I jumped off the small bus at my customary stop, ready for the half-mile stroll back home after another day at the clinic. As usual, I was looking forward to the walk…a rare chance to unwind all alone.

The bus lurched forward as the “conductor” hung out the side of the opened door. He was a young kid, probably in his late teens or early twenties, and dressed in a baseball cap and tie-dyed t-shirt that read “Peace, Love and Pineapples – Hawaii”…no doubt yet another piece of secondhand attire so often seen around here.

“Hey mzungu (whitey)!” he yelled above the exhaust smoke.

I gave him a nod of acknowledgment and tried to shout back over the roaring engine, but he wasn’t interested in any reply. He was waiting to finish his thought.

“Hey mzungu!” he shouted again as the bus picked up speed. “I have problems too. Can you help me?”

I wasn’t prepared to hear it, and I was disappointed by the words. But I was far from surprised by the message.

Despite the fact this kid had absolutely no idea what brought me onto his bus that afternoon, he assumed so much, and summarized the sentiment of so many in three short sentences.

Mzungu with Money

It seems like every time I turn around, I’m hearing someone’s sob story about how many problems they have and how much help they need. Coincidentally, that help somehow always boils down to money.

The bus conductor assumed so much, but he’s not the only one.

Little do they know, by American standards, I’m probably about as broke as they are.

This isn’t to say that genuine needs don’t abound, because I’ve seen plenty of suffering and hardship with my own two eyes. The stories from other folks, however, are a bit more questionable.

I was walking in downtown Nairobi last week when yet another scraggly stranger came up to me mid-stride and tried to strike up a conversation, clearly motivated by something beyond small talk. After asking the usual “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?” and “How do you like Kenya?,” he started into a story almost identical to another fella’s I heard not a week before.

“My brother, I’m from (pick your neighboring east African country), and the people in Kenya are all racist against me,” so the tale goes. “I see you are a kind person, my brother, and not prejudiced. I don’t want any money, just a bag of rice.”

That particular day had been a long one, so my patience was thin. And I proceeded to rail into the guy, telling him that just because I’m a mzungu doesn’t mean I’m rich…telling him I had heard his tale many times before…telling him I was sick of this game.

He was undeterred, and in impressive English, he continued on, “I’m sorry for your objections, my brother, but could you spare even a little money? I take dollars too.”

Amid my tirade, my own ridiculousness got the best of me, and I found my anger turning into amusement. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, and the man started smiling too, knowing the jig was up for us both.

Discerning genuine needs from artificial is difficult.

With a smirk on my face, I reluctantly reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet, ready to provide some underwriting for such quality comedic relief, but what little money I had wasn’t in small denominations. And I definitely wasn’t going to give him any big bills, so I promised the man that if I ever saw him again, I would make it up to him.

He nodded, this time without protest and still sporting a slight grin. Then he was off to the next kind, unprejudiced soul.

A New Tactic

But this “mzungu-with-money” assumption by folks from all walks of life speaks to the legacy of past “help” that now lingers in local minds…well-intentioned charity in the form of free handouts, free services and free money.

However, this assumption based on the past has inspired a new model of aid being developed by many of the non-profit organizations here (and around the world)…self-empowerment and earned assistance.

Tumaini Clinic is one of many practicing this model. For them, gone are the days when people get anything without giving something in return, and rightly so.

Even if it’s a small percentage of the actual cost, patrons of the clinic must pay for the services rendered. By the clinic’s rationale, not only does this give people a vested interest in the check-ups provided and medicines prescribed, but it also helps assure they will adhere to the daily doses and medical orders.

In this land of witch doctors and magic potions, that’s no small feat.

I’ve heard stories from other organizations saying the same thing about the importance of that vested interest.

“We used to give out monthly food supplies,” one executive director recalled. “But it was doing nothing to change the cycle of poverty. People wouldn’t take any action to improve their lives, since all they had to do was wait until the end of the month, when the new food supply would be provided.”

The present and future generations depend on this new model of sustainability.

We, as humans, need to be invested in our own welfare, not taking handouts without cost. We can’t sit back and let someone else make all the effort. It breeds complacency, apathy and dependence…not to mention entitlement.

Even Jesus required something from those he encountered…faith. Some were unwilling and walked away. Others embraced it and reaped the rewards.

But the fact that this sustainability model is required for all groups that World Next Door covers is yet another reason I’m thankful to be here working for this on-line magazine.

Every organization covered must have some level of self-sufficiency, even if it’s a small percentage. Thus, the people receiving aid must contribute to their own development. They must put forth some form of effort to earn their assistance. And as it turns out, they’re often empowered as a result, realizing they’re capable of far more than imagined.

Now that’s a legacy worth leaving…opening eyes to intrinsic gifts and untapped potentials.

That said, I hope I run into my scraggly friend before I leave Kenya because he definitely earned his pay with that comedic shtick of his, and he needs to know it too! The bus conductor, on the other hand, should keep his day job.

UPDATE: Over two weeks later, I indeed ran into Mr. Standup. He recognized me immediately and started grinning.

“Hey my brother, I remember you,” he said enthusiastically.

Future president of Kenya? He’s got the swagger. He just needs the skills.

“Yeah, me too,” I replied, failing to suppress my own broad grin. “And I’m a man of my word. You remember what I said last time, yeah?”

Indeed, he did.

I reached into my pocket and gave him 200Ksh (Kenyan shillings), an amount likely to rival any other beggars’ one-time donation for the day.

With a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face, he asked for another 100.

I slapped him on the shoulder with the newspaper in my hand, bellowed a hearty refusal and laughed. He did too. We shook hands with a genuine affinity, multiple times, and then I was on my way, smiling for blocks.

Now that was money well spent, and money well earned.

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Next Steps
    • We all make our own assumptions in life…some more harmful than others. Whether based on race, economic class, education, orientation or gender, we all need to loosen our grip on those deep-seated fallacies we inwardly accept but outwardly deny. Not one of us is immune.
    • If you contribute any money to organizations, you need to assess their sustainability model, regardless of the size. If it’s nonexistent, reevaluate your contribution and think about diverting it elsewhere. Sustainability is truly vital.
    • Most importantly, get involved in any number of organizations in your community that are building life skills for those who otherwise wouldn’t receive them. Find a way to pass on your skill set to another…tutor, mentor, teach. Opportunities abound. You just have to look.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!

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Comments

  1. Josie Tilyou said... 

    Reply

    July 28th, 2011 at 9:18 am  

    Enjoyed your article! Great to hear their sense of humor in those conditions. They know you may not change their lifestyle, but some change in your pocket made him smile for at least one day; I hope he shared his joy with a child!
    Thank you for spreading God’s love to the people in Kenya.

  2. Shelli said... 

    Reply

    July 28th, 2011 at 10:40 am  

    Great article! This is a rub I face daily and have to remember that poverty is bigger than just money. Poverty encompasses a wide range of issues. Over the past year of living in Haiti and working for an NGO I have seen that, while harder in the moment to do, self empowerment and self achieved earning goes much farther in poverty alleviation than simple charity. But, that being said, it doesn’t make it any easier to look into the eyes of a hungry person and not assist in some way. I just have to remember that God loves his creation more than I have the capacity to, and he may use me to help but ultimately his will be done.

  3. Nick said... 

    Reply

    July 28th, 2011 at 2:13 pm  

    Nice story. Good reminder that people need to earn their keep, and that nothing’s free. Here in America, people are always getting handouts and have lost the perspective on what it means to earn something.

  4. Gary Paultre said... 

    Reply

    July 29th, 2011 at 10:03 pm  

    Great story! I love that you got a chance to see that man again.

  5. Andy Bullock said... 

    Reply

    August 6th, 2011 at 10:06 am  

    Hey Steve! Long time no see. Your writing has been a blessing to me today as I’ve scrolled through all these. Thanks for what you are doing. God bless you brother.

  6. Gideon Makumi Jnr. said... 

    Reply

    August 8th, 2011 at 11:23 am  

    Bro, you are a great writer. Your articles are really wonderful… God bless you.

  7. Anita Austin said... 

    Reply

    August 25th, 2011 at 7:06 pm  

    My husband served in a church in a small rural community. Travelers would identify the parsonage and stop for assistance. The story was always similar. I suppose message they told was designed to evoke compassion and bring the giver to action.
    Your post is a great reminder of how to partner with those in need.
    Thanks, Anita

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