As a child, every time I left food on my plate, my father reminded me of the “starving children in Africa”. He threatened to take me to visit the poor areas of our city to show me that I should not waste food nor electricity nor money.
He never made good on these “threats” but it’s ironic that I’m now living in Africa. Every day I am reminded of how fortunate I am. Eighty percent of the population earns less than 600 cedis per person per month, depends on the whims of the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) for power, and must fetch water to bathe and wash. These people are the hairdressers, guards, roadside food sellers, fast food servers, waiters, taxi drivers, mechanics, day laborers, and construction workers that make up a town. Some get by on as little as 200 cedis ($90) per month.
Mid-level college-educated workers can earn 10 times what the working class make. For instance, those with college degrees and without material business connections probably can make upwards of 3,500 to 5,000 cedis ($1700 to $2,500) per month, net of taxes. This is probably equivalent to someone in the US making $40,000 to $60,000 per year (gross).
By the way, there is no government-run, social safety net, e.g. Medicare, Social Security, Welfare, food stamps. In Ghana, the young, destitute, unlucky, and old are looked after by the more well to do members of the extended family. Basically, the most fortunate and high-income generating person in a clan has to take care of everyone else’s needs, e.g. medical care, tuition, funeral expenses. Failure do so is shameful because you are not taking care of your responsibilities. It could be argued that when the head of household was young, some extended family member probably took care of his needs.
For those who have no one to turn to, getting by is a precarious journey. In many instances, those with the means can bully those without.
It is in this environment that I find my American immigrant values of self-reliance challenged most. For instance, last week my driver, Mutala, did not come to work on Wednesday. He didn’t call to explain and we could not reach him. I was of the mind that he should be sacked.
Thursday Mutala showed up. (He has no “people”.) He explained that his landlord needs money for a funeral and demanded Mutala pay his next 12 months of rent immediately. The landlord seemed crazed and entered Mutala’s place to toss out his things. Mutala then went to the police station to file a complaint against his landlord.
At first, I was thinking, Why is this my problem? You didn’t show up for work and you didn’t give any explanation. Lately, Mutala’s performance has been falling so I felt I had grounds to dismiss him. He hit someone earlier this month and he’s been tardy more and more frequently. Nonetheless, I ask him how much his landlord is demanding.
“Two point two,” he replied. This is the vernacular for 220 cedis or $100.
What? So I can compound his problems by sacking him. He’ll have no job nor any place to live. He’ll probably have to turn to petty crime to get by or do something really hard like selling food/phone credit by the road.
I decide to give him $50. It’s not a loan. I will not sack him. But I ask myself, Am I a fool? Will I fall down some slippery slope of charity and never return?
Lately, I find myself giving away small amounts of money because it pains me to hear that people are having it so rough here. Obviously, I’m not a bank nor an NGO but how can I turn these people away? I do not want people to turn to me with any sob story and an open hand. Nonetheless, I’ve been fortunate in my life; when I needed help the most, someone came out of nowhere to pull me out.
I’ve decided to err on the side of generosity rather than always be afraid someone is trying to exploit me.