This is my first post from the field, and, unfortunately, I’m not writing to share an inspiring microfinance success story or even a heartwarming cross-cultural anecdote, as I was hoping I would be.  I am writing to tell about a conversation that threw an uncomfortably bright spotlight directly on the basis of my being here in Africa, and the basis of Kiva’s mission itself.
I am stationed in Togo, a tiny West African country that ranks the 13th poorest in the world, with a GDP per capita in 2007 of $167.  I am living with a Togolese family, and there is a 26-year old guy named Abozu who works in the house, cleaning, bringing me my breakfast, and doing lots of other things.  He works very hard and we’ve gotten to know each other over the week that I’ve been here.
We were sitting on a bench outside the house this afternoon, and I had my camera with me.  Here’s a picture of the two of us:

abozu-and-me1
So, after showing him how to use the camera, he asked me if I was going to buy him one when I got back to the United States.  I said no, it’s too expensive.  What followed was a long discussion about the difference between charity and microfinance, and why I am not willing to give him things that could help his life even though I say I want to help people in poor countries.  He said, “Isn’t Togo a poor country?”

I said yes, then tried to explain why I don’t think charity is the real solution to poverty.  I said, “First of all, if I give someone money, he will spend it, and nothing in his life will really change.”  (Keep in mind, this entire conversation is in French, which I am nowhere near fluent in.)

He replied, “But if you give me this camera, I can take pictures of people and sell them their pictures, and make money.”

He had a point – this was, after all, one of the first microfinance projects – Muhammed Yunus gave some Bangladeshi villagers a cell phone, and they charged their neighbors money to use it.  So I said, “Yes, that would work.  But you would have to repay me for the camera once you earned enough money.”

He asked me how much the camera cost, and I told him $200.  He said, “What if I paid you $100?”

Aggh.  At this point I was a bit frustrated by the bluntness of his questions, but we were getting to the core of the debate that has been raging in my heart and mind for years.  I said, “No, $100 wouldn’t be enough, because it has to be based on capitalism, not charity.”  I tried other arguments, too – that I want to help create change on a grander scale, not just for him; that I want poor people to be independent, not reliant on people who have more money; that I could give away all my money and the world wouldn’t really be much different; that if I give him my computer, I’ll have nothing to give to the Senegalese people during my next Kiva Fellowship; but, mostly, that capitalism is the world, and the only foundation on which one can erect any type of change that won’t blow away in the wind.  (All in French…not easy.)

I suppose it’s not surprising that he persisted.  He pointed out that the Togolese family I’m living with has given me lots of things – housing, food, a cell phone, transportation.  It’s true.  I tried to respond that they gave me those things because I’m here trying to help their country.  But it made me think – even though I’m not giving money to people directly, I’ve spent a ton of money to come here, and I’ve also given up a lot in my life: my very well-paying job in New York, my apartment, my comfort, my family and friends.  All of that is charity…how is it different from me giving Abozu my camera?

To be honest, I’m not totally sure.  I feel deep down that it is different – I’m trying to plant the seeds of something that I hope will grow to be bigger than anything I could accomplish by giving away my money.  It all comes back to our favorite word, sustainability.  But try explaining that to a 26-year old Togolese man who makes $700 a year and just wants to be able to provide for the family that he doesn’t have yet – and in French.

So, he kept pressing, asking what I was going to give him as a souvenir when I left – a motorbike?  A computer?  A bicycle?  “Why can’t you give me a loan?” he asked.

“You don’t have a business,” I said.

“What if I put a little table out and start selling things, like them?” he asked, pointing at two women across the street.

“I’m not a microfinance organization,” I tried to explain.  “I don’t have everything that’s necessary to give a loan – but that’s why I’m working with an organization that does.”

I started to get kind of upset, but he didn’t notice.  If only he understood that the question he kept asking me, face-to-face, over and over, was a question that has made me cry many times, that keeps me up at night, and that I am hoping to God that microfinance can at least attempt to answer:

“How can you help me?”

***

Post-note: I left the conversation kind of abruptly, because I thought I might start to cry. While I was writing this in my room, Abozu came and found me and apologized, said that it was just curiosity that made him ask all those questions. Then I really did start crying, and I asked him if he understood the difference between charity and microfinance. He said that he understands now…but, then again, guys will say anything to make a girl stop crying.

Then he promised to make me an omelet for breakfast tomorrow.

Is that charity?

I guess, according to my philosophy, I owe him an omelet. Plus interest.

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