The other day I read a post that questioned the practice of tourists giving something to the kids in poor countries, such as Nepal. The post was about giving out pencils and the concern that this could be an incentive for the kids to become beggars. I want to talk about giving the kids a reason to smile.
I grew up in a country where poor kids were everywhere. In my high school we were taught to always think about them and to find any way to help, not only with their material needs but also with their lives. We had a mandatory class that was called “social awareness” through which we organized trips to the “barrios” (shanty towns) armed with lots of things to give out, and with lots of time to sit down with the people and chat. Our teachers emphasized that what we give out should stay with them for a long time. We were only 16 years old and we loved that class. I applaud the teachers that thought this was a good idea. Actually, it was a great idea that left an indelible mark in my spirit, and makes me always be aware of others.
Now, when I go to very poor countries, such as Nepal, and I see the kids, I remember my days in high school and the main lesson my social awareness class taught me: give the kids a reason to smile. It is not only giving out material things, since those come and go very fast. It is the other things, the ones we cannot anticipate to give, or they don’t expect to receive.
So, I bring a lot of small change with me, and a bag of ideas on how to make them smile. I do my research first, because I don’t want to say or do something that may affect them or make them in any way sad. And then I go. I find the kids (or, most of the times they find me), and look at them very seriously. I tell them that if they want something from me, they need to do something for me. And I ask them to sign a song in their language. They always look at me surprised since the majority of the time they get something just by being cute and saying “Namaste”. Once they finish their songs, I clap very hard, and tell them to do something else, like dance, or say something in English, or why do they have a t-shirt with Hawaii printed in it, or where in the world is Hawaii. I take my time. I am not just in and out of their lives. I stay there as much as I can. Then I take photos to capture the miracle of seeing a poor kid smile. They may not have much in the sense of material things, but they do have smiles.
I don’t believe that by doing this I am training them to be beggars. On the contrary. I am sending them a very clear message: I am interested in them and I want them to smile.
If that costs me fifty cents a piece… that is nothing, and that will not make them a beggar. I want to believe they will remember our little time together, because they did a lot for me. They sang, danced, spoke English, and smiled. And yes, they got something in return.