January 14, 2009

An Open Wallet

In my time here, I have come to the conclusion that giving someone in Itipini money is one of the last things I should do. There are often good reasons for handing out money - to help someone get seen at the hospital or as a micro-credit loan, for instance - but that money shouldn’t be the first thing that is exchanged. This is why I have come to emphasize the importance of relationships in my work here.

I am also reluctant to give out money because I don’t want to reinforce the stereotype of the white guy who just hands out cash and thinks he’s done some good. In fact, I think that sort of thing can do more harm than good most of the time. Money is corrosive and it changes the dynamic of every situation when it is introduced, very rarely for the better.

But I’m not perfect, as my experience here never fails to remind me, and sometimes I give out money more quickly than I would like.

On Tuesday, a young woman I had never seen before came to me and said she wants to go to school this year and needs help doing so. Her parents are long gone and she lives with some friends. Because it was a busy day and her English wasn’t great, I didn’t get all the information I would have liked, like how old she was, what grade she had finished, and what she wanted to study. She told me the name of the school she wanted to attend (sort of a vocational school for people without high school diplomas) and I told her to go get more information about cost, program length, and so on. But somehow she knew where I lived and knew it was close to the school and prevailed upon me to give her a ride there at the end of the day.

We were accompanied by one of our pre-school teachers, Nthantisi, who also lives near me and often prevails on me for a ride home. Nthantisi has a heart of gold and quickly took this young woman under her wing. I was also beginning to like this young woman. The car ride took on this feel of “we’re all going to help you get a better education.” It felt good.

When we arrived, they went inside and checked things out. They came back excited. There was a mandatory entrance exam happening only on Wednesday, the next day, and she had been given the last spot to write the exam. All she had to do was fill out an application form, pay 25-rand for the form, get an ID picture taken to go with the form, and return the next morning. There was also the possibility of a bursary that would pay her tuition and room and board for the year. They were both convinced that everything was working out for a Reason and God was involved. There were lots of “Praise Gods” in the car.

Of course, there was the small problem of money, namely the 25-rand for the form, the 20-rand for the photo, and 5-rand for the taxi to get back the next morning. They both looked at me expectantly.

Let me just say, I would have been an awful downer if I hadn’t reached into my wallet and pulled out 50-rand (about $5 U.S. at today’s rates) and given it to this young woman, which is exactly what I did. I would have been popping a big balloon that had rapidly been inflated. I would have been seen as single-handedly stopping her chances for success.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in myself when I handed over the money. Here I was, Mr. Sugar Daddy again, the white guy who was only good for a car ride and the necessary cash. (On the plus side, at least I am good for something and not completely worthless as I can often feel around here.) I barely knew this young woman and I was handing over what is a fair amount of money here. I couldn’t help but think that this young woman could have started this application process a while ago, instead of waiting until the last minute and we would have had time to build up a relationship before this moment.

I was tempted to stop this post with that last paragraph but then I remembered a recent e-mail from a friend who told me to remember how grace fits in to all this. So perhaps I need to be more hopeful and see the confluence of circumstances on Tuesday as a shining example of God’s grace at work in the real world, all of us playing our appointed roles. And now I’ll just try to build up a relationship after the fact. I told her to come see me on Thursday so we could talk about next steps.