Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The difficulty of helping someone

The buzz of charity and NGO work that swarms the 21st century is enough to make anyone not directly involved feel guilty. If you don’t have an ongoing direct debit donation, haven’t volunteered in a developing country, and don’t see the need to divide your waste into plastics and papers, you are an opponent to society—making everyone else pay because you can’t lift a finger.
            This blog entry is written to emphasise the difficulty of real charity. Money is a poor tool for helping but we act like it is the alpha and omega. It is time we looked at our commitment to charity afresh and to do this I would like to relate the story of David, whose name was changed to protect his identity.
            David lives in Nairobi, Kenya. When I met him he was 17 years old and looking for help to finish primary school. He had never known his father, who was most likely a migrant worker. David does know his mother, who lives in the same slum as him, but a number of years back she began to get close with a new man and so chased David and his sister away. What is the reasoning behind that? Especially in the slums, a woman is far more attractive if she has no dependents, if in living with her you are starting afresh. David’s mum was afraid of being rejected because of the presence of her children, so cast them out.
            From there David went to stay at a government-run orphanage. When speaking about the orphanage, David does not go into details but describes those who run it as not liking the children. They are there to get money, he says, and don’t care about you. While at the orphanage, David met a young German lady, a volunteer who came over briefly to help out. She fell in love with him and said they would marry when she comes back to live with him. The lady left and has not been heard of since, though David still believes she will come back.
From the orphanage, David was trying to continue in a far away primary school. He had to get up early each day to walk the distance and so he often arrived back late. The staff of the orphanage resented him for this, and one day he came back to find the doors locked. He knocked and the guard told him to go away, and that they had been told to not allow him in anymore because his school is too far.
            From there David started sleeping on the streets. He has three step-brothers from his mother’s new arrangement and sometimes he meets up with them. They earn money by selling bread and tea outside the main pubic hospital of Nairobi and whenever the brothers get enough money they buy pills that make them high and then put them to sleep for a long time. They are not allowed to sell outside the hospital and so are often chased by the police. If caught, they are put in the cells for a few days.
            David avoids his brothers because of these troubles, though he will sometimes join them if there is no-one else to go to. When I met David he was at this stage: wanting to continue at school and avoid his brothers but having no means to do so. If I ask about his sister, his mood is dark. When he was in the orphanage, David’s sister was not allowed to visit. The step-brothers used to tease and make fun of her, and told her David had left and was not coming back. Rejected by her mother and led to believe she was abandoned by her only brother, David’s sister took rope and hung herself.
            It is for this reason that David is scared of large knives or being alone for too long. He has violent mood swings that leave him satanically hateful one day and childishly playful the next.
            After meeting David I managed to connect him with a generous benefactor in the UK who was willing to meet the costs of school fees until the end of secondary, together with David’s cost of living. The sum was £500 per year. Together with two Kenyans, we formed a team that would look after him and manage his finances. We got him a room in some recently built flats in the slum. One of our team brought the evening meal each day to a nearby mama from whom David would collect it. Twice a week he would come to my house for dinner, do homework, and help me practice Swahili. Once a week he would go to a youth club to play football and do some study.
            The help was stable and with few strings attached—all he had to do was what he said he wanted to do. At the same time, however, we knew that there were deep psychological issues bubbling away inside, and things could never be as stable as we wanted them. Despite the help he was receiving, David believed he had become cursed. He was deeply suspicious of other people, and always felt they were laying a trap for him when being kind. He would go for days without eating, trying to kill the bad spirits he felt around him. He started suffering from strong headaches and was often not able to go to school.
            To try to deal with some of the underlying psychological concerns, one of our team brought him to a trusted counsellor. When waiting in the queue, he found his ticket number to contain three 6s. After refusing to open up to the counsellor and getting angry with the person who brought him, he returned to his step-brothers who told him the ticket showed he had been cursed by the devil.
            Gradually David began to lose his trust with us, and ran from the room we had rented for him. He started staying with a South Sudanese boy whom he had befriended, despite a waste of one month’s rent at the other place. When I would meet with David he would blame others for not caring about him, saying how he wanted to return to school but was not being given help. The help was there, I explained, but we needed a way of frequently communicating and he needed to stay in one place. When it became clear he was not able to stay in touch consistently, nor take our advice about who to mix with, we decided to withdraw help on the basis of there being so many others who were in need and more likely to use the help.
            All help, when inspected at the person-to-person level, is difficult and complicated. Money is never a solution, just a tool that is sometimes useful. The real battle is in the person. If we change the way a family member or flat-mate thinks or acts, we really have achieved a lot, much more than any donation. The real challenge of changing the world is in the personal connections.