Yesterday I got an invitation which had me as on the list as a guest of honor, next to corporate sponsors and area churches, for a fundraising event. It was hand delivered by someone I’m not sure I know. Nor do I know the “Reason Theater Group,” but their fundraising goal of producing an “educative movie” that “aims at highlighting and suggesting solutions to major problems in our society” is vague enough to be totally suspicious.
But there I am on a list of “guests of honor” nonetheless. And this all epitomizes so well the uncomfortable role we play being conspicuous Americans (read “wealthy Americans”) in a small Western Kenya border town. It’s also a great example of the culture of tight inter-dependence, into which we are unavoidably enmeshed.
You can’t escape it. We are in a part of the world in which people ensure their survival through depending on an extended network of support. Simply living here ties us inextricably to that web of inter-reliance. And nothing demonstrates this as well as the pervasiveness of harambes.
Harambe literally means “all pull together,” but it’s really a fundraising tool which has evolved with the times to include engraved invitations and guests of honor who purpose is to announce their support and encourage others to contribute. Vast sums of money are raised this way making things like college education and lavish weddings possible for people who would otherwise struggle to meet the several years salary price tag.
People organize harambes for everything from funerals to church building to (I’m now learning…) movie production costs, and a week never passes without some kind of request. Last week a field officer of mine asked me to contribute to buying new musical equipment for his church. He had little color coded business-card sized donation cards each with a different amount for me to pick from. The week before it was for someone’s brother’s cancer surgery. Then the vegetable vendor I buy from told me her sister got into med school and had a donation sheet. The practice extends through all social strata.
It’s very easy for Westerns to feel glaringly on-the-spot, put-upon and simply irritated by the number of requests for assistance. Our assumption is often that we are somehow being taken advantage of, and we bristle easily at being put in the uncomfortable position of having to say “no” and assumed presumptuousness of the requester. I admit used to feel this way.
I think that deep down this knee-jerk defensiveness is rooted in our relative wealth and the guilt and obligation associated with living in a place where most others have relatively so little. It makes us feel uncomfortable and we lash out.
But I’ve come to reframe the whole thing. They are not coming to me because I’m a mzungu or the wife of the country director. Well, I’m sure that’s part of it and probably secures my place as a “guest of honor.” But they are coming to me along with scores of other regular Kenyans with similar requests.
My Kenyan friends and colleagues handle these unending requests with a combination of good nature and resignation at total odds with the wazungu anxiousness in the face of requests for money. At home, a request for money – especially from strangers – is a rarer occurrence often tinged with embarrassment on both ends of the request. Here, there are so many requests circulating that everyone understands that not everyone is going to give all the time. So, Kenyans might not take it so much to heart when they have to say “no” or receive a “no.” The whole dynamic is simply more part of life.
Not that it's not a draining part of life. It is. Economists and sociologists argue that these webs of social obligations are precisely what keep people from accumulating enough wealth to break out of poverty. And I know this is true. I recently read a study that showed that people in Cameroon took loans solely so that they could then dismiss requesters with a simple: “I wish I could give you something, but, you see, I have this loan I need to pay.”
But this reciprocal dependence also keeps people surviving in the absence of any kind of government funded safety net. So, that’s how I’m reframing it. I’m looking at my many harambe contributions as kind of a social tax. I give when I have with a lighter heart this way and say “no” when I need to.