Essay

The Way We Give

Generosity can’t always bridge cultural and economic divides

From the December 2013 magazine
Illustration by Sonia Roy

It was mid-morning when I found Mamadou Traoré at his restaurant, a six-foot-square plywood kiosk painted baby blue, its shutters propped open with sticks, bar stools lined up at the window. His eyelids were drooping, and he was falling off his chair. He had worked all night selling omelettes and glasses of sticky-sweet Nescafé. In West Africa during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink all day, nights are good for business.

We hadn’t seen each other in four years.

I sat on a bar stool while he stirred sweetened condensed milk into a glass of coffee for me. He set a square plywood coaster over the mouth to keep out the flies and took out his cellphone to snap a photo. “Now all my customers will believe me when I tell them I have a white friend.”

Before my visit, Mamadou had written me in Winnipeg to ask for a Swiss Army knife, a camera, and money to help him buy sheets of corrugated tin for a new roof. I brought him a T-shirt and a baseball cap, but he thanked me warmly anyway. As we talked over our coffees, rain came in a sudden burst, hitting the street so hard the pavement blurred. Sheltered by the kiosk’s plywood walls, we watched merchants batten down their shops and customers run for cover. Mamadou fried me an omelette and told me about his new plan to get ahead. Last month, he had gone to the city to write a concours, a competition for a job in forestry and conservation.

“How many people do they accept each year? ” I asked.

“One hundred.”

“And how many apply? ”

“Three thousand.”

They would announce the winners on the radio in September, he said. Those who didn’t win could pay for two years of training from their own pockets and then apply for a job. The training would cost more than he could earn selling Nescafé and omelettes. He asked if I could help him out. I felt the familiar clutch of unease that always seized my gut when the topic of money came up between us. I told him to ask me again when he heard the results of the competition.

I was helping him clean up when I dropped one of his four glasses. It smashed in a brilliant burst on the concrete floor. I offered to pay him for it, but he wouldn’t take the money. “There are no debts between you and me,” he said. “If I needed money to buy glasses, I’d have told you so.”

Mamadou and I grew up together in a small village of subsistence farmers in Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries. I was three years old when my parents, evangelical Mennonite missionaries, forsook their home in Steinbach, Manitoba, for a new life in this dusty nation landlocked in the African Sahel. They believed God was calling them to bring Christianity to the Siamou people, a small ethnic group in western Africa who practise a mixture of Islam and traditional spirituality. So my parents studied linguistics and Bible translation in Canada, then packed up the family and moved to Tin, a village of about 2,000 inhabitants.

Shortly before my family arrived, president Thomas Sankara—a thirty-four-year-old Marxist revolutionary who wore his beret aslant, rode his bicycle to work, and made his cabinet ministers trade in their Mercedes Benzes for humble Renault 5 mini-cars—decided to replace his country’s French colonial name, Upper Volta, with a brave new one: Burkina Faso, the land of the upright people. Called the Che Guevara of Africa, Sankara believed his country had the potential to unshackle itself from foreign aid and the neo-colonial policies that kept it indebted to the West. He ordered civil servants to wear clothes made from Burkina-grown cotton and launched an economic development plan with the goal of becoming independent from outside aid. He was an outspoken critic of the imperialism of France and the United States and famously challenged African nations to refuse to pay their debts to their former colonizers. “If we don’t pay the debt, our lenders will not die. However, if we do pay it we will die,” he said. Committed to the empowerment of the poorest farmers, Sankara capped his own salary at $450 per month.

At the edge of the village, my parents built a large house with a pitched roof and a long, airy porch. Local masons laid the bricks, and a team of American carpenters flew out to roof the house with sheets of tin nailed to heavy wooden trusses. Crowds of children gathered to watch the Americans work. They had never seen a white man swing a hammer, and they had certainly never seen a house like this one. Most of them slept in one-room homes built of sun-dried mud bricks with straw roofs. By Canadian standards, my family was poor; we drew our water from a well with buckets made from old inner tubes, washed our clothes in zinc tubs, and evicted scorpions and cockroaches from our outhouse daily. But next to everyone else in the village, we were millionaires. We ate imported cheese and drank powdered milk, read books by the glow of our solar-powered electric lights, and owned a car.

Only four years after Sankara came to power, on October 15, 1987, he was shot dead in a coup orchestrated by his long-time friend and collaborator, Blaise Compaoré. Evidence that surfaced during the recent trial of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor suggests that Compaoré may have had support from the French and American governments, both of which saw Sankara as a threat and a nuisance. Compaoré reversed most of Sankara’s policies, privatized industry, and signed up his country for the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and the World Bank. Today, twenty-six years later, Blaise Compaoré is still in power, and Burkina Faso remains the fifth-poorest nation on earth, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.

My parents didn’t see their work as political. Their mission was to learn the Siamou language, translate the Bible, and start a Christian church. All I wanted was to blend in with my village friends, to be able to cut a straight furrow in the red dirt with a short-handled hoe, to speak Siamou without an accent, to walk through the village without my whiteness leaving eddies in every conversation.

I got used to people asking me for things—empty margarine cans, used flashlight batteries, the clothes I was wearing, money to buy medicine, permission to marry my sister. Some requests were playful banter, some were sincere, a few were matters of life and death. It wasn’t always easy to tell the difference. I remember my father buying sacks of rice for families whose granaries had run dry, and driving feverish children and labouring mothers to the hospital fifteen kilometres away.

But the relentless stream of little requests irked me. If I gave a pocket knife to Mamadou, the next day three other friends would ask me why I had no knives to give them. I didn’t know when I was expected to give or how to offer creative excuses when I wasn’t. The requests were a constant reminder of the socio-economic gulf between me and my friends that no amount of giving could bridge.

While I struggled to learn Siamou, Mamadou was eager for me to teach him English. He believed it would unlock a future for him more promising than coaxing a livelihood from sandy soil with hand-sharpened tools. I lent him an English dictionary. He learned to say “Aye loave you” and one or two other phrases. Mostly we conversed in French, a second language for me and a third for him. He learned French in the village school, chanting his lessons in a classroom he shared with 100 other students. Meanwhile, I attended a small private school for missionary children, where imported teachers taught us world history, computer skills, and how to calculate a hypotenuse.

In high school, I went to a missionary boarding school in Ivory Coast and returned to the village every summer. Mamadou tried teaching me to cultivate. I watched his muscled back bend as he swung his hoe, heard the shick of its dished blade biting soil, smelled the fresh-cut earth as he flipped a piece of turf and tucked the long grass under it as it fell. When it was my turn, I struggled with the heavy tool while the hot sun seared my skin. My furrows meandered, tufts of grass persisted, sweat burned the corners of my eyes. Mamadou retrieved his hoe from my hands and turned my palms upward, touching the blisters that bubbled at the base of each finger. “Heh! You work too hard. Now rest in the shade.” I sat under a mango tree as he patched my errant furrows with sure, even strokes.

In the evenings, after he finished his work, we played card games high on chance and low on skill, tilting our hands to the lantern light and slapping our cards down with boisterous shouts. I could mesmerize my friends by riffle-shuffling the deck, blending the two halves together with my slender, white, uncallused fingers. As we sipped strong tea from shot glasses, I listened to my friends discuss possible ways to escape a life of subsistence farming. The options were few. If you had good connections, a father with money, or a mind like a razor, you might get into high school. If you were willing to gamble, you could migrate to the city and join the competition for jobs. When they asked me about Canada, I told them the cold was strong enough to kill a man and people who lived in cities never saw the soil.

“By Allah,” they exclaimed, “we could never survive there.”

When i graduated from high school, I moved to Canada to go to university. Suddenly I was a poor student instead of a wealthy foreigner. Here I could blend in with the crowd and forget my privilege. Here my money was nobody’s business but the bank’s, and no one asked me for anything.

I received occasional letters from Mamadou written on lined notebook paper, his French words painstakingly formed with a ballpoint pen. He was working in his cotton fields, hoping to save enough cash to start up a small business. He had married a woman named Jerica. She was young, with smooth skin the colour of fresh dates and a shy, deferential manner.

Twice he wrote to tell me that Jerica had miscarried. This worried him. Children matter in rural Burkina Faso, where the soil is thin, life expectancy at birth is fifty-five, and crops are frequently riddled with insects or crushed by sharp-hoofed cows. Children are your helping hands, your retirement savings plan, the only ones who will remember your name after you die.

Sometimes he made explicit requests for things in his letters. Other times he let his circumstances speak for themselves.

Although I grew up in Africa, I inherited a Western sensibility toward money, shaped by Mennonite frugality and the individualism so prominent in North American capitalism. My Mennonite forebears arrived in Canada a few generations ago as poor immigrant farmers and fugitives from Communist Russia. They worked hard and gave what they could spare to the Church, and the Church helped those in need. Many of their descendants are now the wealthy in the land, owning hog farms, car dealerships, law firms, and construction companies. Middle-class Mennonites still give religiously to churches and generously to aid organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee or the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. We seldom appeal directly to one another for money. In a country with public health care, banks, running water, public education, and a cash economy that rewards diligence and innovation, it is easy to see ourselves as independent and self-reliant. Asking a brother for a loan might suggest that I wasn’t a hard worker or couldn’t manage my finances.

When I brought Mamadou a cap and a T-shirt, instead of the things he had asked for, I justified my reluctance to give him money by telling myself that friendships are fragile things, easily damaged by money. It seemed a complete explanation to me: friendship and money don’t mix. But later, as I read various anthropological writings about the cultures of Burkina Faso, I began to recognize this boundary between money and friendship as a construct of my own culture, not Mamadou’s.

In Burkina Faso, a complex network of personal debts and familial obligations undergirds society. People who live in rural areas work together to plant and harvest crops, store food in communal granaries, and eat together in large family groups. Because the well-being of the community is valued more highly than the advancement of the individual, those who acquire more wealth than the others can expect constant requests for money, which they must not refuse. In any close friendship, the person with greater means is obliged to help out less fortunate friends and relatives with gifts or loans that come due only when the borrowers’ and lenders’ fortunes are reversed. When you have money, you invest in your community, knowing that in your time of need they will be there for you. One can see evidence of this in the amount of money Africans living abroad send to their kin. In 2010, the African diaspora sent home $51.8 billion in remittances, more than all of the official development aid that flowed to the continent.

In The Gift, a classic examination of the historical and cultural meaning of gifts, Lewis Hyde contrasts the gift economies common in many Indigenous societies with the Western market economy, in which most goods have a fixed value and are exchanged for money. “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection,” he writes.

Growing up, I had only a vague understanding of the Burkinabè system, and my white skin exempted me from many social mores. When Mamadou gave me a gift—a slingshot, a sack of oranges, a basket of peanuts—I thanked him warmly and considered the matter closed. I didn’t imagine that these gifts might be small investments he hoped to collect on someday. When my friends asked me for money, they weren’t being rude; they were giving me opportunities to invest in social capital. These requests belonged to a system of social security in a world without banks, credit cards, or insurance agencies.

When Mamadou told me there were no debts between us, sweeping up the pieces of his broken drinking glass, he meant the kind of debts we talk about in the West—quantifiable debts, to be paid by a certain date, with penalties attached. African hospitality must forgive the broken glass, but he also wanted to remind me that my social obligation still stood. As the wealthier friend, I was obligated to help him when he needed it.

For most of my life, I have wrestled with the question of what I owe Mamadou. My two different cultures offer different answers. If I am a Mennonite from Canada, I don’t owe him anything but friendship, though I may choose to give him charity. If I am a Siamou from Burkina Faso, I am responsible for his well-being and must answer his requests.

A few Western thinkers make persuasive arguments that the ever-widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, and more specifically between the developed world and Africa, creates a moral imperative to give, and not just among friends. One of the most prominent is Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. In a 2006 New York Times Magazine article, he reminded those of us who might argue that we have the right to spend our hard-earned money on ourselves that social capital—including natural resources, technology, and good government—is responsible for 90 percent of what we earn.

Moreover, our wealth will never trickle down to the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population, because they either have nothing to sell that we want to buy, or trade laws that favour rich nations make it impossible for them to sell their goods on the global market. Consider cotton, one of the main supports of Burkina Faso’s fragile economy. Every year, farmers like Mamadou choose between planting food crops such as millet, sorghum, yams, and corn, or gambling on cotton. Cotton can’t be eaten if prices are low, but a bumper crop when prices are high can deliver enough of a cash windfall to feed a family all year, and maybe even to purchase a new moped. In 2004, the US government gave $4.2 billion in subsidies to American cotton producers, almost Burkina Faso’s total GDP for that year, depressing global cotton prices and causing devastating losses for Burkinabè farmers.

In that same article, Singer pointed out that 30,000 children die every day from preventable causes related to poverty. As he famously observed, any one of us who saw a small child drowning in a shallow pool wouldn’t hesitate to step in and save the child’s life, even if we ruined our shoes. “Anything else would be callous, indecent and, in a word, wrong,” he wrote. Yet for the price of a pair of shoes, we could each save a child’s life by donating to UNICEF or Oxfam.

Even if we can agree that we have a moral obligation to give, the question of how to give brings on another set of complications. African nations receive billions of dollars each year in development assistance and bilateral aid from Canada, the US, and other Western nations. Charities dig wells, run orphanages, and operate micro-credit banks. Seldom do we give gifts to Africa as from one equal to another, but rather as if from a parent to a child, from the powerful to the disempowered. A few years ago, Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo piqued the ire of many in the aid industry with Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, her spirited rebuke of bilateral and multilateral aid. African nations remain poor not in spite of aid but because of it, she wrote. Aid, she argued, fuels corruption and conflict while stifling free enterprise and absolving corrupt governments of their responsibilities to their citizens.

Canada’s own foreign aid agency has been unapologetic about recent moves to align its programs more closely with the nation’s business interests. CIDA is giving $5.6 million to a project that provides vocational training for children in Burkina Faso, pairing NGO Plan Canada with Toronto-based gold mining company Iamgold Corp. Iamgold’s mine in northern Burkina Faso generates about $240 million in cash flow for the company every year. Many Canadian churches dig wells or build orphanages in Africa, well aware that their benevolence will create a receptive atmosphere for their religious message.

In Canadian culture, the giver usually holds most of the power in a giving relationship. The receiver’s role is only to ask. But in Burkina Faso, that dynamic is slightly different. It is the receiver’s responsibility to determine whether his need is greater than his friend’s before he makes the request. By the time the request is made, the giver has no choice but to grant the gift or risk the friendship.

I suspect it is this subtle shift in power that makes me so uncomfortable with Mamadou’s requests. It means my resources are not entirely mine to give or withhold, that my gifts cannot be seen as acts of pure generosity for which I deserve credit, but as the fulfillment of an obligation. What would change if we in the West understood our gifts to Africa as payments on a debt we owe, as the reciprocation of a gift already given, rather than the initial gesture? Debtors can’t attach conditions to their payments or expect something in return.

Afew days after my visit with Mamadou at his kiosk, he came to me with another request. He found me at my parents’ house, and we chatted in the shade of their grass-roofed gazebo in the middle of the yard. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a crisp collared shirt, he was about to pedal fifteen kilometres under the scorching midday sun to open his kiosk while I packed my bags for the airplane. But first he asked me for money to buy a freezer so he could sell small bags of frozen yogurt. I considered his request for a few minutes, then took out my wallet and counted out 30,000 CFA francs—about $60. Mamadou took the money gingerly with a look of astonishment. He counted the notes again and quickly slipped them into his pocket. “Not just anyone can take money from his pocket like that and give it away,” he said.

His words shame me still.

A few months later, he phoned me at my home in Winnipeg. We shouted in French over the atmospheric hiss. He had heard that my wife and I were expecting our first child, and he wanted to hear the proud news from my lips. He also needed money. A thief had broken in to his kiosk and stolen everything. We talked until his prepaid credit ran out. I didn’t call back.

We didn’t speak again until I phoned him to announce the birth of my son. “Félicitations!” I heard him shout, his voice cracking with delight. Then we lost the connection. I put down the phone. I was lying on my back on the living-room couch with my son curled up, frog-like, on my chest. I watched his inquisitive blue eyes open and close and the miniature muscles of his face experiment with expressions. I thought about how easy it would be for him to grow up unaware of his own privilege, oblivious to all of the ways in which the deck is stacked in his favour.

But there was something I wanted even more than for my son to understand the politics of poverty. I wanted him to have an opportunity to form the kind of deep and difficult—perhaps impossible—friendship that I have with Mamadou. A friendship that attempts to straddle the unconscionable divide between us. A friendship that still leaves me uneasy.

  • dewet

    Excellent article, I live an unusual life and can relate. I love that you call it impossible, that makes me feel like I’m not failing at these friendships too badly.

  • Margot Krebs Neale

    beautiful friendship albeit difficult, the image by Sonia Roy is special, delicate in making and delicate in thinking.

  • Jacob Presson

    I grew up in Ivory Coast and Niger. Thank you for putting to words what I’ve struggled to communicate to American friends over the years.

    • Cathy Creswell

      Amen. I lived in Mali for 9 years. Same thing.

  • Mandi Nelson

    Such well-written truth! Four years in Cameroon has left me with the same thoughts.

  • Laura Joy Hochstetler

    I grew up in Mali (birth – age 15) and echo Jacob’s thanks as well, adding that you’ve put into words things I’ve had difficulty articulating even to myself, let alone to friends.

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