The Malawian kids have no doubt about it: they all tell you “Give me my money.” It is hardly a pressing request, and is as easily said as the Malawian greeting “Hello, how are you?”. Not one tourist I know gives the child money when asked in this way.
But what to do when you are eating chipsies, or drinking your replenishing water, and the child comes and asks you for some of what you have? Do you refuse or do you share? If you give it away, do you give it only to the child who came to ask or also to the kids watching curiously with big eyes hoping to get a share?
I celebrated my birthday on the beach of lake Malawi; our little party of six munched on nuts, rolls and sausage, gulped it down with apple cider. A boy in rags, after having eyed our modest feast for at least an hour, finally approached holding up his hand. My companions were strict and told the boy to ask his mother for dinner. Somehow it seemed wise to tell him no, and yet I still wonder why we did? Was he being opportunistic? Were we setting an example? Were we trying to maintain a balance between poorer and richer? Was it because we couldn’t hand out food to everyone on the beach? (Why couldn’t we: would we not have had enough for all the people or would it not leave enough for us?) After only a few days in Malawi I had already experienced a decisive moment: giving that boy food would mean giving food to every Malawian that would ever ask for it.
In the months after my birthday several people asked me for help, their wishes ranging from wanting food, empty water bottles, money loans, to dental equipment.. Would it have killed me to give each what they asked for? No. Would it have made me poor? No. (Except maybe if I had financed that new dental practice.) Fact is that 9 out of 10 times I didn’t grant the request. Why didn’t I, when it is so natural to share what you have in abundance?
Because I have not yet found an answer to the question “when does sharing become donating and when does donation promote corruption?”. We often give in the hopes it will solve a problem, when in truth our donation usually deteriorates it. The root of the trouble can continue to grow and in addition a new problem of dependency is created. (Malawi’s national income now depends for 40% on international aid money.) When I asked the management of the clinic how they thought they could solve a problem they had identified, they said they would “pray to God”. When I asked them what God could do, they said he would “send a donor”. But what if God knows that donors can disrupt power balances, as well as a sense of self-reliance, independence and autonomy, would he then still send one?
So why did I ask my friends to donate money for the Baptist Medical Clinic? Because together we could, with little effort and a small gesture, make a difference to a number of Malawian women who would never know it was because of a donation. With the help of my friend’s money I was able to buy a medical instrument that secures a safe child birth for mothers. The clinic had not asked me for it, I had simply identified a need that we could help with. I gave this vacuum pump as a goodbye present to the clinic, just as they gave me goodbye presents.
On one of my last days in Malawi a man I had sat next to in the bus walked with me, asked me my name and told me his. He asked me where I was from, told me he was hungry, and did I have some food for him? I still didn’t know what to say.