After school finished, I was walking down the road with some of the kids, chatting, joking, and having a good time. There's a central spot nearby the school where the kids go to get their taxis home (there are no school buses in Jamaica, so people who drive taxis through the different neighborhoods come to take them too and from school, and the kids pay about J$50 each way - about $0.60). It's organized chaos - there are about 150 students in this little area, but the kids usually go with one of the same 2 or 3 drivers every day, and the drivers know where to let the kids off. But collecting all the kids they are supposed to collect, squeezing them in the car (at least 8 kids, usually more like 10, in a typical 4 door Civic type car), collecting the fare, etc, is a bit of a circus. But it actually works pretty well.
Anyway, the students and I approached this taxi area, and as we were about to go our separate ways, a car with 3 white woman in their late 20's and one Jamaican man drives up. The women were wearing matching tye-die t-shirts and seemed very, very out of place. I was walking away and I saw them approach one of the kids I had just been talking to. They draped this brand new, really nice backpack around his shoulder, took a few pictures each and walked away. I could not believe my eyes. And of course before they made it back to their car, a fight had broken out with all the kids trying to get their piece of the bag (which, I found out afterwards, also had a brand new soccer ball and notebooks inside). The Jamaican the women were with had to come over and mediate, meaning he yelled at the kids to behave and told them that the bag was his and his alone.
I was in shock about what I had seen - could they really be so ...I'm not even sure what the word is. But I think white is the word I'm looking for. Not in color, but attitude. You just come here, give a kid a bag, take some pictures and walk away? Never to be heard from again? And you think that's helpful in any real sense? Really? Stop pretending there's anything altruistic about this and just admit to yourself that you're real goal has nothing to do with this poor Jamaican kid you are "helping" but with making yourself feel good and having some cute pictures you can put on facebook to show off to your friends.
I couldn't just walk away, so I went up to the Jamaican who had brought them up, and asked where they were from. "Colorado" he said. And I asked what they were doing here, and he gave some vauge answer about helping. I asked if they were working at the school or just giving things away, and the Jamaican said no, just giving things away. In response I muttered "That is not what Jamaica needs". He didn't really hear me, but I didn't want to get into anything, so I just walked away, ignoring the women. I wanted to make it clear to the whole of my community and especially the kids that I had nothing to do with this whole thing.
Then I went over to the kid who had gotten the backpack to ask if he had ever seen those women before. He hadn't. "Well, did they say why they gave that to you?" "Because they saw me talking to you, Miss." Greeeaat. Pick the one kid out of 150 that the only other whitey is talking to and single him out with a random gift for no good reason. I truly hope that the kid misunderstood the situation, and that they had a better reason for giving it to him. But who knows. And at this point, I was so upset at the whole situation that I had to walk away before I went over and made a scene with the women. Who were still standing awkwardly by their car, about to be mobbed by kids wanting a backpack for themselves, or money, or candy or really anything.
Now, I know that on the surface my reaction might seem pretty harsh. They were just trying to do some good, right? I do understand that, and yes, I'm glad this kid now has a new backpack. But there is so much wrong with the whole situation that I don't even know where to begin.
For one, they know nothing about the kid except that another whitey was talking to him. I barely know anything about this kid - he's not one of the ones I work with on a regular basis. He seems like a good kid, but he could have easily been the biggest bully in school. Or the richest kid in school. They had no idea.
More importantly though, they are just feeding into a mentality that is awful in Jamaica. There's a sense that all white people are rich and have something to give to everyone here - I can't tell you how often people beg me for things. Anything. Sometimes they actually need what they're begging for, but often times they just want to see if they can get something out of you. It's a game of sorts. In fact, the kid who they gave the backpack to had just finished asking me for $50 for his fare home, despite the fact that he knew I had just seen him put more than that in his pocket right before asking me. But it makes sense. If people are constantly coming and giving you things, why do you need to work for anything? Eventually someone will come along with something. Whether it's a new backpack for a student, a new computer lab, a new road for the country, or a meal. It's actually a demotivator in Jamaica. Now, if these women had come and spent some time with the kids and given the bag as some sort of prize, that would have been different. Still a little weird, but at least there would have been interaction and incentive for the kids, instead of just this random gift.
Not to mention that in a selfish way, it just makes my job harder. I don't have any material things to give anyone, or any money. But I will gladly spend the day with almost anyone in my community who is interested in learning something from me. Or even who just wants someone to chat with. And that's why Peace Corps is such a great model. It goes back to that old cliche - give a man a fish he'll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime. Teaching takes more time, yes, but usually the investment is well worth it in the end.
The last point I'll bring up is the lack of cultural knowledge. These women probably had no idea the kids would start fighting right away. But talk to anyone who has worked with kids here at all, and they could have seen that coming a mile away. And there's a good chance that when the kid went home with his goodies, telling the parent about the white women who came to give it to him and him alone, they aren't going to believe him. Best case scenario, they laugh it off and let it go. Worst case, the kid gets beat for lying and stealing the bag from someone else. And then the parent will probably take the bag for themselves or, more likely try and sell it, because what use is a nice backpack when you can't put food on the table?
I could go on and on about this. And I realize that it goes deeper than just this one instance. But this was such a clear example of a lot of what bothers me about relationships between developed and developing countries and their citizens. And I know there's no right answer. Like I said, these women thought they were doing good. The kid now has a nice new backpack (hopefully he still has it). But, I don't know. It's just such a bad way to go about "helping", and will make me think a lot harder anytime next time I try to "help" people in a one-off situation like this.