One of the hardest things about living here in Niger is dealing with the poverty. You see signs of it everywhere, and you want to help, but you know that you can’t help everyone. It is especially difficult because people are coming up to you and asking you for help on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, and each time you have to run through a number of questions in your head:
- Can you help them or not? This means assessing what their problem is, and if you can provide the solution, or at least part of the solution.
- Do you want to help them? Since helping everyone is out, you have to evaluate each case individually.
- Have you already helped this person before? Is it better to help one person or one group of people a lot, or help many people a little?
- How urgent is their need? Do they have any other alternatives or are you their only hope?
- How much do you have to give? What is the balance between selfishness and over-giving?
If this seems very organized, it is not. I don’t have a flowchart or anything. I am usually kind of put on the spot, and all these questions are pretty jumbled up in my head. But they do cross my mind in one form or another. It is not easy, because you feel like you are constantly making life or death decisions, and making calculations like “Do I really need to drink a coke right now? The price of that coke could buy a whole meal for a kid.” And its not some rhetorical kid that lives on the other side of the world, it is a kid that lives next door. Or the kid (probably 12 years old) that works at the tire repair place in front of our house. I see him every day and he always says hi to me.
It is not easy having to make these calculations all the time, and the worst part is having to tell people that you can’t help them. Which is why when you have a chance to really help someone, you jump at it. Especially if it is helping them help themselves. I had heard a lot about micro-financing and micro-lending before, and I thought that it would be something that I would like to be involved in, but I thought that I would have to do it through some kind of NGO or organization. What I didn’t realize was that just being here you are presented with opportunities for this kind of thing all the time.
Our guard Abdou came up to me a while ago and made me a proposition. He lives in Niamey, but his neighborhood is far away, and he has to leave his house at 5:00 AM to make it to work on time at 7:00 AM, because he walks. That is 4 hours of walking a day! He asked if he could borrow some money to buy a motorcycle, and pay it back in installments by withholding some money from his paycheck each month. I thought it seemed like a good idea, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how much motorcycles cost around here, and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to front him the money. But when he told me the price, it was not a lot, and so I agreed.
Now Abdou has made his first repayment on the loan, and he is the proud owner of a moto! It amazes me that there are so many ways to help – and when you live in a place like Niger, you don’t even have to seek them out, they literally come to you all the time. Of course, these days you can easily help people even if you don’t live anywhere near them, through organizations like Kiva for example.
For a lot of people, it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to pay back a loan. Even a small loan. Some people just need help full stop, and usually it isn’t even very much, i.e. “My baby is sick and will die unless I get him this medicine, and I have no money at all. The medicine costs $4.” But it is great when you have a chance to help someone that is enterprising, and wants to get ahead responsibly. It makes them feel good and it makes you feel good as well. Not to mention, the results can be unquestionably stylish: