by Eirene Wang
“Whatever you do,” said Lisa, the organization’s US staff worker, “don’t give anything away.”
Jetlagged, disoriented, and culture-shocked, the other three interns and I nodded wearily in the afternoon sun. We had been in Sierra Leone for only two days, yet we had already seen so much. The poverty in the cities, the destitution in the villages. For some reason, everything still seemed incredibly surreal. I, for one, couldn’t believe that only forty-eight hours ago, I had been sitting in a comfortable, air conditioned airport, anxiously waiting for my flight.
“I know this is a gifting culture,” Lisa continued, “and I know this will be difficult, especially because people seem so poor. But travelers in the past have given too much stuff away, and it’s made people really needy, reliant, and sneaky. We need to begin setting a precedent.”
This seemed to make sense, so we all nodded again. This was our first staff meeting in the villages, and Lisa and Ashley, and the executive director, had been going through organizational policy. The anti-gifting policy was a radical change from years past, when interns, travelers, and staff would leave nearly all their belongings behind when they left the villages.
“We understand that people needed things after the war,” said Ashley as she chewed thoughtfully on her pen. “But we’re moving past that. Our goal now is sustainability. We want to build a self-sufficient model of village development and hopefully export it to other villages in the future. That’s why it’s so important that you don’t give things away or that, if you do, you make it very explicit that it is a one-time gift. Also, keep in mind that nobody should be asking you for things. If they do, come see Lisa and me about it. We’ve made it extremely clear to all village staff that asking interns for things is automatic probation.”
We nodded once more, glad we were being protected, in some way, by a larger, more familiar (American) system.
Ashley and Lisa looked over their notes once more, and Ashley glanced at Lisa.
“Anything else?” she said.
“I think that about sums it up,” Lisa concluded.
Two months in, I wasn’t so sure I still felt the same about gift-giving, especially because in the past week, the villagers had gifted me a pineapple and a bunch of bananas. And this, bear in mind, was in the middle of hungry season, the season when farmers plant but cannot yet consume their rice.
I had tried to pay Thomas for the pineapple, but he graciously refused. “It’s for you!” he kept saying, gesticulating his hands for emphasis. “We welcome you. You are a guest in our village.”
“Thanks,” I replied, unsure of what the proper response should be.
The following day, Sao, my host dad, presented me with a bunch of ripe, freshly picked bananas.
“Thanks, Sao!” I smiled when I opened the door to greet him that morning. “How much did it cost? Let me pay you back.”
Sao looked at me, confused for a moment. When I finally managed to extract a 500-Leone coin (about $0.10) from my pocket, his already arched eyebrows arched even higher.
“No, no, it’s a gift,” he clarified to me.
“Oh,” I mumbled, embarrassingly returning the change to my pocket. Flustered, I thanked him profusely. After Sao had left, I sat on my bed, thinking. If this was such a gifting culture, why then weren’t we allowed to give back, even in small ways? More importantly, for whom was this act (or non-act) more offensive, the organization or the villagers?
All summer, I had fought back the urge to give people things. Although I tried to give my time, I realized, quite quickly, that giving just time wasn’t enough. In a place where people are starving and dying of malaria, giving time is nothing but a sweet Western fantasy that amounts to practically nothing tangible.
Early in the summer, an American traveler had approached one of us interns with the intent to donate money so that an ailing child in our village could receive malaria treatment. When the intern had turned him down, stating that “the organization discourages and prohibits gift-giving in order to set a precedent for a sustainable form of development,” we all realized, for the first time, the serious ramifications of non-giving. Was it more important to build a model that would save a hundred children in the future, or allocate certain resources to save just one now? What did we, as interns, even know about development?
Time and again, I would hear about sick people or children who had died of malaria. About six children died while we were there, and every time, I kicked myself for not being able to do anything, even when I clearly had the means to do so. I struggled for days watching my neighbor Fati lie sick on our verandah, just because she couldn’t afford to buy medicine or to walk to the nearest clinic one mile away. What’s more, she was breastfeeding the whole time I was there, even when she was sick. Her baby, Ami, was also unwell, and ran a high fever every week. What is one supposed to do when confronted with the real consequences of abiding to organizational rules of non-giving? Should one consciously violate these rules designed for the “larger picture” in order to appease his or her own moral inclinations?
In his essay The Gift, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss discusses the concept of the hau, or the spirit of a gift that stays alive provided the gift keeps on giving. This system ensures that no gifts ever go fully unreciprocated, and that, in giving, social ties are reaffirmed, strengthened, and perpetuated. In thinking back to my summer, I wonder whether I unintentionally disrupted the hau when I did not actively return villagers’ gifts with material things. As wealthy Westerners we can always expound upon the evils of materialism and fantasize about the perils of giving, especially when it leads to dependence and so-called “cycles of poverty.” For people who are desperately poor, this is not a theoretical issue, but a real, pressing matter that bears weight on their everyday decisions.
In the end, I decided to heed to Lisa’s advice and following the organizational code, if not to prevent the risk of favoritism, then certainly to help the organization continue developing. Despite my frustrations with some of the rules, I did, all things considered, support the organization’s mission and work.
And so it came to be the last day of my internship. After much deliberation, I finally set aside which items I would leave, and to whom. Keeping in mind what Ashley, the director, had said about being intentional and specific, I had decided that the perfume bottle would go to Fati, the scarf to Jenneh, my host mom, and my chair to Sao. The bed sheets would go to the entire Saidu family, and my sandals would go to Benson, my host brother. I had it all meticulously planned out, including when I would deliver these gifts, in whose presence, and what I would say. All, that is, except for one.
This last gift was a shining blue yoyo that I had swiped from my sister’s room the night before I left for Sierra Leone. I had brought out the yoyo only sparingly throughout the summer because I had realized very quickly that it drew a lot of attention at night, especially in a place with no electricity. The problem, though, wasn’t so much the yoyo’s ability to draw a crowd, but the fact that Mattu, the daughter of the Saidu family (my host family) began to patronize it and use our relationship to justify her advantage. This didn’t bother me so much but for the fact that I did not want to show preferential treatment toward Mattu. While Mattu was a very sweet girl who relished my presence, and I in hers, and we had a lot of fun running around the village and singing songs, my giving her the yoyo would be a strong, almost egregious, sign of my preferential treatment toward her. And that, in any case, was something I wanted to avoid, especially since I felt so indebted to all the villagers already.
As I held the yoyo now, turning it over and over in my hands, I thought long and hard about whether I should give it to her. And I thought long and hard about whether she had been expecting me to give it to her all along.
When Morrison George, my motorbike driver, had finished strapping my duffel bag onto his bike, Mattu approached me and tugged at my hand.
“Aiween, Aiween!” she said, a question written on her face. She held out her hand. “Lati?”
This was the moment that she had been waiting for, and which I had anticipated, nearly the entire summer. We all knew that I didn’t need this yoyo, and that I could probably go back to the US and buy a new one at any time I wanted. Yet we all knew, on one level or another, that we weren’t supposed to ask for what we wanted. Mattu, at six years of age, had no idea about this norm, and as she reached her hand out again, she flashed me a toothy grin. As I looked into her hopeful eyes, I thought of all the organization had stood for, all my restraint against giving for the sake of the abstract, greater good, and I realized something. For a six-year old, none of this –the norms, the rules, the expectations, the presumption of equality without favoritism—actually mattered. The only thing that mattered, in fact, was getting that one cool thing that no other village kids had, not even the boys, and relishing in that fleeting, brilliant moment when she, with the yoyo too big for her small hand, became the center of the universe.
Morrison George handed me my helmet and turned the ignition. I climbed onto the back of the bike. By now a crowd of children had gathered around the motorbike, with a hoard of adults standing not too far behind.
“Aiween! Aiween!” they chanted. “Mwolowe! Goodbye!”
“Goodbye,” I whispered, finally removing the yoyo from my pocket and pressing it quickly into Mattu’s palm.
As we sped off into the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had made the right decision. But for the first time in a long time, I also noticed that everything seemed sharper, more in focus, than before. Then Morrison George reached a puddle, and we screeched to a halt, spraying dirt and water everywhere, and everything –the trees, the sky, the road—blurred once again.