Seated on a rock waiting for the kombi near my homestead in Swaziland, a young man approached to ask for money. I shrugged, pretending not to understand, returning to my paperback. But he was insistent.
“You like Swaziland? You think America is being better than Swaziland?” he said, peppering me with questions like gunshots, tapping my shoulder to illustrate the point.
Finally I murmured something about liking Swaziland. That both countries were wonderful. They were both good in their own ways. You know, the usual Peace Corps public relations stuff. I even smiled slightly, hoping that would satisfy him, but he didn’t go away.
Instead he leaned over me, trying to wedge his head between mine and the pages of my book. It was no doubt difficult to lasso my attention with my eyes lowered on the page.
“I want. You give me,” he snarled, pointing at the blue Uniball Vision Elite pen in my hand. “You give me. I want!”
Not surprisingly, he had no interest in my book. In the year I had spent living in a hut in the back of the Simelane homestead as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had never seen a person engrossed in a book. Not even in the Nhlangano Public Library where the candy jar was far more popular than the written word.
“You know that ol’ Swazi saying,” quipped one of my teacher friends. “If you want to hide something, put it in a book.”
I looked up at the man’s aggressive face, feeling my eyebrows tense together. The sun warmed the back of my neck. A cow called from the pasture behind me. I could even make out the rumble of the Nhlangano kombi in the distance.
“Why not? Why you no give me?” he argued, more sharply this time.
“Because it’s mine,” I told him simply.
Living in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland --- without running water, cooking meals on a single gas burner and teaching high school English --- had made me bold. I looked the young man straight in the eye, suddenly feeling no need to elaborate on the little respected concept of ownership.
I could have explained that I was a writer and I had a great affinity for some pens. That this one was one of the few remaining from my original stash brought from home.
But I didn’t. Why explain myself, I thought. Why should I?
When I arrived in the southern province of Shiselweni, I had been embarrassed of my wealth – by my well-made American shoes, my healthy straightened teeth, and by my $200 a month Peace Corps salary. But no longer.
I felt bombarded by open hands, by people for whom begging seemed perfectly acceptable.
“Emasweeties? Emasweeties?” the children asked on my walk to school.
“You give me money? Give me money,” they demanded in town.
Even on the Simelane homestead, if Gogo was not home, young mothers often wandered up to me as I pinned clothes on the line. Some were even so bold as to slink up to my partially opened door and ask for a handout. I didn’t often understand their words, but it didn’t matter. Their mournful eyes, the sideways glances to the their docile toddlers standing beside them, an hand outstretched. Their intent was clear.
“You must not spoil them, Thembi,” my host mother used to warn. “It’s no good!”
She knows that something given rather than earned breeds dependency here. When her grandson forgot to put the weekly bag of maize on the gatepost in front of the to be picked up and I suggested various ways we could get the corn to the grain middleman but she wanted to hear none of it.
“Let them starve then,” she told me matter of factly, swatting away my words as if they were gnats buzzing around her ears.
“You feed the cats, they will not hunt for rats. You feed the dogs, they will not get up to bark,” she instructed. “They must be disciplined, but you cannot.”
Africa does not need your help.
She doesn’t need another handout. She needs a dose of tough love, a swift kick in the butt and an admonition to fix her own problems. Much blame has been given to our colonial ancestors but what was done is over now. Africa must stop her begging and quit relying on the West to bail her out when she gets in a bind.
Our charity may assuage our own guilt but I believe it undermines Africa’s already shaky self-esteem, affirming what she already suspects – that she is not capable of taking care of herself.
Let her stand or topple on her own. Walk away, NGOs and missionaries and aid agencies. Let the Swazi people learn to demand fair government, free expression and education, and a decent wage for a day’s work. They are quite capable of standing on their own two feet. All they need now is a dose of tough love.