Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Perils of Giving

There is rarely a day that goes by where people do not ask me for money, and, as a general rule, I do not give. I think it sets a bad example and I don’t have that much money to begin with. I get annoyed with all the people who ask me for money. Some clearly need it, but in my own (albeit quite limited) experience, I feel like some people just ask for money because they see my skin color and assume I am rich. I wish I could help everyone that came along, but I simply cannot. There are, however exceptions to every rule.

Last Thursday as I was coming back to my house, a man came running up, wanting to speak to me. The man was older and I could tell he was in rough shape. He told me in broken English that he was from Zimbabwe and needed help. His name was Benjamin and he was in trouble back home. He had traveled to Gaborone to try to find his brother to get money. He was unable to locate him and only had enough money to make it back to Francistown. He told me he would be in serious trouble if he didn’t make it back to Zimbabwe and needed some money. I don’t know what moved me about this man, but I asked him how much money he needed to get back home. He told me it would be 50 Pula ($7.50), which happened to be the exact amount of money I had on me. I told him that it was his lucky day and I gave him the 50 Pula bill. He thanked me profusely and left.

I took him at his word about his struggles and it felt good to help him get back home.

Then, yesterday as I was returning from picking up a few groceries, Benjamin was back. He told me he had waiting all day outside of my house because he had something urgent to speak to me about. I went inside to drop off my groceries and then came back out to speak to him. As it turns out, Ben is in a good deal of trouble back home. According to him, he is destitute and living with AIDS. Last year a man agreed to let Benjamin stay in his house so long as he paid the bills, but Ben never paid any bills. The man returned when he found out the government was going to auction the house off to pay the debt and beat Ben pretty severely. Ben handed me several crinkled sheets that were the water and electricity bills. They totaled up to over $900 (and that is in US dollars).

He went on to tell me that a judge in his town had lowered the amount he had to pay to $250 and $50 monthly payments after that. If Ben couldn’t pay, he would go to jail. He then told the judge that he had a friend in Botswana (me) who he would go see to get the money. He had traveled all the way back to me to ask for $250. I was shocked. I was prepared to give him all the money I had one me (about $20) so long as he didn’t ask for more. I live on about $5 a day. Twenty dollars is a lot and $250 is an astronomical sum.

Ben told me that he was getting money at the beginning of May and that he would repay me then. I really felt conflicted. It seemed like he was in a great deal of trouble but I was not in a position to lend out that much money. I also had no guarantee to get my money back. He told me that if he didn’t get that amount, the judge would throw him in jail and he fully expected to die there. What could I say back to that?

I tried explaining that I was an unpaid volunteer and as much as I wanted to help him out, I simply didn’t have the money to lend him. I gave him the $20 and said something about how I hoped everything would work out for him. I truly felt rotten that I couldn’t help him more.

I am still greatly conflicted about the whole experience. I saw this one man and figured I could make a direct impact and help him get back home. I never expected to see him again, much less have him use his limited money to come back and ask me for a loan. Now I wonder if he was truly better off from the experience. Would he have told a judge he has a friend who could make a loan and then paid to travel back if I hadn’t given the money? He would undoubtedly still be a hole but he would not have dug himself farther in.

Even our best intentions can have many unanticipated consequences. I still feel rotten about the whole deal and I don’t think I will be giving out money in the foreseeable future.