Saturday, July 28, 2007

A friend in need

I got a call the other day from Victor, the unemployed man I wrote about in "Lost in the Crowd" (July 18).

"My daughter has been kicked out of school because we couldn't pay her school fees," he said. "Can you help me?"

"How much are the fees?" I asked.

"250,000 cedis," he said, which is about $30 Canadian.

I didn't know what to say to him. Giving money to people over here is a much-debated subject amongst foreign visitors. Some people believe that it's wrong; they think it encourages begging and discourages people from working for a living. Other people believe they should give; they think most people in need of help are trying hard to provide for themselves and their family, and should be helped out when they fall short.

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, you'd go broke quickly here if you gave to everyone who asked you for money, and many of them don't actually need your help. (For example, I passed a well-dressed little boy with a cell phone on the street today, and all he said was, "Give me some money." Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess.) On the other hand, it feels wrong to turn away from people who appear to genuinely need help, and you have the means to do so.

The hard part is figuring out who "genuinely" needs your help.

Was Victor one of those people? I had only spoken to him for about a half an hour on a street corner. He had told me he'd fallen on hard times, that his wife and children had returned to their hometown to stay with family while he tried to find work in Accra. I had to trust that he was telling me the truth, and that his daughter would not finish the school year if I didn't give him money.

I thought back to our conversation on the street corner. I had immediately liked him. He was warm and thoughtful, and helpful as well. I had enjoyed our conversation so much that I gave him my phone number, without even being asked.

With this in mind, I said yes and told him to meet me downtown in front of the grocery store I often go to. He smiled and shook my hand warmly when I handed him the envelope with the money. He told me he would call when he got back from delivering the money to the school.

Remembering he was a cook, I told him all he had to do in exchange for the money was make me a meal upon his return. He readily agreed.

That was a fair trade, I thought, and it made my gift feel less like charity. After all, I often pay $30 or more for a meal in a Canadian restaurant. What's wrong with paying him the same amount of money for a home-cooked Ghanaian meal? And more importantly, a little girl gets to finish out the school year, and hopefully return again there in the fall.

- Mark


Jack said...

That's a real dilemma. I think many of us find ourselves in similar situations and find it very difficult to decide what to do.
However, I doubt that your act of kindness will encourage begging as you say some people say. For thirty dollars you can take a chance that you will help someone who really needs it.
Yor request for a meal was a good way to let Victor know that he wasn't getting something for nothing.
I once was approached outside a supermarket for money to buy food for the pleader's little girl. So often here, you can be pretty sure that the money might go for drugs. I was in a dilemma such as you, so instead of giving the fellow money, I invited him into the supermarket and asked him to get what his little girl needed and I'd pay for it.
He did and I did.
Who knows? Maybe he sold the food. It did appear that he knew what a little child would need. So, I hope my help will, like yours, make someone's life easier. At least I never saw the same fellow outside the supermarket again.

I think you enjoy the meal that Victor will cook for you.


Anonymous said...

Mark, That was a very kind thing to do. I am sure your friend Victor was telling the truth and his little girl will be able to go to school. The meal in return is great too. I am sure he will be happy to cook for you. So you made not just Victor happy in one way but two ways. Love,
Mummy and Daddy
You will hav e great meal too

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I think you made the right choice. There is no better gift you can give to child then education! The meal exchange was a fantastic idea.

Love Becky