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Give Me Biscuit

October 23, 2010

Think about what your reaction would be, if on your way to work tomorrow, a complete stranger walked up and said ‘give me money’.  Not a question, a statement.  Just like that.

Ok, now would your reaction change, if the person asking was a 9 year old girl; at home taking care of her baby sister on her back, instead of being at school?

Finally, what if it was the same girl, but she wasn’t a complete stranger – you had been greeting this girl as you passed for several weeks, and you knew her name was Lusungu, and she actually had 3 younger sisters, two of which (Sarah and Nancy) run to grab your hands and walk with you every time you go by their place, jabbering away in chitimbuka (often asking for biscuits along the way, one of the only English phrases they know).

Does any of it make a difference?

My friend Jo recently wrote a great thought provoking post about the urge to give, and witnessing the effects it can have on dependency, and disempowerment.

I read her post and identified with the way it feels when the first words out of someone’s mouth when they meet you are ‘give me ________’  insert biscuit, pen, money, whatever you happen to have in your hands at the moment.   The best I can describe it is a pit in your stomach of frustration and discouragement.

There’s no anger or disappointment with the individual.  How can there be, when the majority of infrastructure in communities, have signs attached saying ‘Generously provided by the Government of X Western Nation’,  when the best paying jobs are from various foreign NGOs, and when most white people here ride in SUVs and have nice clothes, and give things away like they have wealth beyond measure? Seems pretty reasonable to believe that this azungu (i.e. me) would give things away too if you asked.  It’s what they all seem to do.

And the truth is that I do have much more access to resources, and far greater opportunity at my finger tips.

People see ex-pats as givers of aid, so what? Isn’t that a good thing?  Not so fast. Besides the economic damages of a broken aid system (we’ll get to that in other posts, I’m sure), the motivational damages can also be crippling.  Far too often, the belief that Malawians/Africans, ‘aren’t as smart as whites’ because in Canada everything is ‘free and perfect’ and people can do things that for Malawians ‘is just not possible’.    These are all quotes that I’ve heard since arriving from bright, educated and full of potential individuals who have the ability to make great change.   These are all linked to the ‘give me ______’ statements.  These all give me that same pit in the stomach feeling.   If someone doesn’t think she’s capable of creating change, how is she ever going to do it?

My big question is what’s my role in changing this perspective of so many Malawians vs. my need to be true to my own personal values? What if Lusungu, her sisters, and their situation, were transplanted into Canada – not really feasible to compare due to other factors, I know, but lets pretend. I’d probably give her money, or at least do something – contact child’s aid, speak with her parents etc.  Here in Malawi, I have not.  There seems to be a difference. Should there be?


3 Comments leave one →
  1. minashahid permalink
    October 24, 2010 12:04 pm

    hey Alyssa,

    looks like you and Anthony are on the same wavelength with your most recent posts. One of the most beautiful thing about Ghana is that, there is none of that “give me_____” attitude. It seems like there is far less dependency on NGOs and white people. One of my most memorable experiences with this attitude was on a walk home from work in Mongu, when I girl I had seen every day for 2 months, flat out said “Give me your cell phone!” I could see that this dependency attitude had gotten to a point where people were beginning to ask not just for the necessities (maize, money etc.) but other things as well. What would a 14 year old girl do a with a cell phone?

    It was something I quickly began to hate – that lack of belief that change can be created from within the country. I met very few Zambians who truly believed that their destiny was in their own hands. And when I met someone like this, it was so refreshing, it give me hope in a better future. These people exist, and they need to be supported to lead their country!

    Thought-provoking post dude! I hope you are well!


  2. Don McMurtry permalink
    October 24, 2010 5:41 pm

    Down here in Balaka Malawi whoever teaches english to children has added a little twist to the phrase book – “give me my money” is the phrase I hear on a not infrequent basis. In town on the way to work or kilometers outside town when running. Not “please sir, I want more” or “buddy can you spare a few kwatcha”. When you respond with any amount of local language, including “I don’t understand” or a culturally appropriate greeting the phrase is repeated, not prefaced with a little surge of 8 year old Chichewa, just “give me my money”. Clearly someone has taught more than just a few kids this phrase. But who and why is something I doubt I will ascertain. At least it is just a few people in town who I now recognize as beggars that persist. The kids become bicycle taxi drivers and change the phrase to “my friend my friend where do you want to go” which I totally love. Raw entrepreneurial replication to the point of market over saturaction causing a downward price pressure that will ultimately force a rethinking of there business. 🙂

  3. October 25, 2010 12:00 pm

    Hey Alyssa,

    Great post! I experience this exact same frustration so often here in Ghana, and I don’t really know how to handle it. When a taxi driver says “I want to go to your hometown”, what can I say? There are so many assumptions wrapped up in that statement: 1) I’m from a Western, rich place, 2) I can afford to send him there, 3) it will be really easy for him to find a job and earn tons of money, 4) I have the responsibility to help him, 5) all Westerners are rich, etc. When I have 1 minute in a taxi, how can I even begin to break down all of these myths? And do I even want to spend all my time doing this? Frankly, it’s exhausting.

    I’m really glad you wrote about this topic. You expressed so much of what I feel in these interactions. Thanks, miss you, hope you’re doing well! 🙂

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