On my most recent trip to Nigeria, I conducted an experiment and I would like to share the results with you.
It was actually prompted by something that happened on a trip about a year ago. We were stuck in a traffic jam in Jos, Nigeria, when we were approached by a beggar, led by a little girl. This happens all the time in Africa.
My driver, a local, immediately rolled up the windows and proclaimed, “Don’t give him anything! Don’t give him anything! He’ll just use it to buy guns!”
I looked at the beggar, and then I looked at my driver, “David, the starving blind man will buy guns?” That seemed somewhat far-fetched.
In David’s defense, Plateau State is a violent place. But the man was blind, dressed in rags, and was clearly starving; he seemed an unlikely militant. I think even David recognized this after a moment. He shrugged sheepishly, “Well, he might.”
As we drove away though, it struck me that I never had any intention of giving the blind man anything. If David had never said anything, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Sure, maybe someone was physically handicapped in Africa and might need some help. I’d of course give something to one of them if approached. But despite quite a bit of African travel, I never had change when needed, or was too busy, or concerned about security, or something. There was always a reason why. They were too well fed. Or faking. Maybe they actually weren’t paralyzed. I’m too busy with saving Africa to save Africans.
I decided I would run an experiment. The next time I went to Africa, I would give to everyone who asked me.
Am I insane? Maybe. Will I be bankrupt? Perhaps. How practical is this going to be? I was totally unsure. A friend kept asking me what I hoped to learn from this experiment. I had to keep telling her, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. That’s why I’m doing it.”
I immediately decided that I needed some boundaries on this crazy idea. I invested $100 USD of my own money. I would give anyone who asked me a 500₦ Naira bill. That’s about $3, which is a typically lower-class day’s wage. It’s enough to eat for the day, but not enough to warp any family’s economy or cause serious power issues in a group. No double-dipping, so once a day per person. I only carried about ten banknotes a day, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to give too much away. When the money was gone, the money would be gone.
Off I went, out and about town in tuk-tuk tricycle cabs to meet people and help Africa! What happened? Over the course of two weeks, twice I was approached in traffic by beggars, each of whom received 500₦. But I noticed that I was actually approached by far more people offering to sell something than by beggars. These people were just trying to earn an honest living in a rough economic climate.
A crippled up old man by the side of the walk downtown got 500₦. I don’t know anything more about him or if his paralysis was genuine, but I saw nothing that would lead me to suspect he was faking.
Kids At Bank
Two kids accosted me outside of the bank. They were the only ones that asked me for money the entire trip that I didn’t give to. They were cute, clean, well dressed, well fed, and looked like their mom was probably inside the bank. I just couldn’t bring myself to give them money, so I walked on past. In hind-sight, I believe that was the right move.
That brings us to the Almajiri, the Koranic school students. Half of their day is rote memorization of the Koran in Arabic, which they don’t typically speak, and the other half is spent begging for food, which is shared with their teacher. There are a lot of stories about them, some of which are probably true, and some of which are probably false. In any event, their future life possibilities are very narrow as they age out of the system illiterate and with no useful life skills.
As professional beggars, though, these ten year old boys have it down. They know to stake out the pâtisseries where westerners frequent. Coming out of the café in downtown Jos, one asked for money. As soon as I handed him a 500₦ banknote, it was like I’d tossed bread into a pond full of bluegill. Suddenly kids were everywhere around me. It really seemed to escalate and get a bit out of control.
Handing out money would have been gasoline on a fire. I was already walking, and I just kept walking at an increased speed. Two little kids who kept up with me for a block each got 500₦, as well.
I’m still not sure about the Almajiri. The kids I gave money to probably had to split it with their teacher, but I’m also pretty sure that they probably ate that day. Not giving it to them would not have changed the system they were trapped in in any way. If I can come up with a little less chaotic process, I’m probably going to keep giving to individual Koranic school kids until someone comes up with a good solution to the entire Almajiri issue. My wife, by the way, disagrees with me on this, which is Ok; it’s a complex problem with room for diverse opinions.
Well, that’s it. I can remember every single person that I gave money to because there weren’t nearly as many as I expected. Earlier, I said that being approached by beggars happens “all the time in Africa”. This experiment shows that isn’t true. In fact, I couldn’t give away $100 to beggars on my last trip.
So what are my conclusions? Well, first of all, my preconceptions, born from We Are the World and Band Aid, are simply balderdash. Africa is a billion people in 54 (-ish) separate independent countries. Yes, there are areas where I could have easily given away all my money to beggars in minutes, but mostly for obvious reasons related to war, drought, and corruption. In the vast majority of Africa, people are just getting about their lives, trying to earn an honest day’s wage in often spirit-crushing poverty.
My primary take-away is that there is a place for both “hand-outs” and “hand-ups”. It will take both to truly meet Africans’ long-term needs.
It has also changed my attitudes in America. Now, if someone asks me directly for money, I try to give them something to meet the immediate need. I’ve learned that in America, I only get asked for money once or twice a month, usually at gas stations or intersections. Sometimes at intersections, the practical issues of traffic flow preclude giving. If I can, I give $5.
Yes, I know they often are “regulars”, and yes, I do worry that they will spend it on booze. That’s irrelevant; they’ve asked for money and I have given. A “gift” is a gift. How they spend it is up to them. Thus far, I have never missed any of it.