The other day I had a client write me to thank me for helping her plan her safari, she had a wonderful experience. "But", she wrote, "I would have loved to have been informed to bring pencils and candy for all the children I saw along the way…I felt bad I didn't have a lot to give the kids". I cringed. Hmmm…I wondered. How am I going to tackle this one? It seemed to me that she, like so many other well-meaning tourists, had fallen victim to the "gimme" culture.
"Gimme" is short for "give me" and if you are a visitor to Tanzania, you will hear this abridged phrase a lot. It is usually followed by pipi (candy), pencili (pencil), peni (pen), or my personal favorite: my money (as in "gimme my money"). When you are a tourist it is very, very easy to fall for this. For anyone, the first trip to Africa is an incredibly eye-opening and sometimes heart-wrenching experience. Imagine the scene: you're driving along the road into the vast unknown en-route to the Serengeti. All around you are stunning panoramas of wide open spaces dotted with tiny Maasai villages along the road. You stop to take a photo. Shoe–less, ashen-faced children in threadbare clothes emerge from their dilapidated homesteads running excitedly to the road beaming with smiles, their arms outreached. A baby follows in tow, waddling as quick as she can in her tattered little party dress, snot running down her face…she is the cutest little thing you've ever seen. This is when they get you. Their spindly little arms reach into the car, searching for something, anything…and a little chorus of "gimme" echoes around you. You pity them, desperately search your purse and find 2 pens, a pack of gum, and some coins all of which you gladly hand over to the incredibly appreciative children. Sigh. You wonder to yourself how they possibly live like this with so little. You drive on with the satisfaction that you are a Good Samaritan.
You are not. For people like me who actually live here, you are only adding fuel to a fire that is burning out of control and encouraging a nation-wide epidemic. What you do not see is that this happens every single day, day in and day out, to every single tourist – and they get them almost every time. Tanzania is most certainly a "developing country" that is in need of a lot, a fact that becomes evident to all who enter. When you are on safari for a couple of weeks, to hand out a few pens and a couple shillings here and there seems a harmless gesture that is easy to accommodate and appears to make a difference. When you live here, however, you begin to see a different picture all together.
It is only through living here that you have the unique opportunity to see the genuine Africa and the real problems that these resilient people face. You see corrupt police officers every day who pull you over because of the color of your skin. They eyeball your car and then make no haste in blatantly asking you for a bribe. Children are taught by their parents that white skin is equal to a free meal or a zawadi (present) so nearly every child you pass on the street asks you openly for one. Mothers approach your car window while stopped and use their rheumy-eyed children to try and cajole money out of you. A friendly old man makes small talk with you and you actually begin to think him different, but ends his friendly decoy by telling you that his wife is sick and could you please give him some money for her? When you're here for a few weeks it doesn't bother you so much –but when you live here, trust me, it bothers you a LOT. If you can tell me what long-term positive outcome could possibly spawn from perpetuating this methodology by succumbing to it, I'll buy you dinner.
It might be interesting to know that Tanzania (as a whole) has received loads upon loads of aid from other governments and organizations in the form of money, grants, donations, and write-offs. This is from where "gimme" culture has evolved. But where is it all going? I can tell you as someone who lives here that it isn't going where they say it is – and that is a fact. Tanzania was a lucky winner in April of 2001 when creditors wrote off $2 billion, the largest write off in Africa so far, to reduce the country's debt by over 40 per cent. They said that it created free public primary school and educated 50% more students than the previous year. I worked in a public primary school. There were 60 students to one teacher, we had no books whatsoever, students were not given pens and pencils and we ran out of chalk for several weeks. School was almost called off for a week because there was no money for the morning porridge (this is $10 – I donated it and school resumed) and teachers had not received their government paychecks for over 2 months. Some just didn't bother to come to work. So what good did that write-off really do? It simply took the responsibility off the government. And when a government has no real accountability, it can do what it likes.
"But I just handed out some pens!" you exclaim in your defense, "I mean, it is not that big of a deal!" But it is. This behavior, while it seems relatively harmless, slowly breeds generations of Tanzanians who are seeking a "quick fix" and looking for the easy way out. Put it this way, if you had a child who constantly lamented "gimme, gimme, gimme" and you continually obliged that child, what effect would that have on the child? He or she would become spoiled. It is no different here. Do you give money and pens to the homeless that lurk in the streets of your own neighborhood? Most likely you do not. In fact you probably mutter something like "get a job" to that individual – or at least you think it. Why? Because you don't want to perpetuate the beggar culture in your neighborhood. Well, I beg of you – please do not do it in mine either.
If you do want to help, do not dial the 1-800 numbers on your TV, do not adopt a child for $.10 a day or send plastic toys, and for god's sake do not hand out pens, gum, or money. What you can do is find a legitimate Non Governmental Organization (NGO) – there are many, but make sure you research them - that is working with local communities on sustainable agricultural projects, or a foreign run school aimed at offering affordable, decent education to children who have no access to it. Donate to projects aimed at educating Tanzanians about the importance of preserving National Parks and Wildlife or computer technology or business administration. Sponsor a venture that is dedicated to empowering rural women by teaching them a trade which they can turn into a lucrative business. There are things you can do to help, but it does not include giving hand-outs. You will have to work harder than that.
Interested in helping? Tropical Trails Safari Company is also the proud sponsor of the Arusha Children's Trust here in Arusha, Tanzania. The trust is an NGO set up in Arusha in December 1999 to support underprivileged children in the Arusha and Rift Valley regions of Tanzania.
The Arusha Children's Trust is about education, health, environmental awareness and the preservation of traditional cultures. It provides educational materials, teachers salaries, classroom furniture, sports equipment and improves school buildings.
In 2002 it built and furnished a community centre in a Masai village outside Arusha which hosts a kindergarten for 4 to 6 year olds, an outreach health clinic for disabled children, women's groups and workshops for the whole community. It provides the educational materials for the centre and the children with a hot breakfast every day.
The Arusha Children's trust relies on donations and fundraising to finance its projects.
It believes that education is the key to a better future for the children it helps.
For more information contact the ARUSHA CHILDRENS TRUST
Brittany Stephen is the Sales and Marketing Manager of Tropical Trails Safari Company. She originally hails from Chicago, but has made Arusha, Tanzania her home for the past two years. Her free time is spent writing about her experience and planning her next adventure...