Freetown, Baby!


Humonetary Dilemma by mabrajeux
June 23, 2010, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A few weeks ago in Kono, a young boy in his early teens came up to me as we entered in a restaurant and gave me a letter. He was extremely polite, saying hello and calling me ‘auntie’, a term of respect in Sierra Leone.

The letter was very neatly written, with big round letters in dark blue ink. In it, the young boy said that he had lost both his parents in the war and asked me, or anyone, to help pay for his tuition fee so he could keep going to school.

It is common for people to ask you for money here, as many assume that as an ‘opoto’ (white man) you have access to vast amounts of cash. In many ways, and in comparison to their income or lack thereof they are probably right… And so reacting to such demands can be strange, as you (I?) try to acknowledge the interlocutor while conveying with some compassion that you can’t (won’t?) give them any money.

This encounter felt different, as it was, or seemed to be, a specific amount of money for a specific, and laudable, purpose. I told the boy that I would think about it and walked in the restaurant with my friends and asked someone who had been here for a while what she thought of it. She confirmed that those letters are generally ‘sample’ letters copied out to soften the heart of unsuspecting (or unwilling to suspect) expats. You read it and then make sure you give it back, whether you act on it or not…

And while I tried to decide what to do, many conflicting thoughts ran through my head. I know giving handouts is not a solution and will probably result in more people using ‘the letter’. I know this boy has already experienced more hardship than I will probably experience in my entire life. I don’t know whether the fee will actually go towards his tuition fees. But then again, who am I to decide what is a worthy cause or not? Etc, etc… And against the background of these contrasted feelings, one inevitable certainty: the 20,000 leones (£3.50) he asked for meant nothing very consequential to me, but meant a lot to him…

As I walked back out of the restaurant, still unsure of what I would do, the boy was nowhere to be found. To this day, I’m still not sure what I would have done…

This dilemma is described in this series of articles, which is well worth a read. If any one figures out the answer, please let me know…

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