Monday, November 12, 2012

To Give or Not To Give Money

Sub-headline: The one bit of Peace Corps guilt that sticks

Volunteers often have reading material. Books and magazines spread from Peace Corps Volunteer to Peace Corps Volunteer like notes pass from teenager to teenager in middle school. But every once in a while, an attention-grabbing article pops up in circulation about Peace Corps life. I’ve read three attention grabbers: What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure by a volunteer in Senegal, a blog post titled The Real Peace Corps by a volunteer in Ethiopia, and Peace Corps Guilt by a volunteer in Paraguay. Though I enjoyed all three, the last article left a bit of a sore spot. Most likely because it is true, Peace Corps guilt does exist and I just didn’t want to admit it.

Ester Katcoff, author of Peace Corps Guilt, details several variables of volunteer guilt: (1) taking time for ourselves, (2) not sharing personal possessions, (3) being too fancy, (4) being unsustainable, (5) and failing to save the world.

Roughly my entire cluster of PCVs in Savannah, the northernmost region of Togo, agreed with every variable. But I wasn’t completely sold.

I never feel guilt in taking time for myself. Yes, I came to Togo to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women and to perform cultural exchanges. But if a women’s group stands me up because they need to work in their fields or men catcall me as I walk on a street or I’m missing my sisters more than ever, I firmly believe I deserve the right to enjoy the latest superhero film in the comfort of my home—even if it's the middle of the day.

I never feel guilt in not sharing personal possessions. I share pencils, paper, crayons, glitter, beads for bracelets and necklaces, old magazines, fabric for clothes, etc. I offer tastes of American dishes and beverages. But do I share my MacBook Pro or Nikon D80 with my Togolese neighbors and friends? Absolutely not. Why? Because I paid for both electronics with money I earned in America. They were not just gifts given to me.

I never feel guilt in being too fancy. I live in the capital of Savannah, thus life is already different than life in village. The married couple I replaced once told me to dress well and people will respect you. This of course I have known since I graduated from Central Michigan University; however, it was a fitting reminder that even though I am in Africa the rule still applies. The first eight months at post I hand washed all of my own clothes. Then, a nice woman asked to do my laundry so she could send her daughter, a student at the University of Kara, money for fees and miscellaneous expenses. Nowadays, she stops by my house every two weeks (or whenever I need her) to wash my clothes. Do I feel too fancy? Not at all. She works to gain money for her daughter like my mom once worked three jobs to pay for two daughters to attend university and one to go to high school.

Despite what's in the previous three paragraphs, I'm not made of ice. I do feel guilt. And it comes when children and friends I know ask me for money and I don’t want to give it.

In New York City, I often saw people who were either homeless or simply poor asking for money in the subway. Though it made me sad, I never gave them money unless they included a special performance with their request: a song, a dance, a witty limerick, a rough sketch, etc. In Togo, it’s really no different. I see children everyday with tin cans tied with string dangling around their necks hoping someone with give them 25 franc cfa here, 100 franc cfa there like in Slumdog Millionaire. I never give them money. I barely flinch as I shoo them away. Though if I have leftover bread from a restaurant, I don't hesitate to pass it on. 

With familiar Togolese friends and children, it’s an entirely different ballgame. A guilt either too tough to swallow or one I bury deep hoping to forget.

Last Christmas a friend asked me for money. His name is Robert and he was two months behind on his rent. Christmas is an uncomfortable time to say no to friends in need of money, not to mention his family lives in Burkina Faso. So I gave him six-mille franc cfa (approximately $12). He told me he would pay me back, but he never has and he never will. Even though I am glad I gave it to him, even that day, last Christmas, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would he have done if I weren’t here? Would he have found a way to pay for it himself or would he go door-to-door asking for 100 franc cfa here, 100 franc cfa there like the children with tin cans? I will never know.

This morning, the guilt almost too great to swallow hit me again. At just after 8AM, a child knocked on my door. Not thrilled to have a visitor so early in the morning, I opened the door slowly. To my surprise, it was a familiar face. His name is Jonas. Jonas helped with the second world map project I completed at Bon Pasteur Elementary School. This year he started middle school. How exciting! Today, however, was less than exciting. After we exchanged salutations, I asked him why he was not in school. And the rest of the conversation went like this:

“I’m not in school because they sent me home,” he said.

“Why did they send you home?” I asked him.

“Because they want my school fees,” he replied.

“Where are your parents?” I asked.

“My parents are dead,” he replied.

“Well, who takes care of you?” I further asked.

“My grandmother,” he replied as he looked at me with heart-wrenching eyes.

In truth, even after 18 months of service, I didn’t know how to respond. I so wanted to remain strong and refuse to offer money but I just couldn't tell him no. So instead I told him to “have courage” and I would see him soon. As he exited my compound, I slowly closed my front door and stood staring at the ground. I felt wretched and so many thoughts entered my mind.

What are you doing? He is a good kid. It’s only twelve bucks to help him continue his education. But you’ve been so firm about not haphazardly giving Togolese money. He has to work to gain money. But he is a good kid!! And his help with the world map project was voluntary. Everyone has problems, what makes him so special?

Above all thoughts and questions I had, the inevitable question took precedence over all: Will it stop? That is, if I give Jonas money for school, will the other two students who helped with the project come knocking on my door and ask for money? Am I a terrible person for thinking it's all just a domino effect?

It isn’t like in America where donations to charities can be made anonymously. Most host country nationals think volunteers have money and even with shame, they will ask for financial assistance from volunteers they barely know. It's not only their fault. Here is a country that has had so much assistance from foreign lands that for most it's all they know. But when do we as volunteers say no? What impossible situations remove the guilt and leave volunteers with the satisfaction of helping a friend? Is it not so different from America after all? Does this guilt only exist because it’s a third-world country and we are Peace Corps Volunteers?

In the end, I chose to split the cost of Jonas’ education with my site mate Katy Todd—since we completed the world map project with Jonas. The decision, however, doesn’t bring any answers to any of these questions and I fear the guilt to give or not to give money will always remain a question. 

Until next time...

PS - If you have answers, do share. 


  1. Sam, this was a welcome and thought-provoking break for me from the plaintive whining of my students for me to change their B+ to an A- that I've been enduring all day. As ever, you write with great empathy and no little skill.

    For what it's worth, I think you and Katy have handled this situation correctly by splitting responsibility for Jonas' plight. I have had to both loan money to people who I knew wouldn't pay me back and had money loaned to me by people who believed I wouldn't pay it back. It's always an awkward situation, where shame and pride collide queasily to leave no easy answer.

    It seems to me the question is one of charity. You note that you're happy to share bread but not money with Togolese children. I think that is correct, because one is a gift for a specific purpose - to eat - and the other is a free pass to buy what they can afford, limited only by their desired object's cost. Giving money necessarily forces the giver to ask what they believe the recipient will do with it, and thus complicates the act of giving itself.

    But in some situations, it seems to me fair game to help people who can't help themselves. Jonas (although you would know this better than I) has a particular problem, and if you believe him, indebting him to two people will increase how responsible he has to be in using your gift. He runs the risk of letting down two friends, instead of just one, if he doesn't appreciate what you have gifted him.

    As to how you feel, you have to trust the decisions you make. Guilt is only justified if you have demonstrably done something wrong, which it doesn't seem to me that you have here. I'm all for having principles, but they need to be able to adapt to circumstances if you want to help people. Basically, I'm saying don't be so hard on yourself. You've done a nice thing :)

    (sorry for the novel, as mentioned this gets me away from grading...)

  2. I really enjoyed this, Sam. You wrote it in a much more concise way than my jumbled thoughts.

    I have one (opinionated) answer to "Am I a terrible person for thinking it's all just a domino effect?" : HELL NO! I really hope that others don't show up asking for money, whether it be the two other students, that kid's brother or the whole damn neighborhood.

    Du courage ;) It doesn't get old but I think the discomfort of contradictory feelings gets easier to live with. When I was leaving the country, a handful of my close friends/family asked me for money. At first I got really upset- I knew they were using my "friendship" as a facade the whole time just to get some financial gain in the end! Ou bien? Wrong. I re-evaluated it and it's almost like a writer-friend I have who is semi-internet famous and me telling him- "don't forget me when you're rich and famous" Is this exactly the same? No. But as you pointed out, the same problems exist in America and in Togo and I think that's important (for me) to remember. I, however, have given money to three people so far on the street/train who didn't do anything to "deserve" it; they just asked. So I'm a hypocrite :)

    I'm just sharing ideas and hopefully this doesn't come off as unwarranted advice... but as the end of my service approached, a lot of people asked me for gifts and/or to bring them to America. And that's a whole other topic; I am convinced that 95% of Togolese would be miserable in America. I told them all that if they have a child, surtout une fille, who is at the top of her class, speaks decent English and has a plan d'action of what she wants to study, to contact me in the future and I'll see what I can do- aside from that, I need to prioritize my values and pay off my own student loans rather than fund a field of yams aka feed your family, buy your pagne and alcohol or pay for a funeral.

    I agree with everything Mr. Gallagher said in his comment above me. I want to elaborate on "Giving money necessarily forces the giver to ask what they believe the recipient will do with it, and thus complicates the act of giving itself." though. I think it is more complicated than that. For example, building a school. People will use the money to build a school... yes they might take a small chunk out for themselves, but I'm gonna assume that you have better counterparts than that... there's still a complication: the dependency/reliance on the yovo (better known as foreign aid) Why should people contribute (labor or financially) if someone else is just gonna do it?

    Ok, I am sorry for rambling so much. Again, this post is really awesome. Thanks.

  3. Thanks. I love this (I wrote a blog with a similar theme a few months into my service, so this resonates with me.)

    I don't think there is a right or wrong answer when it comes to the question of guilt. It's all personal. It doesn't matter whether I agree or not (or anyone else for that matter).

    However, I do think, we need to pose our questions and our dilemmas and the situations you pose to get OTHERS to think too. There are consequences to our actions (or inaction). And to have a knee-jerk reaction of giving or not giving is a disservice to everyone. To take the time to think and reflect, no matter what the end result may be, is important.

    What are we teaching others with our actions? What is the legacy we leave behind with what we do? As long as we can live with our thoughtful choices is all that matters.

    I have a changed perspective and opinion because of my experiences in Togo.

    I now have a guilt of a different flavor. Actually, not guilt. It's more a feeling of being forlorn, discouraged, powerless, and yet somehow hopeful with the work we do (or did) as Peace Corps volunteers.

    Keep the great posts coming Sam. It's good for everyone.