March 7, 2009

“Andingomali yavuza”

One of the hardest tasks I’ve experienced lately is dealing with all the money we need to pay for school fees, uniform parts, supplies, etc. Theoretically, I think this is a very good idea. Many children would not be able to go to school, especially high school, if someone did not pay the fees for them. Others would be hit or fined if they did not have the right uniform. This becomes a prime example of what I once called “greasing the skids” for people here and I’m happy to be involved in it.

But money is fungible and once people see that we are giving out money for some things, I think some of them decide to see how far they can push us. One high-school-age student showed up in early February and said she wanted to go to high school. I almost immediately rejected her out of hand. The school year was three weeks old by that point and I knew there wouldn’t be any space left in Grade 10 anyway. (Saying no to someone who wants to go to school and will otherwise have to sit out the entire year is not easy, by the way.) But through the hard work of a family friend, she found space in a school across town and asked if we could pay the fees. We agreed and off she went.

She showed up a week later and said she needed money for a uniform. I gave it to her. A week after that, she showed up and said she needed money for school supplies. I told her to buy them for herself. Didn’t she know when she went to school that she would need a uniform? Didn’t she know she would need school supplies? Why did she dribble her visits out over so long, missing a day of school each time, thinking I would be so easily be able to dispense money?

There’s a young woman now in college, who began working with me on the application last December, was admitted in January, and began classes in February.
Along the way, she needed money for application fees, the necessary photos, and a whole host of other things and I gave it to her, bit by bit, because I didn’t want money to be the obstacle to her application. When she got in, I asked her to make a list of all the expenses she foresaw for the year, not only tuition but also room and board, supplies, and so on, so we could decide what she could afford to pay and what we could help her with. But before she gave me that list, because she comes from such a poor background she got a bursary that waives tuition and room and board. I still asked her for the list but she never gave it to me.

As a result, she sporadically shows up and asks me for more money, for food, for instance (“they don’t give us enough”), or any of eight thousand other expenses. I have been pretty firm about turning down all these requests. There are big expenses, like tuition, that might justifiably be out of a person’s reach but everyone is going to have to eat regardless of what they do and I don’t want to be responsible for that.

There have been lots of other requests like this. The hardest ones to deal with are the people who say they need the money “by tomorrow” because it is the “last day” for whatever they need the money for. This is really hard but I almost always reject all these requests because I don’t like being treated like a bank or an ATM machine from which people can just make withdrawals on the spot. It’s hard, though, to say no to such desperate requests. (I should note that many of the dire consequences promised if the money is not paid “by tomorrow” have not come to pass.) I say “ndikhangeleka njengo neBank?” or “ndifana noBank?” - “do I look like a bank?” or “do I seem like a bank?” I mean it as a joke but people look at me with a look that says, “well… yes!”

What I object to is the constant requests for money, like I’m just a bottomless pit ready to spray money around. Money doesn’t build relationships. It reduces my role to the simple one of distributor of money and reduces their role to supplicant. We are not our whole selves in these situations. I also feel bad because I know I’m not consistent in my approach to requests.

I’ve been working on learning Xhosa idioms lately and one I like is “andingomali yavuza.” Literally, it means something like, “I’m not leaking money” but it is the equivalent of “I’m not made of money” or “money doesn’t grow on trees.” I’ve used it a lot - so frequently in fact that people anticipate it and say it for me - but we have so much money compared to people here that no one really believes it.


Judi said...

Jesse--I hear the difficulty in striking the proper balance of generosity and restraint, of meeting real, immediate needs and helping people to think more long-term. But the power differential is also a tough part of these transactions - you as the giver and they are the askers and receivers. I agree with your statement that neither of you are your whole selves in these exchanges.