‘Madame, donnez-moi un cadeau!
Donnez-moi mille franc!
Slogans like this will be heard from many children and they lead to a variety of reactions with travelers. Even if we are far from rich in our own country, we still have much and much more than most people here. And how easy it is to feel sorry for the kid, looking at your bag with a hopeful face. But, do we really help anyone, if we give something? Or are we unconsciously giving in to our own emotions and feelings of guilt? And do we create something that we actually do not want: people begging for help, rather than taking on the responsibility of their own lives?
In general you can state that children asking for money, gifts, sweets, pens, bottles and other things are showing a picked up behavior. This thought is being confirmed with the fact that the habit of asking is mainly present in the urbanized and tourist areas. Once you get of the beaten tourist tracks to the villages where you’ll hardly find any white people, chances are low that children will ask you for anything.
For many of the younger children these sentences are just being copied from what they hear from others. Maybe even the only words they know in French and a way to connect with you. Just as someone else would say ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ or ‘à demain’.
Having said that, giving and receiving is deeply ingrained in Malian culture. And so is asking for money or goods. Solidarity is still on a high level and anyone in need can ask his family or friends for help and will find it whenever anyone is capable of giving.
An older sister has the right to ask her younger brother for almost anything. It not only being a sign of respect to give it to her but it also being his pay-back for her having carried him around when he was a baby and for all the laundry she did for him.
And of course your (grand) parents need to be respected, so they will count on you too. As will any other family member or friend that is in need.
Giving coins or kola nuts to the village chief and elderly people in general is a sign of respect. Giving to twins is supposed to bring good luck. As it is everyone’s duty to give some food and/or coins to the Koran students.
Other than that money is being given to families visited and to friends encountered when you’re traveling. And sure enough there are a few that do ask for it if you do not instantly give it yourself.
Whenever we are traveling quite a few coins are passed on. And honestly, every time I think I do understand it, it turns out that this particular situation is different. I’m leaving it to Ibrahim to give whenever it is appropriate for Malians and am not giving in to the giving because of my white skin.
Most Malians are used to the asking and giving and find it hard to understand that it shocks us, when we are being asked for money or belongings. It’s no big deal for them to ask us for something they’d like to have. As it would be natural for them to give us something when we would be in need of it.
Recently I mentioned to Ebi that I like his necklace. His hands were already moving towards the lock, when he asked me if I would like to have it. I started laughing and told him that I just mentioned that I like it; nothing more nothing less, and that I was not asking for it. Ok, he nodded and left it where it was.
What is mine is yours and the other way around is still very much part of life for many people here. However, things start shifting. More and more people do get aware that if they do want to progress in life, things will have to change. And with them taking on the responsibility of their own life, the next step will have to be that they kind of force their family members to also take on the responsibility of their lives. The latter being quite tough, since that comes with ‘not showing respect’ to your family and sure that does have its consequences. Examples of Malians that made some money, got successful and moved to be out of sight and reach of their family are all around.
Somewhere in between the high level of Malian solidarity and the more ego-based western societies is a field awaiting to be discovered and shaped. A field based on equality where giving and receiving are in balance. A field I’m willing and wanting to be part of!