The Dream of a Hair Salon | Giving vs. Lending in Malawi

A few years ago I led a team to Malawi.  The organization that hosted us was dedicated to the people of Malawi and serving them tirelessly.  But as I worked alongside them I couldn’t help but notice several things that seemed to work against their ultimate goal of community transformation and spiritual development.  

First, the organization was primarily made up of white, middle-class Americans.  There were a few Malawians that worked on staff or interned with the organization but they reported to the Americans.  

Next, the organization made the bulk of it’s money to care for the people by child sponsorship.  While child sponsorship can be a great tool to generate money, in this case it charged an exorbitant amount of money per child.  The money raised then went into a large pot that paid for several orphanages that housed orphans.  Or at least, that's what they called the children.

Some of the children had parents but the parents were in such dire need that they could no longer take care of the children.  So this organization approached the parents, took the kids out of the village and put them in a western style bunk-bedded orphanages [complete with an actual shrine of the husband and wife who started the organization].  The kids seemed happy yet out of place.  They sang beautifully every time we came to visit and posed to take pictures  with the Americans that gave out candy and gum.

There were also very strange interactions among the white people of the organization with the actual villages.  The organization encouraged us as a team to purchase goods for the village as we saw fit.  So we spent $700 on bars of soap and then left bags of clothes and shoes for the men, women and children of the village.  The village elders were sullen and didn’t say much when we gave them our gifts.  We thought they would be overjoyed with the soap [especially after we gave them a 20 minute lesson on germs and the importance of washing your hands before you eat]. Through a translator we endowed them with our generosity and received little response.  

That night I lay awake in the walled compound of the host organization that was miles away from the villages it served and couldn’t help but wonder, “Is our one-sided giving really making a difference?  Is it really helping?”  The next day I pulled one of the Malawian staff members aside.  I asked her these questions sheepishly.  I told her that I felt badly for not expecting more of the villagers and for not inviting them into two way reciprocity.  I felt bad for not once asking the elders what they wanted for their village.  

Her face lit up.  She began to gush about how much she believed in her people and how she hated seeing them in such desperation that they couldn’t seem to find the means to support themselves.  I asked her if she had shared these thoughts with her superiors and she seemed to be embarrassed.  As we talked more she explained that she had very little say in how things were run and that she dreamed of a day where her ideas for her people would somehow find their way into the strategy of the organization she worked for.  

That same day she introduced me to a friend of hers in a nearby village.  Her name was Patuma.  Patuma was a beautiful single mother of three children.  She was very shy at first and didn’t say much.  But I began to ask her questions about her life. As we were walking back from a well where she paid to draw water from I asked her this question, “If you could do anything in the world to support your family, what would it be?”  Without hesitation she said, “I would own my own hair salon.  The women in this village may be poor but we like to feel good about ourselves.  We like to have nice hair.”  I was moved by this striking young woman’s dream.  I felt a stirring inside of me that made me ask, “How could I partner with you make that dream come true?”  

Together with the Malawian staff member, she and I cooked up a scenario that went something like this: I would loan her $70 US to have a well dug on her small property.  She would then charge her clients enough money to open up a hair salon in her home and pay me back within 18 months.  We spent hours talking over the details and we even wrote up a crude contract with the particulars of our arrangements.  When I left, Patuma looked me in the eyes with a beaming smile and through our translator told me how grateful she was for giving her the chance to take care of her family.  Notice that she didn’t thank me for taking care of her family.  Rather she saw the difference between my charity and our partnership.  

I left Malawi with mixed feelings.  I wondered what would become of the $700 US worth of soap and all of the donated clothing.  Would the people actually use the soap for the purpose intended?  Some villagers laughed at us when we told them the soap was for their hands.  They said they’d rather use it for laundry or scrubbing floors.  What about the donated clothing?  What would happen when the clothing became threadbare from over use or the kids grew out of them?  I suppose another American group would have to supply the next wave of hand-me-downs.  

At the same time, I also felt a nervous anticipation for my new friend Patuma.  I left the $70 US with the office of the organization and the list of agreements that Patuma and I had made with the organization's staff member.  The list included that the Malawian staff member agreed to make bi-monthly visits to Patuma to collect payments, see how well her business was progressing and brainstorm solutions to any obstacles that came up along the way.  I also asked them to send me monthly reports so that I could help with business solutions that might apply to Patuma’s situation.  It was agreed upon that once the $70 US was repaid that we would use it to fund another loan for another Malawian that had a dream of supporting themselves.  I was more ecstatic about this partnership than ever before because it felt so much more dignified than just handing Patuma some cash to start her hair salon.  This was my first taste of development.  Instead of just improving an existing condition I was able to form a partnership with her that empowered her to act on her ideas and dreams.

Sadly, after several months of contact back and forth with the host organization they ended up deciding that they were not going to allow me to loan Patuma this money.  They felt that it was too complicated and that if they started doing loans for one person then it would make it too inequitable for the others that were simply receiving donations.  I wondered what they had told Patuma or what she must have thought of me.  When I asked the organization to send me back my $70 they said they would do it right away.  They never did.

Why do you think it is difficult for giving organizations to create processes of dignified reciprocity?
Thanks for your comment