argue that there's a need for government intervention.

I tell my students that either extreme is simplistic -- most people are poor due to a complex combination of causes, and any solution to poverty had better take all of its causes into account. But here in the Congo, I just don't know. There's something else going on.

My friend Eva talks about this a lot. People come to her asking for water and she just stares at them, then points at the lake. Eva's theory is that 40+ years of oppression and dictatorship do a lot to kill people's belief in themselves and their ability to make things better. I don't know. There's certainly an entrepreneurial spirit alive and well here. But there's also a lot of "give me, give me" with the expectation that those who can share, must share.

I don't know what to think. I don't know what to do. If I were at home, I'd advocate for a higher minimum wage, more job training, and increased childcare for the working poor. Those things don't exist here.

The last couple of days were rough. Tuesday I went to an office to set up an interview, came out, and this old man followed me down the road. All he said, over and over and over again, was "Kusaidia." "Help." In the imperative form. Help me. You help me. Over and over and over.
Yesterday a little girl followed me down the next road over as I went from the internet café to DOCS. I had some lollipops in my bag and gave her one. She ran away and the next thing I hear is the sound of little feet tearing down the street after me. Her friend, Vanessa, came and got a lollipop, too. They smiled at me and then the first little girl (whose name I can't remember) said, "Kesho tena." "Again tomorrow."

At DOCS, I couldn't find Lyn, so I sat around waiting for awhile. A woman with a baby on her back approached me to ask for help. "I'm diabetic," she said, "and I need five dollars for medicine." I asked her if she'd talked to Lyn, and she said she'd been told no. This one was hard. On the one hand, she has diabetes and needs the medicine. On the other, Lyn would kill me if I handed out money at DOCS, because it would give people the idea that they can come asking for everything. So I said no. But it hurt.

When I first got here, this group from a church in Minnesota was in town. They were really nice and I helped them look for fabric in the market one day. I was talking to the missions pastor's wife about their trip and all they'd seen and she said something about how people kept asking for money. She just said, very matter-of-factly, "And I told them that if I gave money to them, I'd have to give it to everyone."

I remember thinking, "So what?"

Now I don't know what to think.


Blogger Emily said...

I experienced the same when I lived in Mexico. A lot of kids selling gum there, at all hours, day or night, and then there were just the folks with their hands out. You get desensitized to it - there's so much of it that it can be overwhelming.

And that was just in Mexico, which has a corrupt but functioning government. I can't even fathom what you're seeing daily. Thanks for blogging about it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006 10:03:00 PM


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