One of the challenges as Westerners living in Africa is how we use and manage money in relation to the ever present poverty that surrounds us here in Kenya. Daily financial situations arise that make us feel uncomfortable and uncertain with how to respond. Our helper asks for a loan on her next month's salary (Is this a loan of gift)? We buy vegetables at the local market and feel sad as we are unable to buy from each person. We are asked for money to pay school fees and do not know if the request is legitimate. A co-worker needs help for medical fees for her son and asks for a pay advance? We sell a friend a simple piece of furniture 6 months ago but have yet to be paid. These are just a few situations that we struggle with.
A century previous the average westerner had an annual income 3 times that of the average African. Today, if I am average I will make 60 times that of an average African in my lifetime. What does that advantage mean and what does God expect from us in relating to our Kenyan friends in financial matters? Should I be negotiating for prices at the market (is that cultural or being overly thrifty)? Should I be holding people accountable for "loans" or should I let it go as a gift unspoken? Ultimately how do we as a family share our resources (which are not really ours but God's) with those in need but not feel like we are getting taken, scammed, or burned? How do we find a balance between Christian generosity and using our resources wisely?
Thankfully I happened upon the book, 'African Friends and Money Matters' by David Maranz. It is a book that was developed to address the frustrations many Westerners (tourists, missionaries, diplomats, NGO's, businessmen) face when living in Africa with money matters. Each culture sees and manages money differently and these differences cause misunderstandings. With anecdotes, studies, and his own experiences he lists 90 observations of just "How Finances Work in Africa." Let me share with you several of his observations.
1) Resources are to be used, not hoarded.
2) Money is to be spent before friends or relatives ask to "borrow" it.
3) If something is not being actively used, it is considered to be available.
4) Africans assist their friends in financial need as a form of investment for those future times when they themselves might have need.
5) Africans readily share space and things but are possessive of knowledge (Westerners tend to be opposite).
6) Precision is to be avoided in accounting as it shows a lack of a generous spirit.
7) Fund raising is done on a village basis to help with personal needs. The person in need can decide best how to spend this money.
8) Many products (phone cards, dental anesthetic, food) are purchased in very small amounts even though the unit cost is quite high.
9) Africans are more hospitable than charitable (Westerners tend to be the opposite).
10) Compliments are given indirectly in the form of a request for a gift. (That is a nice bike)
11) Africans are very discreet about asking for assistance, only hinting at their needs. (we are hoping to repair a roof, we are raising funds for a funeral, our daughter is going to school.)
12) Africans find security in ambiguous arrangements, plans, and speech (Westerners tend to the opposite). Examples are; a) when borrowing it is left open when, how or if funds to be repayed b) absence of fixed prices c)commitments to attend meetings c) absence of starting times or ending times for events
13) Showing solidarity at events like funerals and weddings is extremely important. Financial contributions are expected as well as extended leave with pay.
14) Corrupt money is not expected to be paid back, accountability is not enforced, restitution is not practiced.
15) A major function of government is to provide money to those members of society that are in power. Nepotism is expected.
16) A great number of economic needs in Africa are met by friends and family.
17) An unjust settlement of a dispute is better than an offended complaint.
18) A loan is eligible to be repaid when the creditor's need becomes greater than the debtor's need.
19) The collection of debt is primarily the responsibility of the creditor.
20) Loan is often a euphemism for gift.
21) Loans of goods come with rules. a) the borrower does not return the article unless asked b) articles may be reloaned to third parties c) long term borrowing of the article becomes a gift d) normal wear and tear is the responsibility of the lender not the borrower
22) Westerners find it frustrating that Africans appear unclear and indirect.
23) Having the correct amount of money in a business transaction is the responsibility of the buyer not the seller.
24) Negotiating for prices is expected. It is part of the greeting process.
How do we make sense of this? Are some of these observations just plain wrong? But what about Biblical commands to live in community and to provide for the widow and orphan? We seek to engage, befriend, and witness to the culture in Kenya but the economic differences between us and them are staggering, unavoidable, and expanding. How do we balance grace towards the culture and also emphasize accountability? Do we strive to help (with charity) or maybe better yet help those to help themselves (with matching donations to encourage savings)? Do we micromanage supplies, accounts, donations or empower others to use them as God may choose.
As still a new family in Kenya we have much to learn and are often humbled by our own lack of understanding of the culture here. This book has shed light on our stark differences and has made us wonder, how we ever get things done? Only by God's grace perhaps. Lastly a veteran here in Kijabe advised, "Malin, I have learned to err on the side of generosity. If you are not occasionally getting burned on a loan, scammed on a donation, or pay higher for a purchase..you are probably not where you need to be. We are called to give, God will be responsible for how it is used."