The year I lived in Conga, Africa, I learned some things about giving. First, I learned the importance of giving what a person needs instead of what one thinks they need. Second, I learned the importance of giving with no strings attached.
Within my first two weeks in Pointe Noire, several other American women offered to show me around. They were wives of the American oil company’s executives, and I was newly hired to be the school teacher for their children.
I got a phone call one morning. “We are going up to Diosso to the little village. We have some things to give to the people there. Would you like to ride along?”
We drove about an hour to a tiny, impoverished area north of the city. The rutted red clay road was rough and dusty as it wound into the village. We saw small buildings with no windows and very small doors. The buildings were placed randomly around a cleared dirt area, with laughing children running and playing. The walls of the one-room houses were a single layer of boards, through which we could see into the room and out the other side, as the boards did not fit tightly together.
Some of the children came running toward the car, smiling and holding out their hands. The women had bags of wrapped candy and began tossing them out the windows of the car. Then an older woman came out from one of the buildings toward our car. Our driver shoved a bag of clothes and food toward her. After waiting a few minutes, we began to drive away.
I didn’t know what to think of this – it was all so strange to me. But then the other women began to talk about their feelings. “They didn’t even say ‘thank you’”, said one. Another proclaimed, “Why don’t they act grateful for what we do for them?” The third woman stated, “I am never giving these natives anything again. They don’t appreciate us.”
I was surprised by their words, as my heart ached for the villagers. I couldn’t understand why these American women were so upset about not being thanked. None of the villagers spoke English, and the Americans had not tried to communicate except in English. No one had apparently done anything to learn what we might give the villagers that would help them. And finally, was their reason for giving so they would be thanked?
As we drove back to town, they continued to talk about the ungratefulness of the ‘natives’. When the women were ready to drop me off, they asked me if I had learned how useless it was to try to help ungrateful natives.
I felt speechless as I thanked them for inviting me along. But I thought to myself, when I give, I will try to first learn what it is the recipient needs, and then I will try to give it with no strings attached.