Volunteering debate continues

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Friday, May 18, 2007

The whole issue of foreign aid and volunteering and its impact on local people has got us thinking a lot.  There seems to be a slight unspoken tension between the locals and us mzungus.  Inevitably it always comes down to money: they think we have it and we think they want it.
 
The situation arises again today.  While Jane and I are sat in the office, working, this local guy named Moodi comes in.  It's an appropriate name for him as, despite being an athletic, handsome, seemingly intelligent, level-headed guy, he quite often mopes around and follows us as we got about our daily chores.  Again today he just sits in the office while we are working.  Eventually he pulls out a bag of little carvings - giraffes, mother-and-child statuettes, Africa-shaped key rings - and starts to lay them out on the floor.
 
"Those are nice," I say noncommittally, not wishing to make him think we are in the market.
 
"Yeah," replies Moodi, agreeing unenthusiastically.  "But business is slow.  No one buys.  I have no money."
 
I can see Jane start to bristle, as we have heard this preamble dozens of times.  Next comes the hard luck story about a sick relative or a dream to go to Dar Es Salaam and get established there, or about how fire burned his stock and now he has nothing. Then is the plea for a helping hand to get things going again.  "A loan, I'll pay it back, guaranteed!"
 
What bothers us is the assumption that, as white people, we are completely loaded with money.  This impression is bolstered by the fact that the only white people they ever see around here are, indeed, rich.  The safari set, with their matching khaki suits who drive through Pangani in their new Land Rovers, or the career break volunteers who come and buy computers to the community or donate funds for schools, these are the white people that you see around here.  Or you switch on the telly and you see American rappers with their bling and their fancy cars, or Bill Gates unveiling the latest 'must-have' gizmo.  There are no poor white people on television.
 
And, yes, if you compare our annual income to that of a Tanzanian, we do earn a lot more.  But we are not earning anything right now.  The shillings that we spend in Pangani are not being replaced as they would be for a normal holiday-maker.  Our savings have to last for a whole year so we are on a very tight budget.
 
"I have no money either," Jane says sternly.
 
Moodi laughs nervously, knowing he has touched a nerve but still feeling he has a chance.  Jane makes things clear.  "I worked very hard for my money.  I saved for seven years so that I could come on this trip.  I come from a small village, just like you.  Slovakia is a poor country too, you know.  I worked hard and got everything by myself.  I never asked anyone for a handout."
 
But handouts are exactly what people get here, and they get them from white people.  Not only do volunteers come here and donate their labour - surely that should be seen as enough of a gesture - but most of them seem to walk around handing out clumps of cash.  Or if not the volunteers then the foreign aid agencies.  So you can hardly blame the people for chancing their arm.  That's why all the kids holler "Mzungu, give me money.  Mzungu, give me water.  Mzungu, give me bicycle."  They have heard from their friends that white people just give you stuff for nothing.  Why should I work hard, learn a skill, start a business, do everything the hard way, when I can just apply for a grant or shout "mzungu, give me money" whenever a Land Rover drives through?
 
Moodi sits around for a while then clears off.  Jane is still heated.
 
"Why does everything have to come back to money?" she laments.
 
"Because they think we are rich.  Even if we aren't by western standards, we are by their standards."
 
"There are plenty of people in Canada who are richer than we are.  We don't go around asking them for money.  I came from a poor country, worked hard and got myself into a situation where I can afford to come here.  Why can't they do the same?  I'm really sick of being asked for money everywhere I go.  Isn't it enough that I come here to work hard to help them?  I also have to give away money too?  Look at that teacher at the kindergarten.  I go and teach there every morning, give her ideas, the kids love it, and then she tells me she needs my money so she can buy stuff."
 
The rain continues to pelt down, almost incessantly.  When it is not actually raining, it has either just stopped raining or is just about to start raining again.  And this ain't no English-style drizzle.  This is genuine equatorial monsoon rain, rain that pours down from the massive African sky like a huge bucket being emptied, rain that creates big muddy puddles in the road as soon as it begins.
 
The good news is that the rainy season is by all accounts nearly over.
 
"It will stop raining around May 25th", says Mr. Hot Hot, the local tour organiser.
 
"How can you be so sure of the exact date?"
 
"We look at the sky."
 
I glance out of the office window at the sky.  "It just looks grey to me".
 
"Yes.  But we will see," he says by way of explanation.
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Comments

bangkokrandy
bangkokrandy on

Good stuff!
This is some good writing. And good observations. As I will be going to Tanzania in a few weeks, it is also very useful information for me personally.

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