“Donne-moi.” (Give me). “Kusaidia” (Help.) I hear these two phrases a dozen or more times a day in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Mzungu, donne-moi cinq cent francs.” Give me a dollar. “Kusaidia, Mama.” Help me, lady.
Kusaidia is the infinitive and imperative form of the Swahili verb “to help.” When someone says, “Kusaidia,” they mean: “Help me. You’ve got to help me. You must help me. Help. Please.
“Donne-moi” is also the imperative. It’s the more intimate of the two conjugations of the French verb “donner,” to give. “Donne” is the “tu” form, the familiar. It’s the form you use with your closest friends, with family, or with those who are your social inferiors. So when someone says, “donne-moi…,” they’re saying, “Look, I know you, you are familiar, you need to give me something I need.
Talk about Jesus in his most distressing disguise.
I met an American pastor’s wife here once who said something about all these requests I’ve never forgotten. “You have to explain that if you gave them money, you’d have to give it to everyone,” she said, or something to that effect.
I remember this because at the time, I thought, “So what?”
The needs here are so overwhelming, the poverty so great that the billions of dollars in aid often seem like a drop in a bucket. It’s nowhere near enough to quench the flames. There are plenty of NGOs here, but foreign aid can only do so much in the face of so much suffering in almost every sector of society.
What will happen in the long term is anyone’s guess. Some NGOs try to create sustainable programs that will endure after they leave, but everything is dependent on donor financing. The child sponsorship programs won’t touch this corner of Congo–it’s too unstable to ensure that donor funds won’t be wasted.
And that pastor’s wife was right: you can’t possibly just give money to everyone who asks. It’s never going to be enough, it’s never going to help everyone, and it’s not a sustainable solution. It adds to the dependency problem that’s so rampant here, and it encourages people to assume that all white people, all westerners, are rich and can hand out money at will.
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that my 2-ounce bottle of moisturizer costs the equivalent of about 44 days’ worth of income for the average household in the eastern Congo. The total value of the electronics in my carry-on? Approximately 17 years’ worth of daily household income. That’s if you don’t count the value of the music on my iPod.
I had an interview at a non-governmental organization with which I’m impressed. They seem to have a good approach to solving problems in a community-oriented, sustainable manner. The staff are almost all locals, meaning they understand what’s going on here. And that they’re here for the long run.
Their projects are well thought-out and solve real problems, like the fact that many children go to school hungry. There aren’t free or reduced lunch programs in most Congolese schools, but this program runs school canteens to make sure that students can eat, and that they can therefore learn.
My interview subject was late, so I waited on a bench in the breezeway across from a father and his young daughter. She was really cute, about 8 years old, and wearing sunglasses that sat slightly askew on her face. When she raised them, I realized that she wore them because her right eye is swollen shut. Completely.
Her father noticed me noticing this and told me their story. His daughter has cancer. They’d spent the last nine months at a hospital in Kampala, leaving his wife and their other seven children behind to stay in a place where they don’t speak French, and where Swahili isn’t the main lingua franca as it is here.
He’s lucky, he works for this particular organization and so has a decent job, but the hospital bills pile up, and the treatments his daughter needs are expensive. Seventy-five dollars each, and she had to have a series of eight. That’s not including the cost of housing, of food, of being away from a job for a whole school year. His wife doesn’t work at a formal job because she is so busy caring for their other children. “She sells small things to get $5, $10 so that she can go and buy food for the children,” he told me.
Everyone at this organization clearly loves this little girl, because every employee who passed by stopped to say hello, to ask her father how it had gone in Kampala, and to give her a hug.
Her father was waiting this afternoon to see the same person I was waiting to see, in hopes that the chef (as a bureau manager is called here) would be able to give him some money so he could afford the ticket to take his daughter back to Kampala for more treatment.
I asked if the treatment before had been successful. “It’s a little better,” he said, “but…,” and his voice trailed off.
My heart broke into a thousand pieces.
He didn’t ask me for anything, but said that he and his wife were depending on God to bless them by providing for their daughter.
Here is a parent who so clearly loves his child, who, just like any of us, would do anything to assure her survival, including leaving behind his family for months on end and spending all their savings on her treatments. He sat across from me, next to his beautiful daughter, both of us almost in tears.
Things happened quickly after that: the chef showed up and told me to wait five more minutes. He told the man and his daughter that it was time for them to go and then disappeared into his office with someone else. I don’t know if he could help them or not.
The man and his daughter stood up to go. I told him I would pray for them, and then I did something I usually wouldn’t do: I gave him some money. It’s not enough, it’s never enough, but it was all I could do to help alleviate her suffering, to help ease her father’s mind, to do something in the face of all this misery and poverty and despair.
They left, and I cried and cried until I remembered that I needed to pull it together for the interview. After, I left wondering whether I’d done the right thing, whether to even tell this story at all. Because I just don’t know what to do.
You can’t help everyone. You can’t give to everyone. But what do you do when, day after day, hour after hour, Jesus appears as the least of these our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and as a sick, sick child who won’t ever get to see the inside of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital?
What do you do when he addresses you in the imperative? What do you do when the son of God speaks to you as someone who is familiar, as one who is known, as one who must help, whatever the cost? What do you do?
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.