I’m sitting under a tree in Srafa Aboano, a small fishing community along the coastline in the Central Region of Ghana, and a small boy walks up to me. “Please, give me one pen,” he asks. His name is Kojo, 7 years old, and he is about to start Primary 2 (second grade). He smiles at me in anticipation. Well, I think to myself, I do have a pen, and Kojo definitely needs a pen more than I do, especially if he is going to class the next day. I would be selfish not to at least help in this small way. So I reach down and hand Kojo a pen. His face lights up, he smiles brightly, and he runs away quickly to put his pen somewhere safe. He will show his friends his gift first of course. A simple, kind and generous gift.
The truth is that this story is false.
My response to Kojo in this situation was actually to say no, I will not give you my pen. Simple, direct and probably a bit surprising to him. But for me the situation is complicated. First, as soon as Kojo shows his friends, my quiet tree becomes chaos. Five more children are here, with big smiles, demanding “give me one pen!” in a kind, yet overwhelming manner. And as I only had one pen, I obviously can’t meet the request of every child. But at least I helped Kojo, right? Or did I?
The next day, I am back in the community again, and little Sarah, 5 years old, walks up to me, shy yet interested. She mumbles, quietly, looking down, and all I hear is “pen.” And then she looks at me, expectantly. And there it is. At 5 years old, never having spoken to a foreigner before, all she can say in English is “pen.”
And who’s fault is this? This is not a situation that I, nor Kojo nor Sarah, have necessarily created. This goes way back. I am not the first foreigner to pass through Aboano. In fact, sitting just a few miles from the old colonial capital, and in the heart of the historic transatlantic slave trade, Aboano has had more than a few white people come through here before. Not necessarily slave traders, but kind, generous and friendly foreigners (mostly Portuguese, Dutch and British), taking a day trip out from a local residence to enjoy the beach. And as local residents, these foreigners always wanted to make friends. And the easiest way to make friends? Gifts. Candy, pens, bottles and money for the kids. Alcohol, tobacco, clothes and jewelry for the chiefs and their families. Simple acts of generosity and kindness, and an easy way to create an intercultural exchange with very little need for a common language.
What we have done through this process over the years, however, is to define the relationship between local community members, especially children, and foreign visitors and volunteers. We have solidified the perspective that this interaction is based on gifts, a perspective that is being passed along to each new young child, no matter how small, and each new visitor and volunteer, no matter from which country. What we need to do is redefine this relationship from the foundation, and to grow new relationships based on different values: equality, understanding, respect and consciousness. This can only happen over time through open dialogue and increased communication between both sides, if it can happen at all. It certainly cannot happen through giving pens.
Still, there are ways to make positive impacts in a community with donations. When done systematically through a school or clinic, donations can greatly strengthen already existing services within a community. There are many great organizations already out there with strong donation practices, doing effective and sustainable work. So, as with all challenges that we face in this field, let us not turn away from donations completely, but rather let’s work towards taking respectful, kind, intelligent and conscious actions in communities around the world.