Rediscovering the Joy of Giving

The road to Sammy’s house is a continuous jumble of muddy potholes. My husband and I jostle along in our shiny Subaru, weaving around chickens, bicycles, and groups of children with bright smiles who wave at the novelty of white faces in their village.  Sammy, our night guard, has invited us to his home on the outskirts of Nairobi for chai. When we arrive, the light in Sammy’s eyes and the vigor of his handshake reveal his excitement over our visit. He invites us in to his tiny, one room home, smaller than our own living room- the cement floor, the old calendars decorating cinderblock walls, and the dusk-like quality of a room without windows all so typical of Kenyan homes. Sammy lives in this crowded room with his wife and two young boys, Elvis and Samson, whose prized possession is a small Lego figure displayed on the room’s one shelf.

I’ve come to consider Sammy a friend, looking forward to his soft greeting and gleaming smile as I return home to our compound each evening. We chat and I pass on books about American baseball players so he can improve his English and endure the long hours by the gate. And yet, in the back of my mind, I know that at some point this friendship will likely lead to the dreaded request for a gift of money or a loan. 

It’s not that Sammy and our other Kenyan friends are trying to exploit our friendship. It’s just that, for many of them, relationship involves sharing. If a brother or cousin or friend has more money than you do, it makes sense that they should share it. There’s no shame in asking – it’s simply what you do when you’re in need and someone in your life has a little extra. But for me, coming from a culture of independence, armed with a battalion of reasons why giving money to every person who asks is imprudent at best and destructive at worst, these conversations always leaves me tense, my once genuine smile now forced as I agree to think about the request and then make my escape as quickly as possible.

My first impulse is to say “no.” I’m afraid of becoming known as an easy target for quick money. I dread the hassle of negotiating details and deciding how to deal with people who don’t repay their loans. And I genuinely believe that there is wisdom in not just blithely handing out money. I’ve witnessed the negative impact of too much money given too easily and hold strong opinions about the dangers of unwise giving.

But I also remember a conversation I had back in Canada with my friend Tricia. Tricia was an aid worker for many years in rural Bolivia and understands the challenges of living in a developing country and the frustration of repeatedly being asked for money. As we shared our experiences, she agreed with all my well-rehearsed reasons for not giving too easily, but then she said, “You know, if I could do those years over again, I wouldn’t worry so much about all those arguments. I think I tried so hard to be cautious in my giving that I completely reasoned my way out of being generous.” 

Now, years later, as my excuses for not sharing my own abundance echo in my mind, I think about her regret and wonder if someday I’ll share that same regret. Although my decisions and attitudes don’t always reflect it, I really do want my life to be marked by grace and generosity.
I’m pretty sure that if someday God calls me to account for my actions, I’m not going to be chastised for being too generous, for giving too much money to the needy people around me, or for saying “yes” a few too many times to requests from my friends.  There is still value in using wisdom and prudence in how I give to the poor, but I’m also beginning to believe that instead of trying to play God and decide who is worthy of my money, I need to let the recipients of my gifts be responsible for their own actions. I’m guessing that the real God would be a lot more gracious in His judgments than I am.

And so when Sammy begins to tell us about a plot of land he’s hoping to buy upcountry, my smile remains genuine. I sip the sweet milky chai he’s served me in a blue tin cup and I let myself catch his enthusiasm for a small farm, a source of income that might fund his children’s education. The amount of money he needs to make the land purchase isn’t much by North American standards, although virtually unattainable on his meagre salary. When he asks if we might be able to help, we don’t hesitate. Sammy is beaming as we work out the details of our agreement- my husband and I will provide the money he needs upfront, and he will work to repay 75% of it over the next few months. The remainder is our gift to him. I like the balance of gift and loan because it allows for a sense of partnership without leaving Sammy with a debt he could never repay.
Sammy will still have a lot of work to do to make the farm a reality, but he has the determination, the energy, and the hope that it’s really going to happen. I’m just honored that he is allowing me to play a part in creating this future and, in doing so, helping me rediscover the joy of giving.

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