I did something this last week that I immediately regretted and continue to feel bad about – wanting to help but honestly feeling as if the situation was worse after my arrival than before.
I’m asking for your thoughts in what I could have done differently.
Thinking about it, I have started to see the experience as an analogy for how aid/development is generally given and received in Africa.
I was in a little village about an hour and a half outside Kampala, checking on some options of places that I can bring the participants of the upcoming TEDC conference. A friend of a friend was kind enough to offer me a ride back to Kampala, and so as a thank you I wanted to buy something to share with him.
Funny enough, we drove past the “American Super Market” (which was run by people from India) so in addition to taking a picture, I went inside to look for something to share. I got some peanut m&ms, and just outside the store gave some to this friend, a girl he was talking to, and then just to be nice also to the guard sitting outside the front door.
Before I knew it, a dirty little pair of hands attached to a cute little dirty orphan popped out in front of me in a motion of wanting some too.
My first thought was compassion, “Of course I want to do something nice for this little guy, when I have been given so much and he has been given so little, due to no fault of his own.” Just as I went to pour a couple in his hands, I was jostled as another pair of slightly bigger dirty hands pushed the other ones out of the way in order to try and catch the candy. Then another pair of dirty hands attached to a cute little dirty orphan joined them, and another, and another, until in what seemed like a matter of seconds, I was surrounded by hands and orphans. A lot of them had left their places sitting on the street near the building and now surrounded me. (someone told me nearly one in four children in Uganda is an orphan, mainly due to AIDS – although most of them get taken into live with extended family, these ones looked like they lived on the street)
I quickly counted heads (15-20) and how many candies were left in the bag (about 11) – not enough to go around.
I looked over to my companion for some advice or help; he just shook his head at me (like “stupid mzungo”) and walked quickly across the street to the car to start it because he was in a rush to get back to Kampala.
I obviously looked confused and at this point the kids were kind of pushing each other for spots at the front so that they didn’t get left out.
My first thought was to simply do nothing and keep the candies to myself so that it would be “fair” (or at least equally unfair for each of them) – but that thought made me feel selfish and guilty.
I was trying to think quickly but my friend was already in the car and it seemed like more and more anxious kids kept coming over and surrounding me.
So I just light tossed the bag towards them while I broke free of the crowd and hurried across the street to get in the nice, comfortable, clean car.
I looked back just once to see what happened, and instead of the candies being spread as equally and fairly as possible among all the orphans, they had fought and struggled over them until one or two of the bigger kids won all of them and the rest got none.
By then we had driven away.
Maybe you can see now why this situation keeps bothering me.
My question for you:
What could/should I have done differently?
Feel free to give simple answers or ones in which you creatively think out of the box. And don’t be afraid to hurt my feelings either, I’m asking for your honest thoughts.
After I get some answers to these questions, I’ll share a bit about how it seems like an analogy for current aid/development situations in Africa in general. But for now, I’m just interested in how you think I could have done things different with this particular incident?
I once was going home from work and when exiting metro station I saw a girl of my age who was almost crying and asking people for a metro coin (an old style metro equipment operates on coins instead of modern plastic cards). I had a spare coin so, I gave it to her. And then she started talking to me and crying and told me that she actually did not need a coin, but needs some money, because she has no money at all. I felt sorry for her and gave her some money. Then she told me that it was not enough and she’d appreciate some more, so I gave her some more. And then she told me since it was New Year Eve it would be nice if I gave her some more, so she could celebrate New Year somehow. But all I had left was just enough to pay for bus to get home, so I stopped talking and went to a bus station without even saying anything to her, though she was still trying to get me back. She looked very miserable and she told me that she had problems in her family and stuff like that.
While I was riding bus home I felt very sorry for her and I felt that I was pretty rude leaving her like that. And I had this feeling whole the next day until I told this story to one of my friends who then summarized what I had told him this way:
She asked you a coin and you gave to her. She said she needed money and you gave her almost all you had with you. And you felt bad about it. Why?
So my question to you is the same: why do you feel bad if you intention and your actions were a good deed?
I believe you are in a totally different world right now. Think before doing what you are used to and don’t feel bad about what you used to.
I kinda know how you feel. That’s a very common feeling in Africa, and you never really get used to it. When you live here a bit longer, the dilemma becomes: “You’d like to give the street kid something, but every time you give something, the next time you park your car there’s a couple more asking for food. If you give them something small too, the more there will be next time.” Many people choose to focus their charity to a few specific things like one church or mosque or sponsored student and not give anything outside that.
Lennon said it well: it’s a whole different world and it works differently. You can rarely take things from one of these worlds to another. (Not even stories, because some of the stories are too odd to be told in the other world.)
Thanks Lennon and MT. Your experience and thoughts help. I guess I realize from these comments that I am a lot harder on myself than other people are. Maybe we all are.
Still, here are the potential analogies I have drawn to development in general:
– If you can help it, act more out of compassion than out of guilt or any other motivation.
– Be patient and don’t be in a rush (where you can make bad decisions and then leave things half-done).
– Take more time to get to know people before trying to intervene.
– Consider the power struggles for resources (and existing corruption), and how you can do the most good for the most people.
– Perhaps “candy” (e.g. any random technology) is not what they really need most anyway.
– Make it a two-way relationship (with both parties giving and receiving) as much as possible, in order to avoid a dependency relationship, and to empower more of a sense of self-respect and pride.
– Even with the difficulties, resist the temptation to give up on trying to help – or thinking that because the situation is overwhelming that it is better to do nothing.
– Don’t be too hard on yourself either, or have unrealistic expectations. Just try your best, learn from your mistakes, and learn from others.
Are there any others you can think of?
The analogy between candy and aid is a bit stretched anyway. Giving candy isn’t aid. It’s a regular nice-thing-to-do anywhere in the world, and your problem could’ve occurred in any country.
This pediatric doctor who has run a children’s hospital and an AIDS orphan center for almost 30 years in rural Africa put it well: You can’t fix everything for all the people in the world, but you can change the whole world of one person; one person at a time.
Collective guilt indeed is the prime motivation of Western development aid. Compassion, ideology, and ethics come second.
Actually, as harsh at it may sound, I’ve begun to believe that good business sense is the best motivation for development aid (if it is to have any self-sustainable impact).
I actually very much agree with your point about begining to business interest being one of the most helpful things in development – at least in order to make it sustainable.
That is what this post about microfranchises is partially about:
Here are at least three of the biggest problems with NGOs that microfranchises addresses:
1. NGOs pleasing the pet interest of the donor vs the real needs of the people.
2. Running out of money, and always competing with each other. (thus leaving things half done)
3. Raising capital (it is easier to get people to invest in something they will get a return on, even if it is small, than to simply give away money)
nteresting discussion and I agree a lot with the reflection of MT, also the words of Lennon had been interesting.
I just would like to add some food for the though. Even if each individual is different, and we are in complete different worlds that can be summarize in “n” parameters any human in Africa, or in the most isolated village of latin america, or in a poor town in China, or in the most connected city in Korea, or any “rich” neighborhood in London, wherever we are pointing, every single individual present the main basic characteristics of being a human, need to eat, and wants to be loved, want to be listened.
Furthermore, everybody deserves respect because he or she is special, even the homeless of your neighborhood. We do not know their lives, however it is a fact that each life, each belly button is a complete unique world.
What I want to say with this is you had an experience that you will digest the best according to your previous experiences and your way of thinking. Nothing is good or bad, those are parameters given by us. You will see how you put the things in your personal puzzle. However it should be clear that everyone is as important as you. While discovering each other we learn of each other. As simple as that.
It can be in form of business, NGO, schools or whatever, the title is of the institution that wants to “help” is the less important in here, because some succeed and other no. What I want to say is: the attitude that people have for themselves before connect with the others counts amazingly.
As MT wrote so clearly “You can’t fix everything for all the people in the world, but you can change the whole world of one person; one person at a time.” Starting by yourself 😉
Anyway those are my two cents.
Keep enjoying Africa!
btw, when I refer to yourself, I am referring starting with myself. Just to clarify that little note 🙂
i haven’t read through the comments, but honestly, and i hate this – but i probably would have just said no, sorry, and followed your friend. we were approached all the time in palestine for money from children, and i just followed instructions from the CPT team – don’t give them money. no, no no. i hate that it has to be that way. no – it doesn’t have to be that way, but it is. either way – that children are on the streets begging for money from people is heart breaking, absolutely heart breaking.
Yeah, I feel for you. Yet, I know any experience, whether you felt it turned out well or not, will be used as a learning tool and so will be used for good. You find the most amazing ways to stretch the experience beyond its parameters to reach deep into your soul so that it can reach wide out into the world.
Anyway, I did think of one solution for you – but not once you got into the situation. Maybe next time you could wait until you get into your friend’s car before you start to share. This would not be making you greedy, just fulfilling the original desire without causing undue chaos in the street.
Carolina, I like your thoughts and believe it in my mind, but have a harder time putting it into practice. I know that no one is better than anyone else, just like no one is worse than anyone else – but it seems like in the rush of everyday moments I don’t always take time to consider that the hopes and dreams and fears of those around me are as real as my own.
One of my favorie speakers, Henry Eyring, said once that you could go up to practically anyone and instead of asking “how are you?” you could ask “where does it hurt?”
A good thought for making me more in tune with what the actual needs and feelings are of those around me.
Brooke, I’m still not sure that saying “no” all the time is the best solution. I just try to have my heart open to what might be most helpful each time it happens in the moment – with some general rules for what might be most helpful, but not any of them too strict or absolute. In response to another comment I talked about a man asking me for money and saying “you look money, your color looks money” – and how unhelpful depency is.
But still, don’t you think that sometimes even giving money to people, depending on the situation, might really be the best thing to do?
Rebecca, thanks for the additional idea. A good way to avoid creating undue choas in the streets. 🙂
Here’s something I found interesting
I think this guy has done something amazing!
As a Mom I’ve seen children exhibit this type of behavior, but usually with things they have some knowledge of, or previous exposure to. To think that children could become so proficient with technology without any previous awareness of it – amazing!
The human mind is truly limitless – our biggest struggle in any interpersonal exchange will likely always be our own preconceived ideas.
Here are some of my thoughts, although I must admit that they are woefully inadequate. I spent several months living in rural India and traveling around the country. This offered some interesting insight into how I viewed others, and into how others perceived me. Upon my initial arrival, I found myself guilty of a form of ethnocentrism in which I saw people as personifications of some expectation. A “cute” beggar on the side of the road to me was a potential subject in a picture that would represent the poverty I equated with being in a third world country. And giving isolated rupees here and there made me feel temporarily magnanimous. I soon caught myself seeing people as representative images of what I wanted to see rather than as human beings. On the other side, I was seen as white, American and as a woman. That meant that I was perceived as a source of monetary resources to some, or a piece of meat to be leered at or grabbed by others. There was objectification on both sides. I encountered many beggars who petitioned from aid throughout my time there. And I wanted to give, because I saw need and wanted to fill it. But I didn’t want to turn those people into a mere set of dirty hands or myself into an free ATM, and I didn’t like feeling like I was encouraging and enabling a lifestyle of begging. I’m going back to India soon and am trying to figure out how I’ll respond to beggars. All I know is that I want to see them as people. Where language and gestures allow, I want to ask for names and talk to the people. And if possible, give a little. Perhaps a treat. But perhaps nothing. I don’t have the means to fill every outstretched hand. But the least I can do is recognize humanity.