Everyday, multiple people ask me for money. Or perhaps they ask for food, my sunglasses, my shoes, my dress, my skirt...really anything that I have. In the states, beggars are clearly marked in cities, usually sitting with a sign and a cup. You can easily walk by them and they rarely follow you unless they are going to rob you. This is not the case in Botswana. Everyone from poor people with tattered clothing to my fellow clinic workers ask me for money.
It seems like it should be easy to just say no, but it isn't. During training, they taught us to say, "ga ke na madi," which means "I don't have any money." But I do have money. And because I dislike lying, a problem arises. So a couple months ago, I just started telling people that I couldn't give them money. Yet, that was also unsatisfactory. I knew that I shouldn't just give people money, for many reasons. One of them is the old Chinese proverb: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I have tried this tactic lately. If I am in the mood to stop and explain it to people, I try to tell them why I can't give everyone money, so I don't think it would be good to pick and choose. And if I give them money today, how does that help them tomorrow? Most of the Batswana seem to understand this point. Or perhaps they don't like confrontation so they just agree and move on.
It is frustrating to be asked for money so often. Not giving makes me feel like a bad person. But it is more than that...it feels like it takes away my ability to be generous. If most people are constantly asking for me to buy them x, y and z, when I decide to do so, it is expected. That being said, when I have brought back things from South Africa and the US, my friends are so happy. And there are times when I have bought students magwinya when they haven't asked for it. And that makes me feel good because I would do that in the states as well. It is a difficult balance, though. One of the hardest situations is when I am already buying something and someone asks me to just get them one. I know that I can easily say that my ability to buy something for myself doesn't mean I can buy for everyone else, but it still makes me feel selfish.
Asking for money is a part of the culture, as is asking for garments. When women ask me for my clothing, they are really just trying to compliment me. Because if I ever compliment a woman on her skirt or earrings, she says that she will try to get one for me. I tell her that's not necessary, that I just wanted her to know I admired it. So there is a bit of a cultural divide there. Yet, I do get asked for money much more than the locals do. The question is...why?
Up until today, I thought the answer was obvious. I am white. Western. American. However you want to describe it...I was able to come to Botswana, which means that I have money to blow because I don't have to be home working to provide for my family. And since I have money to blow, I clearly must be able to spend 150 Pula for a ride that actually costs only 8 Pula (yes a taxi driver wanted to charge me that a couple days ago).
But today I tried a new approach. A young man asked me for 2 Pula, which is the equivalent of a quarter. I asked him why he was asking me for money and not everyone else. He said it is because I have "botho" or empathy and I can understand better than other people. I care more. The answer took me by surprise and broke my heart. I assumed it was about identity and/or race, and that is obviously a part of it (and why most people ask me for money), but with this boy it was deeper than that. He felt like everyone else around him is either in the same situation or really doesn't have much empathy. And saying that he recognizes how much I care is beautiful. Yet, it doesn't change the fact that I shouldn't give him the money. If I start giving it out, when do I stop?