The hand-out dilemma

There’s a girl named Violet who lives near me who’s in her first year of secondary school and is probably about 13. She abruptly started talking to me and telling me she likes me a couple of months ago.  And yes, I understood why. A few weeks ago, she told me she liked my bag (my daypack), and asked if she could have it. Slightly taken aback at her directness, though not surprised that she was asking for something, I said no, I’m using this bag. She said, well how about tomorrow then? I said  no, I use this bag a lot. The next time I saw her, she asked if I had any books. Specifically, she wanted a dictionary for English. I said I’d look for one in town (they have used books) because, uh, education is good (?). I haven’t found one yet. Since then she has continued to be nice to me, carrying my bag or showing me her school exams.

One night last week, though, she came to my house. When I told her I was working on my computer, she asked to see it. So I invited her in to see it – they don’t have computers at their school. After a few minutes she wanted to look around the house. Fine. I offered her a couple of oranges to take home. Then she said, my mother doesn’t have a job so she can’t afford bread. I said, ummm. There was a whole loaf of bread sitting right on the table. So I said, ok, you can have half this loaf. She took that and said, and she can’t afford shoes for me to wear to school. Uh-huh. I told her I can’t buy her everything. She accepted that and left.

At this point, I said to myself, what to do? It’s one thing when I see her out on the path and she asks for things. But now she’s coming to my house.

I think this is something all foreigners have to deal with at some point here. There’s so much need, and no matter how little money we have, it’s still more than most people here have. And things are so cheap – I could easily afford to buy Violet new shoes. But where does it end? What happens when someone else comes asking for shoes or whatever. It has to be all or none, and I can’t buy everyone everything! Plus, this is begging. And I don’t want to encourage begging. Yes, people are poor – but are they poor because they try and fail to make money or because they’re too lazy to make money and are looking for easy money from me, whose skin color means I must be a walking ATM?  You always have to ask yourself if someone is being especially friendly because they genuinely want to be friends or because they want something from you. It sucks, and unfortunately I think the case is often the latter.

Violet is in school. So they got money for that somewhere. Even more significantly, her older sister not only completed secondary school, but sixth form as well (Americans: this means she didn’t leave school at 16, when secondary school ends, but finished our 11th and 12th grades as well). That takes money too. So they must have some way of getting money, however little.

Today, she came by again. She said her mother sent her to greet me. Pause. I need money for a haircut. My teacher says I have to get one, but my mother doesn’t have the money. How much is it, I ask, out of curiosity. 500 shillings – about thirty cents. Also, can you help pay for school?

Now, her mother has obviously gotten the money for haircuts and school in the past. Her other daughter even completed sixth form. Why right now does she not have the money? Is it because something has changed in her financial situation? Or is what has changed is that an American has moved in next door, and it’s easier to play the ‘poor’ card and be handed money than to go work for it? I told Violet sorry, but no, I won’t give you the money. And please tell your mother I don’t like being asked for money.

There’s a difference between needing money because you genuinely can’t come up with it and needing it because you’re too lazy to go out and get it yourself.

The tragic thing in this case isn’t so much the poverty specifically, it’s the fact that Violet is being manipulated, used by her mother to try and get close to me and ask for money. If I see her mother, I’m going to tell her that if she wants to ask for money, she should come do it herself, not send her daughter. Thirteen years old, and your mother won’t give you thirty cents for a haircut but instead asks you to go pretend to be nice to the mzungu and ask for the money? That has to mess a kid up somehow. Her older sister has a job, but also won’t give her thirty cents? What kind of messed up is that? And if I gave her the money, the problem is that I would be encouraging the mother.

So will Violet get a haircut? I’m guessing yes – like I said, they’ve obviously come up with the money in the past. But if not? Will she go to school and be beaten because her hair is too long because her mother won’t give her 30 cents? Chilren get beaten for not being able to provide all the things they’re required to bring to school (firewood, etc).

And if so, whose fault will it be? Her mother’s, certainly.

And mine too?


Family, connected

3 May 2012

As you regular readers will know, my neighbor and friend, Mama Dora, means a lot to me. Her whole family is just fantastic; they’re such good people. My parents, having heard me talk about her and the kids, asked if they could sponsor Dora to go to boarding school, which is usually the only way to get a good secondary education here. It’s inexpensive by American standards, but for most Tanzanians, it’s out of reach.

So last night, I told Mama Dora, etc about their offer. I brought them a picture of us to see, and told them about how I had told my parents about them and that my parents were happy I had friends like them here. Then, I said, ‘So Dora, if you want to go to boarding school…’, something changed in the air, a collection intake of breath, ‘…they will pay.’ They were so happy!  Tanzanians are not very emotive. Dora mostly just smiled shyly as she does, Mama Dora was grinning away, but Baba Dora was the most expressive. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, he jumped up and hugged me! They said many times to thank my parents and tell them how happy they are and actually Baba Dora hugged me several times. For a Tanzanian, he was absolutely beside himself. I was so happy. I gave them the photo to keep in their house. I’m going to take a picture of them to send to my parents, too. It was so wonderful. They absolutely deserve this.

The family, plus a neighbor boy.


1 May 2012

Sometimes there are things that happen that cannot be described in words. Things that defy the wide range of spoken language, of body language, of facial expressions. The incident speaks for itself, and trying to describe the emotions it invoked only demeans it. You just have to store it away in a jeweled box inside yourself and hope that others will catch a glimpse of the un-expressable emotions through a video of the thing that happened, if there is one.

Jo, with whom I’m doing some work for her organization, Shukuru, knows a girl from her volunteering days who we went to visit today. Linnah looks younger than she is; she is petite and confident. We met her at her sister’s rented house, where she’s staying. It’s in a beautiful area outside town that on clear days must have a stunning view of Kilimanjaro. She served us tea and chapatis in their 10x6ft living room while her two young nieces looked on. She told us her story while we filmed it for the organization’s website. Several years ago, one of Jo’s fellow volunteers had offered to pay for Linnah’s secondary schooling, but then reneged when he lost his job. Since then, this girl has dropped out of school, had a baby, gone to an informal school where she completed two years of secondary in one and passed the national exam while working at an orphanage where she was abused. She’s now waiting to do her next two years of secondary, also in one year, and has hopes to go on to university eventually. She’s seventeen.

Not only is her story and the fact that she’s so determined impressive, but she also talked about how strongly she believes that girls and women in Tanzania can do anything they want if they just have determination. All their lives they’re told they can’t do things because they’re women and they’re just going to be housewives but she knows they can do great things and furthermore, she knows that she will do great things. She wants to study international relations so she can go abroad and represent Tanzania to the world and by doing so, help lift her country up. Where did she get this stuff? Where did this belief and determination come from? This desire to go and show the world how great Tanzania could be is something I’ve heard before, but generally from men.  And not only is she a girl, she’s a girl who has faced some serious obstacles and gone through some seriously rough times.

Do you understand now why there are no words to express what it was like to witness this?

Challenges and prospects for girls

8 February 2012

Look at the difference between 13-year-old girls like Dora and 13-year-old girls in America. Look at their activities and the things they have to worry about. Girls here are up first thing in the morning cooking, cleaning, chopping firewood, washing clothes, feeding livestock, and caring for younger children. On top of that, they have to go to school and do homework. Some of them have to walk many kilometres to collect water and firewood. Between that and the lack of formal jobs available even for men and the social requirement of marriage and children, is it any wonder that most of them don’t finish secondary school? That’s only the equivalent of 10th grade, mind. Why would they? Where’s the incentive?

And so the whole focus and pace of life is different in places like this than at home. The things listed above take a long time, and are essential. There isn’t time for extras, except the occasional special celebration. Each day is similar, cooking, cleaning, feeding, etc. What do 13-year-old girls see in their futures? Do they picture a different lifestyle than the one they’re living now? Do any of us? Or do they, and we, just take for granted that this is life and will continue to be when they grow up? On the other hand, take Mr Mlay and Mr Sabbas, who grew up in windowless thatched huts. The now live in big concrete houses with refrigerators and TVs.  A huge change in just one generation, at least for some people. Will it change again that much for the next generation?

What’s frustrating me at the moment is that there are so many people in need, not on the other side of the world, but right here where I’m living, and I’m just sitting around my house not helping them…

School’s in session

11 January 2012

I visited Mrs Mlay’s school today. She is the head teacher at the local primary school. It has about 300 students and 12 teacher. The school badly needs renovation. The ceilings are starting to crumble. The desks are old school with wooden benches to sit on. There are big chalkboards in front and a desk for the teacher. Not much on the walls, but some things on the walls outside, as all the classrooms open to the outside. The children eat lunch at school, cooked for them there, always ugali and beans. Mrs Mlay knows that’s not enough, but it’s what there is for now. I said hi to some classes. All the students stand and chant hello or whatever, and as expected there was much excitement to see me walking around.

One class I just popped into to say hi was a 1st grade class. There were many students, maybe 50? I guess they don’t get notebooks that young, and they were writing in chalk on the desktops or the floor, practicing consonants, I believe.

I spent a brief time watching a few different lessons. One was (maybe) 5th grade learning Swahili sentences structure. The teacher explained some things and then wrote some sentences on the board and called on students to tell her the noun ( I think). Some students were eager to participate, some not. They also wrote the sentences in their notebooks. The boys and girls were sitting on opposite sides of the room but I’m not sure that’s required, as it wasn’t strictly the case in the other classes. There were about 25 in this class.

A second grade-ish class (8 year olds, anyway) was learning to read with animal names. The teacher wrote several on the board, explaining them as she went, and then called on student to go up and say the word. There were lots of enthusiastic volunteers; the student selected was given a yard stick to hold. They would go up, say the word, be asked to repeat it a few times, then the whole class would say the word and repeat it a few times. There were about 40 students in this class.

Then a 6th grade civics class, just for a few minutes. Not much to report here. Not a big class – maybe 20?

The rest of the day was basically wasted, though I witnessed corporal punishment for the first time at the secondary school Mr Mlay needed to visit. The girls get hit with a stick on the palms of the hands and the boys on the bottom.