Living in Tanzania, we are surrounded by economic poverty. Some suffer more than others, but overall there’s no escaping the reality that a majority of people here struggle to make ends meet in some way, shape, or form. Whether it’s money for food, or for medicine, or for school fees, or to finish building their incomplete house, etc, most people could use help, pretty much everyone in Tanzania could use assistance, and compared to most folks here, Americans have relatively vast amounts of resources. While people also struggle in the United States (and certainly many people do), we’re talking about a more immediate need than most people in the US will face.
And there’s no escaping the fact that as White foreigners- “wazungu”- by default, we have more resources than pretty much everyone else we meet in the street. My decent but nothing-to-write-home-about yearly salary at my last job paid me about the equivalent of a few decades worth of an average Tanzanians earning power. That’s a hard fact to wrap your brain around, but it’s true.
And Tanzanians know this, so they will ask you for money. Anywhere. Whether they know you or not.
Children always ask for money (or candy) and that’s easy enough to ignore. But what about the woman sitting on the street that has no feet. Or the man that walks on his knees because his legs are so twisted he cannot stand? They’re clearly in need. This morning I was walking to the hardware store to buy some nails and I passed an old man with a cane. He looked pretty rough. I greeted him with the respectful greeting for an older person, but the minute he saw me he reached out his hands and wordlessly pleaded for money.
But it’s even more of a request than that sometimes (many times, actually). It’s not begging for a few shillings, it’s directly asking you for substantial help. I met a woman several weeks ago who was speaking to me in Swahili. I could get a little of what she was saying but mostly I was lost. When she realized I couldn’t understand, she went and got one of my fellow missioners who could understand and used her a translator. It ended up that the woman, who I’d known for only a few minutes, was asking me to pay for all her children’s school fees (a legitimate request, I am sure). Liz, my fellow missioner, explained that that was not what we did.
Another time, I was sitting in downtown Musoma and a young guy came up to me, chatting, and it was quite pleasant, but it soon shifted to him asking me for 2000 Tsh (Tanzanian shillings) which I did not give. Here’s the thing: 2000 Tsh is about $1.30.
I’d just spent 3000 Tsh on a Coke and a cupcake as a treat for myself.
And this leads to one of the more difficult things about adjusting to life here. We came as missionaries. We are answering a call to go and serve other people, to be among the poorest of the poor and to help our brothers and sisters, but all I seem to be doing is saying “no.”
We have to be very careful not be establish ourselves as only a resource to be tapped for money, less a person than an ATM machine. (“Oh, look. A white person. I’ll go withdraw some cash.”) Our resources that we offer are our skills and our presence, and we want to be seen as part of the community, not simply as a “thing” with lots of money. This is especially true as we get set up in our own house. Katie and I both have had several people stop us at our front gate and ask for help. We say no. Kids ask us to come into our yards and pick fruit from our trees. We say no. And when clearly haggard, hungry old men ask us for money, we say no. And that’s hard.
I’m certainly not the first people to struggle with this, and we’ve received lot of advice on this. We had a whole day’s training on this very issue during our pre-departure training in Ossining, NY. We’ve heard stories of people giving money to people and immediately establishing themselves as “marks”. We’ve been told to never give assistance to anyone that comes asking for money at your house, and have heard horror stories about people that did and subsequently had lines of people at their gate every morning to the point where they eventually had to move to a new house because the requests were so overwhelming and nonstop. The missioners lost their ability to “be” with the people because all the neighbor saw was white skin and deep pockets (whether it was true or not).
When we were in NY, I asked a retired Maryknoll priest who had lived in TZ for decades what his one piece of advice would be to new missioners, and he said “Say NO to everything.”At least at first. He said to establish ourselves as community members with specific jobs, not as wealthy patrons that will simply set-up shop and dole out money to everyone that comes calling. The requests may be legit, but they will never end. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, so rather than wade into the difficult task of navigating this terrain in a foreign culture, “Just say NO to everyone.”
The point is not to be heartless, but simply to not set us up for failure. As strangers in a strange land, we really don’t know what we’re doing yet, so we need to protect ourselves, not from Tanzanians, per se, but from ourselves. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t care about people. We’re here for a reason- to help people- and we cannot undermine our effectiveness because we are sympathetic/empathetic people crushed under the weight of the problems we’re here to address. Using our time and talents, we’ll eventually establish relationships with people and then we’ll be in a better position to give our “treasure” in effective, more sustainable ways.
But, man, it’s hard.