Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Guilt, Aid, and other Unanswerable Questions

It was my first day back in Kampala after two weeks of beef-eating in Murchison Falls. H.M. was off working, buying electrical supplies or something. Knowing he would disapprove of any fast-food venture, I quietly stole off to Nando’s--the African version of KFC—for some well-deserved chicken.

I ordered some chicken strips in a chapati (flat bread) along with fries and sat down with the day’s newspaper to wait for my tasty meal.

“Hello. How are you?” A quiet voice intruded into my concentrated reading of the front page.

I looked up to see if I was being addressed. A young Ugandan woman had sat down across from me. It is considered polite to speak quietly in Uganda, which means that not only are most foreigners considered rude for speaking at what we consider normal levels, but most foreigners (“mzungus”) are often loudly saying “What? Can you speak up?”

“Fine. How are you?” I responded with some skepticism. I just wanted to eat. Alone.

She smiled and said, “I am Regina,” as if I knew her.

For a moment, I thought she was the realtor who had shown me around on my third day in Kampala. I greeted her warmly. Oops. The realtor was named Lynn, I remembered.

This encouragement was all she needed.

“I would like to be your friend,” stated Regina.

I pondered this without responding.

“How many months have you been in Uganda?” she asked.

“I’m a tourist, just here for a few days.” My self-protection instincts kicked in.

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“United States. Do you live in Kampala?”

“Yes. I have been here my whole life. I have never been outside Uganda. I have not even finished secondary school because I do not have the money for school fees.”

Ah. So she was looking for a sponsor. Well, I would not get her hopes up.

“I have the same problem,” I responded. “I would like to finish my schooling and get a Master’s but I cannot afford even the cheapest school.”

“I understand.”

We sat in silence for a minute. I realized she was not leaving and I didn’t like where the conversation was heading. My skepticism had kicked in but so had my guilt. I had money while she had none. Actually, I didn’t have any money either but my level of poverty is totally different than hers. I made about $14,000 whopping dollars last year. She probably made a miniscule fraction of that. Was I being a selfish bitch by never giving money to beggars, by never helping sponsor, and did this take me back to the age-old question of is aid okay or does aid beget lack of self-reliance? Did my solution of “fair trade, not aid” really work? I tend to spend money in local economies, thinking this helps solves things. At home, my token efforts to buy Fair Trade coffee and local produce are kind of a joke on a global scale, but we all do what we can.

“I’m going to read my newspaper. Okay?” I said, burying my head in the paper and hoping she’d take the hint.

“Okay.” She stared at me while I read.

My food arrived. I ate it. She stared at me while I ate.

After several minutes, I offered her my paper to read. She read it while I ate. I didn’t finish. All I wanted was an escape.

“Okay, I’m leaving.” I stood up and held out my hand for my newspaper. She rushed through the end, glancing at each page.

“I have a question,” she said.


“Come outside. I will ask you outside.”

This was too much for my self-protection mechanisms and I didn’t even think before it was out of my mouth.

“Whatever it is, I am not interested.” I said firmly.

She nodded and left.

I gave her a few minutes and then trailed her for a bit. Where was she going now? Would she look for another foreigner? Would she do this to me again if I came back for more chicken?

She turned left up the hill towards the Sheraton and Speke Hotel. Maybe she lived up there. Maybe she was going to look for another Mzungu.

H.M. and I had discussed aid and development just a few weeks ago. He had gotten into an animated discussion with some travelers at Red Chilli. Both were small groups who had just driven down from Ethiopia. The conversation with anyone who has been to Ethiopia recently always turns to pondering the ramifications of aid.

I had read one tale of a cyclist’s journey who had described himself as a walking ATM while in Ethiopia. I myself described it as “the white man is Santa Claus” on mariesworldtour.com in 2001. The most common greeting in some parts of Africa is not a friendly wave but a “give me” hand. And of course this is to be expected, as for years our solution to our guilt over Africa was “throw money at it.”

This has not worked, obviously. But can you just walk about and accept no responsibility for slavery, the price of coffee, and colonialism? Well, no.

That was the solution the people had offered to H.M. during the Red Chilli chat. “All aid and development should be thrown out of Africa. It’s the only way,” one man had declared.

As a development worker, Herr Marlboro was helping to rehabilitate the infrastructure of Uganda’s largest national park. Murchison Falls has been sadly stripped of animals and equipment during the wars. The animals were coming back slowly. The Germans were helping with the electrical and water systems, as well as the roads and the airstrips. Murchison was once teeming with lion, elephants, giraffes, and rhino. It would be again and was already well on its way.

Obviously, H.M. did not agree that the solution was to abandon Africa. I did not agree either, but neither of us was able to offer a solution of where to draw the line and how to help without hindering.

In the end, I can only suggest that there is good aid and bad aid, good development and bad development. Throwing money at things has proven foolish and detrimental. But carefully planned projects that are potentially sustainable have succeeded in many cases.

I quit following the woman who probably wanted a sponsor and went into an upscale bookstore. I spent $8 on a book about an Irish doctor who’d worked in the Ugandan bush. Maybe I really was selfish. I placated my guilt with the knowledge that 16,000 Ugandan shillings wouldn’t have sent anyone to school.

1 comment:

Don Hudson said...

The only experience I have with charity is at home. Giving to a sympathetic homeless guy or gal. I don't know how I'd react to someone approaching me for aid, who could be my identical twin but with different circumstances in another land. I hope I could handle it with grace.