I spent the afternoon visiting the neighboring informal settlement of Arcadia North, or Thembisa. I discovered that just over the ridge, out of view from my shack, is the salt pan that dominates the geography of the Northern Areas. I knew it had to be over there somewhere, but I had no idea it was so close. It opens up in front of you like the first notes of a symphony. Well, a dirty symphony, I guess, but it’s striking, nonetheless.
I initiated a game with several of the area boys where we shoved a bottle into a dirt mound and then tried to break it by throwing a rock from a distance. I nailed the first one and then proceeded to miss on every throw thereafter.
When the game ended (there were no more bottles), I announced that I was headed back home. One of the bolder boys stopped me to ask for one rand. Eventually, I told him I wouldn’t come back to play if I had to pay for it. My mind churns until I reach philosophical babbling:
Many kids in the area (outside of those in my community who know me), ask me for money after interacting with me a bit. I wonder, along with several contemporary authors, whether giving does more harm than good. Has development aid created a culture of dependency? Does charity skew the way these children see the world? When did they get the idea that they should ask white people for money? White = wealth. Black = something less than. It’s a harmful psychological and sociological construct. More importantly, from my point of view, it becomes a profound obstruction against authentic relationship. Levels and roles are introduced. “The other” is potential provider, reinforcing a patriarchal hierarchy. Always us and them, them and me, Africans and Westerners/Whites. It defeats, before it has begun, a chance for relationship on equal footing, independent and interdependent, each bringing our own wealth, skills, and faults. In a sense, this expectation robs the world of greater good, ubuntu, philos.
The blame certainly lies not at the feet of this brave child with the strong arm. It lies with the system of dependency created and reinforced over time, from colonization to ill-planned and executed development aid.
Is the answer to simply stop giving? Sometimes I think it is. How many problems could have been avoided in Africa by shunning Western money? Yet, it can’t be that simple. It doesn’t feel quite right. Somewhere, there must be room for compassion and caritas.
I sketch vague equations in my journal:
If lack of resources is one of the major building blocks of poverty, why can more resources not simply be added to the mix
P = X – Y
Where P = poverty, X = life with freedom of opportunity, etc., and Y = resources
Why can’t we just add “Y”?
X= P + Y
Clearly, there are a multitude of problems with this oversimplified caluclation. One is that a life of opportunity is more than just resources. But it also neglects to take into account that poverty becomes a mindset, larger than its economic predecessors. If resources are only given as charity, the poverty mindset is unaffected. It involves psychological, emotional, and mental scars. It is intractable.
Though I currently live with a dearth of resources, I can’t pretend yet to understand poverty. I am trying. Poverty is like a roaring river of doubt, rejection, crime, inaccessible education, unemployment, disease, hunger…that first step across must be a personal choice.
How can this step be facilitated, made more likely? What can the compassionate among us do to truly help? How can one inspire a vision in another, light a fire, make a person believe in themselves, gives hope that the future could be different?