“Madam, give me four thousand kwacha” began the first conversation I had on entering Malawi. I had just got stamped out of Zambia and crossed the dirt patch where a lone truck, some cycles dangerously overloaded and some cars were waiting to go the other way. I was waiting for the shared taxi to fill up. The man had been playing checkers with bottle caps as they do in this part of the world and came up to ask for the equivalent of five dollars, a large sum in these parts. “I have just come into Malawi; I have no Malawian kwacha” I said. He shrugged and sauntered back to his mates unperturbed.
Walking along the pebbly beach in Cape MacLear I heard it again. This time from a few children who had been playing, building sand castles. “Give me money” they said, the voices mingling together like a chorus. A quizzical look and a joke had them dissolving into giggles and the plea for money was quickly forgotten as we built a fanciful castle lavishly decorated with bougainvillea that they had filched from a nearby resort. They vied with each other to pose as I clicked away.
At a village some kilometers off the road between Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay, I heard it again. I had bought some tomatoes from a woman at the market and followed her home. The youngest children barely able to walk, would lisp “Give me”, their memory not quite able to remember the rest. It seems a standard way to greet a mulungu. And as before they quickly forget the plea and energetically join me in a game of naughts and crosses scratched in the dirt with a stick.
Rumour has it that this is a phrase printed in school textbooks and taught as assiduously as any lesson. It was not always money. “Give me your shoes” or “give me your clothes” are close runners ups.
In a marketplace near Zomba, I stopped for a bite at a local eatery. Over a plate of steaming nshima, a local, a friend of the owner’s began a conversation steering it with a great deal of finesse. She said her neighbour’s daughter had been sponsored by a mulungu, lucky soul.“So”, she said “why don’t you sponsor my son?” Unperturbed when I declined, she said with shrug “Another mulungu will come by and do so. “That is what they do” she explained patiently.
Most illuminating is probably the conversation I had with a young man on one of the minibuses where passengers are squished in twenty to each bus. We started the conversation as we waited for the bus to approach the usual sardine-like fullness. He worked in the town of Liwonde and was on his way to visit family in a village some three hours away. He had been lucky he said in having found a sponsor as a child. He had had support all through school, high school and even a couple of years of college. And now he had a job managing a store, drawing a decent salary. “So” I asked, “are you helping others in your family or community, as you have been helped?” A surprised frown on his face, he answered “But why? It is not my place; that is for a foreigner to do.”
I heard too from the volunteers that I have met in Malawi. More than eighty percent of the travelers I met in Malawi have been volunteering and then using some time off to travel at the end of their time here. Despite having spent time and effort, not to mention paying a lot to volunteer in the first place, as they leave, they invariably get the same request. “Give me something, otherwise how will I remember you?” The ‘something’ is helpfully filled in, lest it be misunderstood. The usual requests are for a tablet or a phone or a watch.
Much of Africa, especially Malawi has been and continues to be the recipient of massive amounts of aid from charities, from governmental organizations and from NGOs. The aid comes in the form of food and medicines, clothing and commodities, in the form of volunteers that help build schools and houses, clinics and hospitals. There is no denying that this has been crucial at times to help avert what would otherwise have been wide spread famines, or epidemics. Without this aid there would be an even larger percent of Aids and HIV cases than the present numbers, scary as they are.
But I wonder if the NGOs, church-sponsored groups or other such organizations truly understand the culture they have helped generate. Do they realize that this habit of giving, however well-intentioned, is crippling any sense of self-reliance? That the current model of aid and its application is actually detrimental to any sense of self-reliance? And with that vanishes a sense of self-worth and any hope of independence.
A conversation with some teachers at an elite school in Lilongwe was eye-opening as it was shocking. “All aid to Africa should be stopped. It is only then we will learn to stand on our own feet” said one of them. Another went even further. “All whites should leave Africa and let us develop at our own pace.”