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Making do in Africa


This piece of 1,000 words is a brief resume of the difficulties of life in Africa and of giving for the right reasons and at the right time. I have visited the continent on a number of occasions and lived in Senegal for a short while. 

Making do in Africa


‘I was born near Fatick. My village is poor because it doesn’t rain enough. There’s hardly enough to eat, no money, no work. When I was eight, I left my parents and 14 brothers and sisters and went to stay with an aunt in the suburbs of Dakar to look for a job. I went from door to door until a woman took me to mind her baby, clean clothes, do the washing up from eight in the morning till eight at night for 2,000 CFA (£2) per month’ (1)


Oumy Ndir’s story is not unusual. Many thousands of girls come to Senegal’s main city to look for work as maids. At eighteen she was still doing it, working fourteen hours a day without any days off. Her food consisted of scraps from left-over meals. Her boss was short of money one month so accused Oumy of stealing her jewellery and sacked her. A mediator from Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs (Child and Young Workers movement) retrieved Oumy’s last month’s salary from her boss. Oumy became an active supporter of the rights of maids and, at 22, became the president of the movement.


There are a lot of stories like this, children who have to fight to get on in life. Senegal educates only about 60% of its children and about 2/3rds of adults are illiterate (2). There are not enough schools and teachers even for those who go. Voluntary street schools, where children sit amongst the dust and noise of traffic, try to fill the gap. The police turn a blind eye. Better they sit there than hang around loitering.


Girls without schooling help at home or work as domestic staff. Boys clean shoes or sell newspapers and perhaps progress to watches, calculators, belts, shoes, flannels, towels and brooms. Dakar streets throng with men and boys trying to get people to buy something and passers-by must wearily say ‘Non, merci’ a hundred times a day.


Some beg, but not because they have lost touch with their families. Confined to a wheelchair or sitting on the street, their hands lost to leprosy, means that some people have no possibility of earning money. Children do it often because they’ve been sent by their parents to Koranic school (‘daara’). Here they learn the Koran for free and are either kept by the marabout (teachers) or have to fend for themselves. Many have no option but to get out on the streets and beg for their keep. It is a tenet of Islam that one should give to the poor so the system works after a fashion but there are many in Senegal who find the practice uncomfortable.


It’s even more uncomfortable if you’re not a Moslem. Giving to beggars is supposed to be counterproductive and confirms and supports a ‘beggar lifestyle’. But that theory works only if the beggar has an alternative and 48% of Senegalese are unemployed. So you give a few coins. What about the next beggar a few yards down the road? And the next? In a few minutes, you run out of coins, turn your head away as you pass and feel awkward.


So if we don’t give to beggars and can’t take the hassle from street traders what can be done? Sponsoring a child is a viable alternative. In spite of the implication, no money goes to the child. Contributions are pooled and the whole village benefits. But doesn’t that sound like begging except on a larger scale? I visited a sponsored child in Ethiopia to see how it works.


Sultal Awel was a slight, shy little boy of about 7 years of age. He lived in Gamama, about 180 km south of Addis Ababa, a tiny village of a dozen or so tukuls (wood and mud huts) surrounded by dry, dusty bush. And it was here I learned that sponsor's contributions are not doled out like largesse to the deserving poor. The truth is unrecognisably more complex than that. The backbone of the project is the village saving and credit scheme run by Peasant Associations. Gamama has its own, chaired and controlled by villagers, who meet weekly to place their savings, equivalent to 2 ½ p, into the fund and take applications for loans. This could be to purchase a goat, ox, some seed or a blanket, or a simple plough at a cost of 30 Birr (£1.50). Sometimes villagers borrow to buy and resell vegetables and make a marginal profit.


I attended a meeting as the treasurer was completing the savings ledger. They were each putting away £1.30 per year. Around my neck was equipment that cost more than the entire committee of 20 people would see in a lifetime. They were passing pennies, sums I wouldn't notice if dropped, saved with difficulty and pride. They agreed I could take a couple of photos. They looked up but did not smile. When I walked back to the landrover some returned my wave, but I had no idea how they felt about me. 


The NGO’s buzz words are 'non-dependency' and 'sustainability'. They instigate local projects that are sustainable in the long term and do not create a dependency on external agencies. They ask 'what would happen if we disappear?' If organisational collapse looks likely, the project shouldn’t begin. The NGO had funded, designed and managed the construction of both the local well and the nearby health clinic. The well is maintained by the villagers. The health clinic is largely unused. The Ethiopian government was supposed to staff and supply it with drugs but the NGO, not wanting to encourage dependency, refused to do it.


Although Sultan sees none of the money, he and his family are supported in their efforts to feed themselves. It’s a lot better start to life than Oumy had. She managed to break out but many thousands do not. Supporting NGOs is a vastly more effective way of doing something about that than passing over a few random coins.




(1)  ‘Working and Inventing on the streets of Africa’,  UNESCO 1998

(2)  Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2007

(3) CIA World Fact book, April 2007

Michael R Chapman
~ master of none ~
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