How is it that, when confronted with a suffering person, my initial compassion sometimes morphs into irritation? What part does guilt play in our giving? These are the questions that weary me lately, living in a land where jobs are scarce and beggars are plentiful and (sometimes) manipulative.
A tattered schoolboy leads an older blind man around downtown Livingstone by the hand, asking for spare change. Gift is another 14-year old boy hanging out on the village’s dusty paths, hoping we can help with school fees so he can continue his education. But donations, instead of being met with gratitude, only seem to elicit more requests. When our team begins building a mud house for a poor elderly man, villagers eagerly pitch in to help us haul the wood—and then, one by one, come to us saying, “Me, I’m hungry”, as their thin arms and legs would testify. It feels like manipulation, and one young man becomes angry when we say that we are not giving money or food, that our job today is to build a house. What would YOU do?
We are instructed to give to he who asks, to be generous with the poor, especially with widows and orphans. We see the plight of the poor in this country, the many people who are painfully thin, who struggle daily to provide for their families. There are also stern words in the Bible for those who are idle, or do not care for their own relatives. “He who does not work should not eat.” The character of Zambians varies as widely as in any other country—some are industrious and motivated, some love to make excuses. What a wearisome task it is to be the judge, to continually be watching for the “deserving poor”. It is easier to just give indiscriminately, but that doesn’t always seem right either.
Author Sarah Lanier speaks of “power points” which come to us by virtue of our culture. Count yours up—one point each for being white, male, tall, being educated, having a computer, cell phone, driver’s license, etc. etc. It felt a bit uncomfortable hearing her teach this, sitting next to some of my African friends who have very few power points. Now, being faced daily with power-less people who see only my white skin and the Landcruiser we drive (never mind that it doesn’t belong to us), these power points can start to feel like a curse. Unless we rid ourselves of our advantages (if indeed there is a way), we can never really be seen as One of Them.
Dan and I have been challenged in our thinking by visiting several organizations working with the poor:
--St. Francis care-workers, in developing income-generating programs with HIV/AIDS clients, require each would-be businessperson to invest K5000 ($1 USD) in order to join—perhaps equivalent to asking a struggling American single mom to come up with $25 or $50 (difficult but not impossible).
--Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education makes it a policy to never give anything away, always expecting a contribution of labor, materials or money from those benefitting, even the very poor. Judging from their thriving teachers’ college, experimental gardens and job-training programs, this policy has served them very well. The locals have a sense of ownership and responsibility.
A one-time tourist encounter is far simpler than living here, establishing relationships with those who view my white skin as an easy mark (perhaps giving friendship is more difficult than giving money). Can we actually go beyond helping the poorest of the poor, to look at changing political and economic structures? How does self-respect and economic self-reliance begin to be restored in