Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

The Complexities of Giving

I am still not sure how I feel about giving.  I know that anonymous giving really makes me feel good.  I know that giving gifts to friends for birthdays or Christmas also makes me feel good.

Giving sparked by love is good.
Giving sparked by guilt or pity is not good.
Resentful giving is the worst.

We all have to take a stance on giving.  Who do we give to? How much do we give? When do we give? Why do we give?

I’ve resisted giving anything tangible to anyone in Goma for five months. People ask me for things all the time, and I say no to everyone, everyday. And I’m just now beginning to question exactly why I’ve maintained such a strict stance on NOT giving. Most days I feel good about it, but with Christmas rapidly approaching… I’m not so sure anymore.

I know that in the beginning, I didn’t want to give stuff to people because I didn’t want people constantly asking me for things.  So after a while, people stop asking for the most part… which is kind of nice.  I visit schools and hang out with street kids and don’t have to worry that they only want to be around me because I’ll give them stuff.  But now I’m asking myself- isn’t this kind of shallow? They really do need stuff. A lot of them really are starving. A lot of them really do need new/clean clothes… And I certainly have the means to be generous. So is the only thing stopping me the fact that I want them to see me differently than other Muzungus?

Everyone wants to be liked, right? Is it bad that I don’t want to give because I want people to like me for being me, for chatting with them, for getting to know each other… and not for being a Muzungu that constantly gives handouts?  I’m not really sure.

A lot of people give. They’ll buy bread for the street kids or give tshirts to the hospital kids. It’s good and it’s nice and it’s admirable and I’m not inherently against it… yet I continue to refuse to participate.

And this does not go unnoticed. The street kids call me a word in Swahili that I don’t know the exact meaning of, but I’m pretty sure it’s along the lines of selfish and cheap. I get it at least once a week, but hearing it two days before Christmas really got me thinking about it all. I wonder- is there a way that I could put them to work? Doing something to earn some bread or earn some new clothes?  What skills might they have? What if they don’t have any skills? Do I have any skills? Could I teach them something and then hire them to work? Maybe if I moved to a house and needed a gate guard, one of them could be my gate guard? Maybe if… Maybe if…

And then I think- why the heck am I making things so complicated?  If I’m being “tempted” to give… why am I resisting so much?

I have no answers now, but hope to un-complicate things soon.
I just might need Jesus for this one.


10 comments on “The Complexities of Giving

  1. Sarah
    December 23, 2010

    I totally hear you on this one. I used to feel the same way. We had very strict rules. It took me three years to realize we live in the poorest, most malnourished country in the world. Now we bring home empty containers to fill with stuff to give when we get back to Kin. What’s the point in proving a point? People have given us a lot of stuff over the years that we haven’t deserved. It feels good to be a pushover!

  2. Mom
    December 23, 2010

    Sara, some very interesting thoughts. When I was in Guatemala there were a lot of children around where we were building the house, always hungry. We would not eat part of our lunch and give something to each of them. I always gave them my drink and one other thing, maybe an apple or sometimes a sandwich. But we were told by Habitat that it was not a good idea to give them a lot of stuff.

    Sounds to me like you want to do something! Why not give them something once in a while? I can understand you don’t want to be pestered or begged constantly, and certainly if they came to think you always had stuff with you, if might increase the chances you would get robbed; and you don’t want to give so much they come to depend on your gifts – because you will be leaving there one day. But I think some holiday gifts are in order – bread for the holidays is a nice gift anywhere to anyone. I have always loved receiving unexpected gifts. It sounds like they would not expect anything from you and if there are those who you have seen often and you want to give them something do it!

    As to what Jesus said about giving….I’ll let Dad or Ben answer that one, haha! Giving and receiving is as old as time – I was taught “it’s better to give than receive”. Certainly giving is way to express love.

  3. Alex
    December 23, 2010

    I don’t think it’s the giving you have a problem with, it’s figuring out what you can give that would really help people in Goma. Maybe it would be easier to just give a piece of bread sometimes and try not worry about the big picture so much.

  4. Lindsey Taylor Wood
    December 23, 2010

    I loved this blog. I and I love you too… I had many of these thoughts when I was there and even more upon coming home. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, it’s what is right for you.

    One other thought: if these people or children had the means to help themselves (buy food, clothes etc.) and they still looked to you for “things” I can see where you may question the authenticity of their interest. But they don’t. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a question of them loving or liking you for your giving OR your companionship, I think its both. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    Plus they do love you Sara. I saw the way people responded to you. Take comfort in knowing that sharing your knowledge and sharing your bread are both equal and necessary gifts and you should take great pride in the knowledge that you have both to give.


  5. Colleen
    December 23, 2010

    Sara, this is something I have thought about a lot before, too. I have many things to say, of course!

    First, I don’t agree that giving sparked by guilt or pity is bad. When I was at Elon, many of my fellow students had never volunteered or given philanthropically before, but they started to realize that they were uber-priveleged and felt guilty for that. Although its not a good motivation to rely on, it turned into something much more meaningful for them. And even if their motivation wasn’t that great, it doesn’t change what the give-ee received. Bread is bread, regardless.

    Second, I think that we all make choices about the way we give– and the way you give: your service, time, year of volunteering– this is so much more valuable than the tangible things. You’re right, it doesn’t take away from those immediate needs of hunger, shelter, and clothing– but you’re addressing other needs, and doing a GREAT job! Don’t beat yourself up too much.

    Third, if you don’t like the first two things I said– then here are some of my giving suggestions.

    -Give in a “safe” context, so in a situation that won’t automatically be repeated
    -Set a giving day of the week or month, if you have an itch, but can’t make up your mind
    -Work with others to make the giving bigger and more meaningful, so that it doesn’t just come from you

    OK. Last but not least, do you know about Kiva? It’s a really amazing nonprofit in San Fran that does microfinance loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. They defy the notions of a “handout”, and I’m kind of obsessed with them:

    Merry Christmas, Sara! We miss you here!

  6. Lisa
    December 26, 2010

    When I was in Goma I resisted for a few months. Every day people asked and every day I said “no”. At some point I started giving the street kinds food when I had leftovers. They stopped putting on a sad face when begging and instead would run up to me and say “hi”, shake my hand, and ask if I had anything for them. If I didn’t they would accept it and run off. If I did they would thank me and then run off.

    At HEAL Africa it was different. Once I started giving food or money the begging got worse. I knew very well how much it was needed but I didn’t know how to decide who to give to. I definitely lost sleep over it and to be honest I don’t think it made me feel better in the long run. (Probably because a few of the kids I gave to ended up dying and also because sometimes it made the begging exponentially worse.)

    This is a tough issue and I don’t have any answers either.

  7. sararich
    December 26, 2010

    Thanks for all the thoughts everyone- it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in thinking about all of this. At the end of the day I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. So, Mado is the woman who I see everyday and buy cell phone units from. When I asked her if she was going to stay home with her family for Christmas she said- No! I work everyday! I was so surprised because recently we had been talking about how in Goma people celebrate Christmas by eating well with their family. Anyhow, I really like Mado because she lets me sit next to her and practice Swahili and chit chat about our lives. So I decided that I really wanted to give her something. So I put some cash in a Christmas card and on the outside of the envelope I wrote “Mungu alisema utakula mzuri na jamaa yako kwa noel.” (God said that you will eat well with your family for Christmas.) I thought about giving her food, but then I decided if I gave her money she could put it to use as she liked. So I had the gate guard at my friend’s apartment deliver it to her and told him NOT to tell her it was from me. So he delivered the “anonymous” gift. When I saw Mado the next day she was ecstatic. She said, “I was jumping up and down and just couldn’t jump high enough to praise God!” She said she got all kinds of stuff with the money- some new clothes for her ten kids, some wood to start building a house… As for the street kids- on Christmas day Izak told me that he knew I gave Mado some money. I said no it wasn’t me! It was God! And Mado echoed my reply and said- it wasn’t from Sara, it was God!

    • Sally Reams
      December 26, 2010

      Sara, love your gift to Mado. Nice gift and great way to give it.

  8. shawnie shawn shawn
    December 27, 2010

    you just brought tears to my eyes, sara rich. i think no matter the motive, giving just feels good. i love you and am so proud of you!

  9. terae
    December 29, 2010

    It’s great Sara. Sounds like you found a wonderful solution and a very wise woman. As for the kids, well, maybe it’s not you that needs to hire them, but maybe they can be of service to someone else. Or maybe, sometimes, some unconditional love is in order. Continue to grapple with your ideas and slow solutions will follow, each at it’s own time.

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This entry was posted on December 23, 2010 by in humanities, travel.
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