When you move to Africa, nobody warns you about ‘the guilt’. It may be pure self indulgence on my part, but I feel horribly guilty living in Africa as an expat because of the huge disparity of wealth, a yawning gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ that hits you smack between the eyes every day. It’s hard to avoid. I must be careful over how I describe this as blog readers may well misinterpret my meaning, but I think it’s an important subject to tackle and very relevant to the expat housewife experience.
When you move to the developing world, you might go about enjoying a lifestyle that’s not dissimilar to the one you left back home in the ‘first world’, often it's a little better, sometimes worse; however the lifestyle of the majority of those around you is always vastly, vastly different. Whether you live in an apartment, a compound of town houses or a lovely old house with a big garden you are confronted by poverty every day. The guilt pangs come when you see a lady bent double carrying heavy firewood; when you pass a man pulling a homemade handcart filled with scrap metal along the potholed roads whilst behind the wheel of your four wheel drive; when you see tiny uniformed children walking to school unaccompanied; when street kids push paper wraps of peanuts at your car window and beggars, some disabled, appeal to you from the pavement with open palms. I'm not a missionary, volunteer, doctor or nurse but simply a 'dependant' on my husband's passport and a trailing spouse, so there are no good works to assuage my guilt.
Most of us find ourselves peeling price labels off olive oil, chocolate, bottles of wine and cheese when we get home because we are ashamed of the fact that these items cost more than the average daily wage. We prefer secure shopping centres because there we are not hounded by (sometimes drug dependant) hawkers who pull tatty pieces of paper from their pocket and spin us a tale of woe and desperation: ‘I need drugs for an illness, here is the doctor’s prescription.’ ‘Give me 500 shillings to pay to the guard company who guarantee that I will then get a job. If you give me the money it will change my life.’ The hawkers at the local shops become familiar faces and before long you have heard all the stories before and however much money you give their situation stays the same. While the more canny hawkers try to memorize your children’s names to catch your attention, you might meanwhile gradually become a cynic. Others try to sell random goods that they carry about such as fruits, flowers, an iron or a pair of windscreen wipers and unfairly, it’s easier to say; ‘No thank you, not today’ to them. For an expat woman like me, who is usually preoccupied with manhandling her child out of or into a toddler car seat, carrying bags and trying to ensure her other children are not about to be run over in a busy car park, it is generally not the opportune moment to start discussing finances with a stranger.
Those in your employment will ask you for personal loans, request help with their medical costs and money for school fees. Sometimes you feel that whilst you can put up with: potholed roads, tropical illnesses, extra vaccinations, family and friends living thousands of miles away, less choice of goods to buy in the shops, political unrest, risk of armed burglary, car jacking and street riots, you simply can’t face being asked for more money because your patience has run out completely. If you say ‘No’ to someone who is asking for your help whilst you are in a stressed moment, you will drive off and be dogged by guilt thinking: ‘But look at me, I have so much and I’m refusing to help someone with so little.’ Yesterday, in the supermarket, two very smartly dressed young boys aged around seven and ten asked me to buy them bread – I was bemused.
I suppose the very wealthy Kenyans who live in our area just focus on helping their own family members rather than considering every appeal for money that is thrown at them whilst going about their business? The rest of us perhaps get along by taking each request on a case by case basis. Everyone does their bit to help someone. Perhaps others get hardened to it over the years and stop feeling guilty. Harsh experiences show that you cannot trust everyone and that helping those less fortunate does not necessarily translate to loyalty. My friend who has just paid out for school fees for her house helper whilst wondering how she will pay the fees for her own children asked me today: ‘How do you cope with the guilt?’ I replied: ‘I don’t, even after nine years it’s just always there.’