Letters from TZ

Citizens are the real beneficiaries of this nchi ya kitu kidogo

A few months ago, a stranger helped me fix a flat tyre. He looked like he was on his way to an appointment of some kind, but he put his plans on hold to lend a hand. When the good deed was done, he put on his jacket and was ready to be on his merry way. But the man had been so selfless that it would have been remiss not to give him a little something for his trouble. Which I did. Out of the kindness of my heart (what’s left of it). And that is as it should be. One ought to be compelled to kindness spontaneously. It must not be demanded.

I’ll tell you another story. Years ago, I was involved in a car accident. I was on my way home from an industry event at about 2.00AM. Driving down a lonely stretch, I lost control of the car and veered into a wooded area. Apart from the lights from the headlamps, it was pitch dark, late and lonely. But in a matter of minutes, I was surrounded by a group of shadowy male characters who didn’t seem like they had conversation on the brain.

In the split second that I spent considering my options, it occurred to me that I had no options. I looked my fate in the face and resigned myself to it. Then suddenly, a lone ranger emerged from the pack and stood by my side. He must have been some kind of alpha male because from the moment he turned protector, the aggressors backed off. It felt like they were sniffing at my heels but were unable to bite. The man stood right by my side – like some sort of guardian angel – until I was able to locate my family members on the phone, and right until they arrived at the scene. And then he disappeared into the trees as if he really was an angel. He was just a man though. A man who asked for nothing in return even when he deserved so much. Nothing I could have given him could ever have repaid him. How do you pay someone back for saving your life? Even so, I returned to the scene the next day, looked for the man and gave thanks. It wasn’t much, just a little something to express my deepest appreciation. It was more a token than anything else because nothing short of my life would have been enough.

But like the man understood, there are some acts of kindness that should be offered without any expectation of a reward. Unfortunately, we live in a quid pro quo society. You can’t get anything for nothing. Every little thing has a price tag on it. Even compassion. Every time anyone lifts a finger and you happen to be on the receiving end, you need to factor kitu kidogo into your budget. Forget the policemen and government officials who we are wont to bribe with alarming regularity. The real money changes hands among the citizenry. We are charging each other to death. One good deed might deserve another but it certainly does not deserve a handout. Unless you are genuinely needy, which many of the ‘cash-for-kindness’ cons are not. They have jobs, businesses or are otherwise gainfully employed. They have a source of income. But then the complaint becomes that employers are not paying enough, or that uchumi ni mbaya so they need to supplement that income.

And that may be true. There is no such thing as enough money, not in my cashbook at least. But that shouldn’t immediately lead you to monetise your humanity. How far does that money go anyway? Does it ever make into your savings? Or go towards paying for your children’s education? Or is it spent on an airtime voucher within 10 minutes of being received? What would you rather have? Cold, hard cash and all the worries in the world or a little less money and the feeling of satisfaction, knowing that even though you might be broke, you are still valuable?

A guy once gave me directions to a market. I thanked him and started to follow them. But before I could get one foot in front of the other he was in my face demanding payment. “Sasa, unaniwachaje?” he said. “Umenitoa pale kwa kazi zangu, nikaja hapa kukusaidia, e-eh? Sasa unaniwachaje dada? Kitu kidogo tu dada, kitu kidogo tu.”

Sigh. It might sound like I am extremely tight of fist to some but believe it or not, it is not my money I am worried about, it is the principle of the thing. The kind of money you accumulate from charging people to give them directions has no real value. More than that, by asking your fellow citizens to pay for what should be an act of service that is freely given, you immediately devalue their mood.