Friday, there was a couple – husband and wife – at the hospital. They were petite, probably only 5 feet tall, each of them – and clearly stressed. They had been sitting for hours outside an office as if they were waiting for someone. I said “jambo” every time I passed and finally the man tried to speak with me but in Swahili. So I grabbed someone to translate. His name was Murhula (not his real name) and he was 54 years old. He had stomach surgery a year ago but he was back now for a second operation. In case I needed convincing, he lifted his shirt so I could see the large bandage. He paid his bill last time but because of his health, he hasn’t worked since, so he had no money for the current $65 owed. The hospital wouldn’t release him until he settled the account. His wife was tightly clinging to their 12 bucks.
Thanks to the generosity of friends in the US who always send me with some cash, this was easily resolved. I went to the cashier with his bill, used $60 and his $5. They were ecstatic but mostly relieved and they couldn’t stop thanking me. I explained that the money came from people in the US who cared about Congo. He blessed me over and over while shaking my hand, their stressed demeanor replaced by big smiles and a light step as they left the hospital.
These situations happen repeatedly in Congo as in other places where people have little means. I would likely do the same if I were in Murhula’s shoes. Yet, my actions raise particular questions.
By giving Murhula the money, did I reinforce the perception of “muzungus” as rich white people and encourage a cycle of dependency? Are my actions indicative of international aid “hand-outs” where money is thrown at people or projects with little expectation of responsibility, collaboration, or accountability?
The truth is, I do have more money than Murhula as do my generous friends. Did I reinforce that image? Most likely. But what was the alternative? To walk away was not an option. He was in a jam and I was uniquely positioned at that moment to get him out. Haven’t we all been there?