Why I Can Buy Maimouna a Sprite
Today was my first day of work at IMCEC, a Senegalese MFI based in Dakar. I’m working out of their offices in Thies, a smaller, hotter, dustier, and boringer city about an hour and a half from Dakar. IMCEC currently manages the Kiva partnership in a very decentralized way, and is having a lot of trouble meeting their $80,000 a month fundraising limit – in January they only posted $7,500-worth of loans on the Kiva site. What a waste of free capital!
Happily, they just hired a woman to manage the Kiva process. It’ll be my job to train her and to help IMCEC set up a system that takes advantage of the interest-free capital provided by Kiva in the most efficient way possible. What a fun challenge!
In the meantime, I’m living with one of the IMCEC employees, Marie. After work today, I decided to go for a walk and explore the neighborhood a little bit.
It’s easy to forget that you’re white when you walk around with your African friends and coworkers. This is not the case, however, when you walk around alone.
Every male between the ages of 8 and 28 feels it is necessary to yell things at me that I don’t understand. It’s even more frustrating because some of them are legitimately nice, and if I don’t respond, it’s ME who is being rude. So, I do my best to choose between complete ignorance, a slight smile, or a polite “Bon soir.”
During the short two-minute walk from my house to the little soda shop, one guy earned a response by addressing me with a polite, “Bon soir, mademoiselle.”
“How nice,” I thought.
“Bon soir,” I said.
“Mademoiselle, ou madame?” he asked, as we passed each other (i.e., am I married?).
Sigh. I turned my head behind me to look him directly in the eyes and said, “Madame.”
Then we both laughed, and I felt ok about life. As I turned onto the main road, a little girl started walking next to me, maybe 9 years old. I said hi, asked her what her name was (Maimouna), and kept walking. At the store, she stood next to me the whole time. She was very polite, not asking for anything, and I think not expecting anything. I chose a Sprite for myself, two for my homestay family, and an extra one.
Now, after being in Africa for four months, I am tired of constantly being torn about whether to give or not to give. I’ve seen various philosophies that my friends and acquaintances have adopted. Some give constantly, always buying gifts of food or alcohol or n’importe quoi, and, surprisingly, earning the genuine love and respect of people around them. Some never give, complaining about the annoyance kids who “guard” their cars while they are in the parking lot and then ask for a bit of money afterwards. My Togolese friends used to give regularly to the people begging on the sides of the road, literally throwing change at them as we passed.
The other day I was in a pick-up truck in the absolute middle of nowhere with a Senegalese friend. We passed two women and two children on the side of the road. I have to admit – I didn’t even see them there. My friend did, however, and he stopped the car. “Can we take them?” he asked me in French.
“Of course,” I said.
We drove them to the nearest town, which is where we were going anyway. It was far – maybe half an hour or more. As they got out of the car, the sun was setting. If we hadn’t helped them, I have no idea how they ever would have gotten where they needed to go.
As the last woman got out of the car, she said something in Wolof, the local language.
“What did she say?” I asked, as we started on our way.
“She said that we will never know what we just did for them,” my friend told me.
Back to the soda shop. I considered all the reasons not to give my little friend a soda – I don’t want her to think that every time she sees a white person, she might get something from them. That is a real, real concern for me. I also don’t want to make myself feel good just because I do something that involves literally no sacrifice and that I am able to do just because of where I happen to have been born.
So, I can’t give Abozu my camera. But sometimes you just want to buy a little girl a soda. So I handed Maimouna the Sprite and told her to study hard in school.
I haven’t figured out my life philosophy on giving or not giving. But there are lines we all have to draw, and when you’re drawing those lines, it doesn’t hurt to remember that you might never know what you are really doing for someone else.