Why I Didn’t Give Money to Timothea

OK, today I’m going to write a bit about what I think is just about the hardest thing to do when I visit a developing country (or in fact in Canada now that a street underclass is forming). I’m talking about not reaching into my pocket when I’m approached for a “dollar”, “pen” or sometimes much more. I refer to it now as “why I didn’t give money to Timothea”.

I met Timothea at Awet Secondary School just outside Karatu. The school is one of the top rated in the area and students either perform well or they won’t likely last long. Timothea approached me after a short concert featuring some students and visiting nurses from Canada who have been teaching a health education program to the girls.

Chatting at Awet, that's Timothea in the white shirt on the right          

(Chatting at Awet, that’s Timothea in the white shirt on the right)

 He asked me a bunch of smart questions about Canada, our government, and customs. Seems he had a crush on one of the nurses. I talked to this truly talented and well spoken 17- year old for over half an hour. As we left, we agreed to drop him off at his village which was just down the road.

I sat in the back with Timothea and his life story poured out. His parents were dead and he lived with his 25 year old brother who was an alcoholic and drank away their meagre funds. This is not an unusual situation in rural Africa so I didn’t doubt that it was unfortunately true. One doesn’t need to invent harsh realities here.

Timothea continued and I learned that he had ambitions to go on to college and needed to raise funds himself. He asked me if I could buy 10 notebooks for him (at about 3000 shillings or $3). He would resell them with the profit going to his college fund.

I wasn’t too surprised when he asked as I’ve been approached many times before and I don’t blame the Timotheas I meet one bit. And it wasn’t the cost and it never is. And I would have walked away feeling good about myself for a few minutes, my western guilt pacified.

And in the process I’d be making the situation not better but worse much worse just as I‘ve seen so many westerners do before.

So I said “no” and explained that my support of the broader work being done at Awet and in the Karatu area was the appropriate way to help individuals like him. Timothea smiled said goodbye and waved. He’d been turned down before.

So why didn’t I give money to Timothea?

Well, my position rests on the broad principle that interaction between cultures should have positive outcomes for both cultures. So I don’t agree with aid that is tied to trade which can undermine the very local markets of the aid recipients that are so important to their self sufficiency.

I don’t agree with mega projects that are developed by donors without the input of communities who then blame the locals when they don’t work (e.g. a big mosquito net distribution project in Tanzania is failing because the nets being distributed are made by a western firm for single beds whereas children here sleep on hut floors in groups of 4-6).

And I don’t agree with giving children or adults handouts as this nurtures begging. Begging is not a positive outcome. Our cross cultural interaction should elevate the dignity of the people we meet and not rob them of it. And there are plenty of healthy options…just read some of the other stories in my blog.

Good development..working with the community

(Good Development: working with the community in Maghesho, Tanzania)

So that’s why I didn’t give money to Timothea or give the youth with the big smile in Karatu a pen or give the lady at the Kilak Corner crossroads in Uganda a dollar to take her baby girl’s photo after she jovialy called “ Hey, munu”! (hey whiteman)

cassava seedlings not pens in Pader Uganda                                                                                                                    (Cassava seedlings not pens in Pader Uganda)

 Each time, the cost was small, each time the people were clearly in need, and each time I might have felt I had done a good deed.

And each time I would have done the worst thing possible. Timothea seemed to understand and I hope that other westerners who plan to visit a developing country like Tanzania do to.


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