I scarcely see beggars near my home in the United States, but they can be found almost everywhere in Rwanda. I’ve wrestled with how to react to outstretched hands since I was first a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa 30 years ago, so the issue is not new to me. My time with the Friendly FolkDancers in Rwanda brought the question to the forefront once again and moved my thinking a little bit further along.
I cringed when I first confronted beggars in Togo. The mixture of the revulsion, anger, shame, and compassion I felt was powerful and confusing. There was the knowledge that there was no way that my resources could make a dent in the need around me, and that a handout to one beggar would only bring 20 more needy faces to surround me. Yet I knew that even if my wallet was middle or lower class at home, I was famously rich in my African village. And, of course, the obligation to share with the orphan, the widow, and the poor is mentioned more often in the Bible than any other social duty. I sometimes felt completely torn by the conflicting feelings. Should I pretend I wasn’t even noticing them? Maybe I should try to make eye contact, admit I had money, but explain why I wouldn’t give it to them? Should I invite them all to share a meal with me, or should I just empty out my pockets to them?
Halfway through my time in Togo I witnessed something that totally shook up my thinking about begging. The endless droves of small children begging, saying "Donne-moi vingt-cinq francs," were sometimes heart-tugging, but were more often annoying, and my skin had thickened to the point of mostly ignoring these pleas. While accompanying some recently arrived Peace Corps volunteers, I watched while their discomfort with beggars morphed sometimes to resentment. As we entered one place, there was a nine-year-old boy with the ubiquitous "Give me 25 CFA" (about 10 U.S. cents), which particularly frustrated one of the new volunteers. As we prepared to leave, he saw that the same boy was going to try to hit us up again, so he made his own preemptive strike. As the boy opened his mouth to speak, the volunteer beat him to it, asking the little beggar to give him 25 francs! The little boy immediately reached in his pocket and handed over the money. We were all stunned! What had happened? Why had the beggar boy done what
With experience I came to realize that communal sharing is an intrinsic part of most Africans’ lives. If someone asks you for something, you give it if you are able. The idea of "I have and you don’t have" is really foreign to them, though it is completely acceptable and far too prevalent in the United States. I witnessed endless cases of Togolese dividing their meager resources to help a friend or family member, thereby limiting their own opportunities for individual advancement. I’ve often felt shame at being part of a culture that believes itself to be so generous, yet has nothing to equal the selflessness, hospitality, and generosity I’ve seen in Africa.
I carried these thoughts with me as I returned home. By the time I again visited Africa I had come to think that it was my duty to look beggars straight in the eye and to give what I could, and that’s what I attempted to do on my succeeding trips around Africa.
I got an altered perspective on it while visiting Rwanda this year. I traveled there thinking I would attempt to give handouts to beggars when I could, and even did it once or twice before Antoine’s example and witness caught me up short. Antoine is clerk of Rwanda Yearly Meeting, and Rwandan Friends are very much involved in social witness, including peace work and aid to the poor and orphaned. I had expected that he would approve of donations to the beggars we met, but he made it clear that he did not. He explained to me that he strongly supported efforts to really help the poor, but not actions that would entrench them in poverty.
To some degree, I had always feared that I might conveniently seize upon this "excuse" as a good way to appear noble while protecting my pocketbook. I probably judged some others for doing exactly that. But what if it wasn’t an excuse, but the right thing to do? Antoine’s example gave me permission to re-examine both what I was and was not supporting by the way I participated in charity.
A second influence on my thinking came from David Thomas, an Evangelical Friend from Oregon who has been a missionary in Rwanda for ten years. As I interviewed him for my Spirit in Action radio program (available on), he talked about a leading that he received a few years into his residence in Rwanda. He had come to believe that the Friends in Rwanda needed to take full ownership of their yearly meeting and the projects they committed to, and that depending on donations from abroad undercut that kind of strength. This could be an excuse from outside to reduce missions spending, but that was clearly not what was motivating David Thomas. Some Rwandan Friends felt that the rug was being pulled out from under them, that Rwanda Yearly Meeting and its programs would crumble without primary support from outside. David received a lot of flak and anger for the first few years, as this change in orientation was considered and then adopted, but eventually even his more severe detractors came around. There is power in being "the benefactor," and there is disempowerment and lack of ownership in being the "needy recipient." The poor and the beggar end up seeing their salvation as coming from outside until they are freed and encouraged to draw on deeper sources of strength and wisdom. Rwandan Friends have since "come into their own"; even when they do receive financial aid from outside, they are now sure that they are at the driver’s wheel.
Witnessing these changes in Rwanda has affected my relationship to beggars. I don’t know if I’ve reached final conclusions. There are layers of Biblical duty, white guilt, selfishness, judgmentalism, generosity, and goodwill to be examined and faced. While in Rwanda I learned that I might also need to give up my superiority and enter into a relationship of deep equality with those I meet, of all economic classes. Everywhere we went in Rwanda, we learned of Rwandans’ needs. Yet the main thing that Rwandan Friends asked of us was to pray for them. With our hearts, eyes, and spirits wide open, we can learn how God leads us into relationship with the needy.