One of the challenges I face while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho, Africa, is when to give money and when not to. My views on this matter are constantly changing based on what I’ve learned during the last ten months.
Today I was put in a difficult situation. My host mother, Mary, whom I truly care for, asked me to visit her “sister.” Since Mary calls everyone in my village her “sister,” including me, I’m never sure who is a blood relative, and who isn’t.
This poor lady is 76-years-old, and due to the heavy rainstorm we had two days ago, the interior part of her wall fell onto her mattress.
She started crying, saying “Mathata, mathata,” (problem, problem) as I stood there not knowing what to say, except that she was fortunate it happened during the daytime, rather than at night. Even Mary said it would have crushed her ribs, had she been sleeping.
Since I’m already involved with a community development project: to fix the roof and wire the school in my village through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP), I get the impression my village believes I’m going to fix their houses as well.
What is frustrating is that I would like to help, but as a Peace Corps volunteer, we are not expected to “give” handouts. We are here to work on sustainable projects where the community participates by offering 25% of the cost, either through funding, or through their time and effort.
I felt guilty when I left this old lady’s house, so I tried to think of other options. I asked Mary why the young people in our village—most of whom don’t work or go to school—don’t help rebuild this lady’s wall.
“They want money,” she replies.
“But they’re not doing anything all day except sitting outside and watching people go by.”
“Yes, but they don’t want to work,” she replies.
I admit to being surprised since I see the older people in my community supporting one another.
“Does she have children who can help her?” I ask.
“Yes, but they don’t have jobs,” she replies.
“So why can’t they come out and help their mother?”
“They cannot afford a taxi to come out.”
“Can’t they hitchhike, or ask a friend to drive them who has a car?”
I’m almost certain I was taken to the lady’s house to give money. This happens to me quite frequently and I have trouble understanding the conflicting messages I hear from the Basotho.
I’ve been told not to help. “Why?” I asked.
“Because once you help one person, the whole village will gossip, and then they want you to help everyone. It’s because of the color of your skin.”
I remember when Mary told me not to feed the orphan in my village who was begging. “If you feed him, you’ll have all the children asking for food.”
So during my ten months in Lesotho, I’ve followed the advice given to me by my host mother, even in the case of this poor lady. I’ve learned the harsh reality that it’s impossible to help everyone.