Every time I visit a restaurant or hotel in Bukavu (they have the best internet connections), at least one of the staff has asked me for financial assistance. Pretty much every one I meet, at some point, asks for help. And I don’t blame them. I’d do the same if I were in their shoes. The level of need here is enormous.
It’s a tough situation and awkward moment, for me anyway, as I try to explain that I am helping a few individuals already, I have limited funds, and that I can’t help everyone, as much as I’d like to. But we both know that I have more money – or I wouldn’t be in their country, or eating at their hotel, or sending email on an expensive computer. What to do? I have found that sharing my soda or part of my meal or passing along a granola bar is also very much appreciated. And even though I may not be able to give them money, no one has gone away angry. In fact, I now have some developing relationships with these 20 -something-year-old men who work at these places. I’m more conscientious about sharing what I have when I can and they seem to have moved on to enjoying our interactions, as do I.
A Congolese attorney who is working on a Panzi hospital project, asked me for help last week, not for him but for 3 teenage boys who were just released from prison and couldn’t afford transportation to their home villages. The attorney went to the prison for a case he is working on. He was taken aback when he saw the number of incarcerated teens and the conditions in which they were living. He somehow connected with the 3 being released. One, now 15, had been jailed for 2 years. He apparently stole an item but he couldn’t pay the owner the $100 replacement cost so he was imprisoned. The missing item was later discovered and returned, proving that he was held unjustly. But that did not change the young man’s sentence. Without an advocate, he was stuck. Now released, he didn’t have $60 for transport home. The attorney wanted to know if I could help.
I did this a little differently this time. First, the attorney and I went on line to find out which organizations are working on incarcerated children so he has somewhere else he might look for help. There were at least 4 indigenous organizations and the ever-recognizable Save the Children. He was excited to check them out. I then explained that I have some cash from friends in the US that I could contribute. The lawyer was grateful and insisted I meet the boys. While I very much appreciated his intent, I refused. Stating that I didn’t want to perpetuate the perception of wealthy muzungus as the answer to money problems. He understood immediately. Instead, I suggested that he explain that the money came from generous persons but not to indicate from where or that they are white. In addition, I asked that he instruct the boys to “pay it forward” and go out of their way to do something kind for someone else in the future.
Helping or hurting? When the immediate need is great, there are no easy answers. For me, the solution is a “both/and,” not an “either/or.” I can give money when needed – but do it anonymously when possible. Further, most people don’t eat enough here. So sharing food or a drink is actually beneficial. It’s also communal and a means for building relationships, which helps “humanize” both of us beyond misperception. Of course, I gain something also as my new friends share, for example, about their culture or advice for how I might navigate daily life. Now the joke is that I’m a “regular” and we all look forward to the next visit.
Working at this individual level is not at the expense of collaborating with our Congolese friends for sustainable, meaningful projects and long-term structural change. At the same time we give money to pay a hospital bill or buy a bus ticket, we must ask, “Why is this person poor to begin with?” The answer to that question, while complex, will identify targets for action. But the person who can’t leave the hospital due to debt or the teenage boy who can’t make it home, are unable to take on structural change. Maybe self-determination begins when we intentionally engage in relationships and help each other meet our basic needs.