Is It Right to Come with Gifts for Children?

Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

No and yes and no.

On the one hand, there is some serious danger that you will contribute to the culture of begging that can be quite annoying. At my Ugandan home, Lake Bunyonyi, it’s almost like children learn “Give me money!” before “Mama”. At my Rwandan home, Musanze, we have a startlingly common problem with “learners” — youngsters will start with “I want to practise my English” only to end up with their dire need to buy a “dictionary”.

On the other hand, it is true that too many people here have very little. It is satisfying to give something small to a kid who will really appreciate it, right? But are you doing it purely for a personal kick, for the do-gooder sensation in your brain? A friend of mine told me about an honest tourist in Ethiopia simply saying, “I am on holiday and giving makes me feel good!”

You should try to look at the long-term consequences of your actions. You have most probably already encountered kiddos asking for coins at other world destinations. There’s no way around it: such habits start because tourists throw cash through the window (many times in denominations one can’t even exchange locally).

But I digress!

This writeup is a result of a rather detailed question I just received from a well-intended member scheduled to visit Uganda in January:

I would love to bring some notebooks, marker pens, crayons, watercolours etc. as gifts for children I am going to meet in villages. Am I watching too many movies and everyone is already having everything and they will want phones and tablets instead? What would be a good gift for kids?

No, it isn’t necessary to give out iPhones. Budget Android phones can work as well. Just kidding. The gifts listed above would all be much welcome and your imported stuff would look fancier and more special. Like a gift should be, correct? Think again. What about supporting local industries and reducing your carbon footprint by buying scholastic materials in a Ugandan shop?

The most important dimension of it may be how you give. The best advice is to give it through a teacher, church leader or another local person or organisation. Ideally a kid would not see a connection between you and what they get. For example, I personally love to direct any gifts to the Batwa “Pygmies” we work with — they are the poorest of the poor, we have a great relationship with them, and we know they will deal with anything donated with community spirit.

I don’t encourage it, but I am not the one to stop you from giving gifts. I would just prefer you think about it first. Not bringing anything is an option too — you could as well go to a town stationery trader and purchase something. Or support building a latrine perhaps? That may be the best present for our communities, and a real way of connecting with the people.

This topic will be discussed in more detail on SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA on 30 November 2022. Will you be with us live?

photo by Marcus Westberg

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