A moral dilemma about aid: Thulane’s story

I see needs everywhere I look in Swaziland.

I see undernourished children. I see 18-year-olds in grade seven. I see gogo caring for seven children because their parents died. I see teenaged mothers. I see a room full of high school girls ecstatic to receive the health classes they never had. I see more scars and tumors than I can count.

I see hard work. I see proud people. I see traditions followed. I see everyone doing the best they can with what they have.

My community infrequently asks me for money, and when people do, I am usually able to talk to them about saving their own money or creating a way to earn money.

While it is hard to see hungry children (and all of the other needs I mentioned), I know that me feeding them will not solve any problems.

I can keep a clean conscience about this, and I am able to sleep at night.

Peace Corps does not support PCVs giving away anything for free other than knowledge, and I wanted to work for this organization for this reason. This post is not about the merits or disservices of traditional aid, though.

Instead, this post is about the first person who has challenged my view.

In general, I do not know much about anyone other than the children in my family. I would love to ask many people hundreds of questions about their lives, but I do not want to be too nosy.

When I asked my English club students to write letters to students at my high school, no one wrote about anything too personal. They shared their favorite sports and subjects, how many siblings they have, and where they live.

My club meetings were canceled at the end of the last term because of exams, so I was asked to come to a different club’s meetings. This other club helps students with a handful of subjects. They meet at the same time on Tuesdays as my club, and most of them do not come to my Friday sessions.

At one of my sessions with this other group, I asked them to also write letters, and most of them did. But this group was much more personal.

They shared about being bullied, dead parents, and unmarried parents.

And then there’s Thulane’s* letter.

He is one of the students who occasionally comes to English club and always greets me when he sees me. He speaks great English and is very polite. I was sure he was older than an eleventh-grader in the U.S., but that is relatively normal here.

His letter took me by surprise, and I have not stopped thinking about it because he explains why he is 30 years old and still in high school.

He grew up with his father, and his grandmother was paying his school fees (only recently were grades 1-7 made free). His grandmother died, and the money stopped, too. Then his father died. He went to look for his mother, whom he found, and they lived with a relative who started paying for his school. His mother moved out because the relative was abusive. Thulane stayed to continue school.

Eventually, the abuse was too much, so he moved out in 2006 after finishing Form 1, looking for work to support himself. He went back to school in 2015, paying for Form 2 himself. Friends and teachers paid the last two years. He has one year of high school left.

What do I do with this information?

I am not allowed to report abuse, even if it was current.

If I offer to help or ask you to help pay his school fees, what message does that send? What about all the other students at his school and across Swaziland who cannot afford school fees? Would I feel differently if he hadn’t been abused? If his loving family members hadn’t died or abandoned him? If next year wasn’t his final year of high school? And what about after high school? He still will not be able to afford university, and there is no FAFSA form to fill out here in Swaziland to show that you have no money in order to receive a grant from the federal government to fund your education.

I could stop buying cheese and yogurt and stop making cookies and cake to share with my family and friends. I could stop eating out. I could save that money for Thulane’s school fees instead.

I cannot help everyone, but I–or we–could help this one person finish high school. Is it worth it?

*Name changed for privacy.

This entry was posted in Africa, Peace Corps, Swaziland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A moral dilemma about aid: Thulane’s story

  1. Hey Alison
    In the face of the overwhelming odss, best you can do is, do what you can to make a difference. Don’t overthink this, it will drive you crazy, or depress you, or both. There are organisations here, not sure about Swaziland, where it’s possible to knock on doors and hope …

  2. Pingback: Saturday gratitude: Extension and other wonderful things | travelin' the globe

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