Magazine article New Internationalist

The Perils of Charity

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Perils of Charity

Article excerpt

Mariama is still working as an assistant in the health centre, as she has done for the past 25 years ; my other friend Ousmane is also still working in the dispensary there. They both complain rather bitterly (and justifiably) about the exploitatively low pay they receive for this full-time work - the monthly equivalent of around $15 in Mariama's case and $22.50 in Ousmane's, sums which have not been increased with inflation for a decade and a half. They feel there should be some kind of trade union acting on their behalf, though there is nothing in place at the moment. I encourage Ousmane to write a letter to the Health Minister, on the basis that it can do no harm to lay this nationwide issue before a new government that has, in a sense, tried to make healthcare its watchword (see page 17).

The economics of life in the village has inevitably been a nagging theme pervading all my visits. In a subsistence-farming community like this one, cash has always tended to be something sent from elsewhere - usually from family members working in the capital or abroad. People cannot but be painfully conscious that a Western visitor has access to money that could make a great difference to their lives.

Rightly or wrongly, I took the decision long ago that I was visiting as a journalist reporting sympathetically on changes in people's lives and paying over the odds for any services rendered, rather than as an individual seeking to make a charitable difference. This attitude was born out of self-defence on my first return, when I was living cheek by jowl with the community and found myself besieged by individual requests for money for anything from mending a broken bicycle to providing start-up funding for a small business. On that first visit, the perils of charity were further illustrated by the furore associated with my having innocently brought bottles of aspirin and chloroquine to give away. (You can read the full story of this episode, 'Pandora's bottle', at

This time around I pay Ousmane for his help in guiding and interpreting for me, in addition to paying Mariama the substantial fee she has come to expect - though she has had to dedicate less time to work for me than in past years.

My primary emotional link has always been with Mariama and her family. Over the years I have sent euro notes with my sporadic letters, and when her house was destroyed by heavy rain in 2008 my family helped to pay for its rebuilding.

On this trip, though, my partner Pat accompanies me - as my daughter Kate did 11 years before - to the great delight of everyone we encounter. She experiences for the first time the privileged access from which a journalist benefits and is fascinated to be so warmly welcomed by people who feel they have some connection with us built up over decades. And, although she knows how much this relationship with the village has always meant to me, being personally introduced to the individuals who have loomed so large in my stories is, of course, completely different from hearing about them second hand.

Rasinatu makes her point

Early on in our stay, Mariama's daughter Rasinatu comes to visit. It is delightful to see her. In 1995 she was the indulged and rather demanding baby of the family and in 2005 she was attending the local school. Now she is married and brings along her own oneyear-old child. As we chat about the changes in her life over the past decade, though, the conversation takes a surprisingly dark turn. She feels that her family did not support her enough financially, not being prepared to pay for her to stay on at school. …

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