Thursday, November 1, 2007

Unsustainable Charity

Juxtapose what I’m about to write with my last entry and you will get a glimpse into how confusing it is living here. It mixes you up and sometimes you really don’t know what to think.

Basically from the moment I got here, my Senegalese friends have asked me for money. Kalz asked me for 2000 francs ($4, but worth more here obviously) within days of meeting me. I gave Lamine 10,000 once, which was supposed to be a loan but apparently loans don’t exist here. Blondin asked for 2000. Fatou, another 2,000. Atouman’s Mom – yes, his mother – asked me for money. His sister, himself. After a while, you just want to scream at them, “I’m not a damn bank!” But part of you is embarrassed to say no because they know you have the money, and you know you have the money. If a friend in Canada told me they needed 20 bucks, I wouldn’t ask questions. I would just give it to them. So why should it be any different here? Plus, they do so much for me; they’re so kind. I feel bad not returning the favour – albeit financial – when my turn comes.

But several things make me uncomfortable about this.

First of all, I find myself asking whether they really need it. Atouman’s family for example - they all wear gold jewellery: rings, earrings, necklaces .. things that I don’t even wear. Lamine smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. It’s a question of priorities, I suppose, but I’m sure not sure when they ask for money that’s it’s really a desperate situation.

Second, sometimes I think kids here are raised to beg and it bothers me. It’s almost shameful and I feel bad for parents who have to watch their children act that way. There’s this one kid near my house named Diallo, who I've become friends with. But now everytime he sees me, he tugs at everything I’m wearing – my watch, my purse – asking for money. He almost rips things out of my hands if I have anything. Today, he followed me into my house because he thought I had bananas in my bag. It seems his mother is embarassed every time he clutches at things - but where did he get that habit from, if not from the people around him? Part of me just doesn't want to encourage such "desperate, undignified" behaviour (ie. Don't they have any pride?) and part of me hates myself for writing those words and asking that question.

But my biggest problem with this money thing is that it’s so unsustainable. You give them money today, they need more money tomorrow. The need never ends. And they can’t constantly depend on someone's charity to fill that need. They have to find ways to generate it on their own. I think of the little beggar boys on the streets – here begging is actually entrenched in a system. The Talibe are young boys – sometimes orphans, sometimes from poor families who give them up - who live with a marabout (Most Senegalese Muslims have religious leaders called Marabouts, who they believe give them advice, guide them, etc. “My marabout told me this or that”). The arabout teaches the kids Qu’ran, feeds them and gives them some place to stay. In exchange, they have to beg on the street for money which they take back to the marabout - supposedly in order to pay for everything he does for them, but in reality it all oes to the marabout. It's common knowledge that the kids are badly treated by the Marabouts ie. not fed enough or clothed well. Many walk around the streets of Dakar all day barefoot, with dirt on their faces and ripped clothes. The Talibe are recognizable by their tin cans. The fact that people continue to give them money – people incluing Senegalese – only encourages them to maintain this system, in which they spend every day of their lives begging for money. These are young able children who could be doing so much more. And sometimes it makes me think I shouldn’t ever give them anything, because it only keeps this system alive. I suppose it’s the same question international donors ask themselves on the broader development scale.

It's also a question that I think every foreigner asks him or herself when they get here. Check out my friend Erin's thoughts on this topic if you're interested. She's teaching English in a village in Benin. (Choose the Nov. 1 post)

I've stopped letting it bother me too much. When I feel like it, I give. When I'm tired of giving, I stop. But it's definately an issue that has many implications on the wider scale, and I hope that eventually, as a global society we find the right balance.


Dakshana said...

Hey Hebs...

I've been lurking in the bushes for a while now and thought I'd comment on this since it really struck me.

The analogy about a friend in Canada asking you for the money works in two ways. Of course you wouldn't hesitate to lend/give them $20 if they asked, but then at the same time if it was a daily/weekly request it would be interpreted very differently.

The "training" is something that has always made me uncomfortable too--too uncomfortable to even write about as a financially-secure girl living in the west. When I was in Bangalore, India in December, there was this really busy intersection where a girl--maybe five--was begging. I saw her two different times--a few weeks apart--at the same intersection. She was doing cartwheels and the like for money and it appeared she was on her own. But then as we waited in the traffic I saw her scurry over to her mother, who was wearing lots of jewellery and a decent sari, and give her some of the money she'd collected and then scurry back. I don't know the whole story, obviously, but this just seemed like a constant routine. Every single day. All day. And this was something I saw over and over again with little kids when I was there. Too bad that all we have on the subject are questions, eh?

What have you been doing recently when they've been asking now that you've been there for a while?

Erin/Kristina said...

Hi Hebs
I really appreciated your comment on my blog...I found myself thinking today that I just have to stop thinking about it. My friend Jennifer gave me good advice too, which is that when the gift isn't your choice and doesn't come from your heart, you don't feel good about it, which is so true. I found myself resenting my host family more and more for asking for stuff, and it didn't make me feel better to give them stuff. But it's still so hard to say no -- today my host sister asked me if she could come to the internet with me and she said that she would pay for herself. I really wanted to go alone, but what reason did I have to say no? I guess it's all part of the travel experience, definitely being out of your comfort zone. Anyway I love reading your blog and will email you soon.
Love Moores

Heba Aly said...

I totally hear what you're saying. Who's a ploy? Who's really in need. But we're only human. We're not here to investigate. So when I feel for someone, I'll give them money. When I've had enough or feel that people are taking advantage of me, I'll refuse. Sometimes, I'll get it wrong, and give to the people who don't need it and neglect those who do. But if I wasn't here, they wouldn't be getting that money at all. So I'm not doing any harm. So that's the approach I've been taking. Just doing what I feel. Sometimes I actually explain to them, "Look, I'm sorry, but EVERYONE has been asking me for money, and I just can't keep up." They usually don't have much to say after that!

How are you anyway?

Dakshana said...


Sounds like good logic to me.

How am I? Good. Going through that whole routine of applying for summer jobs now at pretty much every major daily in the country. But I think I might only want to work for the summer and then take off in September to a place where I can make enough money to live off of and cover any travel expenses. There will never be a time as good as next fall to get a nice culture shock, you know? Part of me doesn't want to apply for year-long positions at all because I don't want to give myself the option of staying in Canada.


I just read your most recent entry. I think I'd be more interested in learning about/living in Chad, but just like you, I'd find the idea of going in there cold without an organization backing me up rather daunting. But perhaps you're more resourceful than I am? I'm sure either option will turn out well.