Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Rich Man's World or Atlas Shrugged

I used to identify as being liberal when I lived in America. Actually, I identified as the kind of liberal described as being “left of Lenin,” when I lived in America. Government stay out of my private life, legalize all drugs, and bring on the taxes and social programs! What is government for if not to offer financial safety nets to its citizens?!

Then I moved to Tanzania.

I've changed since coming here.

I read Ayn Rand for the first time.

I became a racial minority- a model minority, if you will.

I am no longer left of Lenin.

Yesterday a man came to my house to tell me his secret and ask me for help. I had never seen this man before. We are strangers. He is HIV positive. In Tanzania, the government provides ARVs at no charge, but, at least for people in my village, you have to go to the hospital in town to get them, which is a 4,000 shilingi bus ride away. This man had finished his last does of medication, and was asking me for the money to get to town so he could get more. I gave him the money to get to town- what was I supposed to say after he told me he has two kids and his wife already died from AIDs along with their last child! Then, he said, but I will need money to get a place to stay, and food, and the return trip. I didn't give him any more money. He leaves, and I promptly return inside my house and lay on my cement floor, sobbing, then called my best friend to have her convince me to stay in this country.

I wasn't sobbing because of his sad tale and the woes of his life. I wasn't sobbing entirely because of this man, actually. He was more just the needle that broke my camel back. I was sobbing because wherever I go- the clinic, the school, the market, town, on a walk, my front porch, the bus- someone is going to ask me for money, or the bracelet I'm wearing, or the notebook I'm carrying, or the bottle of water I'm drinking from, or the orange I am eating. I have given people my money when they asked for it, or part of my orange, or my water bottle. And every time I do I feel so much worse than when I tell them no. If there are any charitable Christians reading this, you are probably thinking I am gong to Hell. Well, I don't believe in Hell, and you probably don't live in Tanzania, so I don't really care.

People here live with practically nothing. Everyone is poor. If a house has glass windows here, it blows my mind and I stare in dumb fascination. There are two families in my village of at least 5,000 people that have private vehicles. In a place where everyone is a farmer, I have seen two tractors (it might have been the same tractor, just in a different place on a different day.) Electricity hasn't made it into the hills here yet, so no one has electricity. No one has running water. The two communal water spigots in my village may or may not work on any given day. People are poor. And my village is fancy compared to others nearby.

This makes it so hard to turn people down, especially considering how generous so many Tanzanians are to me!

But there is a culture here that if you don't have it, you just go ask your neighbor for his. The inclination isn't to work for something, but to just get it from someone who has worked for it. I'm no economist, but I think this might have something to do with why Tanzania, with all its natural resources, is still a “third world” country.

I am not saying people do not work hard here. People farm by hand- have you ever tried that? People carry 10-50 buckets of water on their heads so their families can have water for a day or two before they do it again. These aren't the people who beg off of their industrious neighbors. They are the industrious neighbors that get begged from. And its not the same people begging that are being generous.

I don't know which came first- this culture of taking from your neighbor, or foreign aid- but foreign aid certainly hasn't helped. And there goes my status as a liberal! I think foreign aid has done more to hurt Tanzania than help. I think foreign aid should be wiped out and people should figure out how to help themselves. That is how you get sustainable development- sink or swim survival- not from USAID giving people latex gloves for free so they can have more babies they can't feed. I will never work in foreign aid again. I had to be here to figure that out. Dear America, lets put the money spent on foreign aid to use fixing problems like homelessness and hunger in America instead of in other countries. I won't get into what else is wrong with America's budget.

Also because of foreign aid, I wear my status of being the rich foreigner on my skin. If you're white, you're rich and you're here to give us money. Hence this man coming to me when he couldn't get to town to go to the hospital. I had a man come to my house on another occasion and very sincerely- on his knees, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer- propose to me. He had lost his job, and by marrying me, he explained, he would be able to have money. Oh, buddy, do I wish I had the money you think would so magically appear upon marrying me!

I suppose my purpose in writing this is that if you are applying to the Peace Corps, know it's ok to say no. Whenever I don't say no, I feel like I have been taken advantage of, like I have no backbone with which to stand up for myself, and I resent the people I live with. And that is when I think about leaving. I love everyone and feel great about being here when I work at the clinic or teach at schools or have crazy conversations about sex with the men hanging out in the madukani, but when I give more of myself than I want to, I don't want to be here. We are volunteers who are probably better off than our host country nationals, but that doesn't make us sacrificial lambs that people can pick apart because their need is greater.

Discovering Ayn Rand while in the Peace Corps may have been the worse thing for me to do, or the best. At least I know other people are as selfish as I am and are ok with it.

Also, thank you ABBA- you are a huge part my This is a 40 Year Old Divorcee playlist.

Oh, the man returned today because his bicycle broke and he wanted money to fix it. The white girl gave me money yesterday, she'll give me money again! I very politely told him no and have had a much better day.

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