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The Tricky Art of Giving


Our own Western perceptions of “Giving” can sometimes be way out of alignment especially when it comes to other cultures.

 A friend in Brisbane told me a small story of his experience trying to give to someone from another culture. The result was not what he expected. Dony had just moved into his new abode, a flat in Highgate Hill Brisbane, and decided to clear out his “Corporate Wardrobe”. He’d left the world of formal shirt and tie dressing and changed career direction. (He actually ran away with the circus ... but that is a whole other story in itself!)

Dony is a king of consideration and generosity and as he went through his wardrobe he looked at all the beautiful stylish, almost new business shirts, which he knew he’d never wear again and thought of the 3 or 4 young Indian men in the downstairs flat. “Aha” he thought “I’ll offer these shirts to them.” He went downstairs, and holding the shirts out to the men, asked if they would like them, explaining that he no longer needed them. “They are almost new” he said. “Hardly worn, in perfect condition and all washed and clean. Would you like to have them?”

His offer was rebuked with looks of horror and disdain.

As he related the story to me I saw on his face, confusion, as to why the men had actually recoiled at his generous offer. The men appeared to be quite insulted and Dony felt uncomfortable and said they acted like he was handing them a live poisonous snake!

Perhaps not accepting the clothes was a matter of pride? I don’t know but it reminded me of what chaos can occur in a well meaning, kind gesture when cultural issues and misunderstandings arise.

And that got me thinking about some of my own experiences of giving in foreign countries.

Sharing the workload Terkin Tsaagan Nuur, (White Lake) Mongolia

Picture the desert, the Sahara. It’s Mauritania. The climate is hot (no think hotter still). Always dry, dusty and windy. We drive slowly through a few remote villages that consist of sand and a few makeshift dwellings. Hordes of boys rally around the truck. Excited, restless ... staring at us, wanting something ... anything. Starved of something. They had looks of hunger on their faces but not a food type hunger.

I remember I have a soccer ball in the back and (in my Western mind), I think yes, I will give them the ball and they will divide themselves into teams and play soccer and share “the blessed ball.”

I get the ball from in the depths of the back of the Gaz 66 (which is our overland home) truck and hold it up.

The excitement and tension in the air is palpable. I try to make hand motions to indicate that the ball is for all to share. There are lots of heads nodding and outstretched arms. I hand the ball to the closest boy, he snatches it, holds it near his body with a vice grip and then bashes his way out of the crowd of boys around him. They fight and snarl at him, each one trying to grapple the ball from him, wanting the ball for themselves.  

In a few short moments the situation becomes volatile and the yelling and screaming is deafening. The boy with the ball is off and running, with the pack close on his heels.

They ALL want the ball. They’re like hyenas fighting for a chunk of meat. It’s like they are starving.

Moment by moment the ball changes hands depending on who manages to grab it and run and they fight for it, like the ball is a most precious thing on earth.

I stand open mouthed in horror as the continuing drama unfolds.

Giving the kids in Mongolia some new warm knitted beanies

The boys, as one brawling pack, scramble around the tiny dusty streets, hair and dirt flying, fighting like wild pack dogs over this one soccer ball.

It goes on and on. The expression on the faces of the boys is one of desperation as they gouge and scramble to take the ball for their own.

What have I done?

The few turbaned men who are standing nearby the truck do nothing and say nothing to resolve the fighting. They stand, passively smoking their cigarettes.

I feel totally powerless to do anything, I can just hear the pack in the small streets surrounding us as the boys continue to fight for the ball.

The maddened pack comes barreling down the road, dust flying ... back to me. A tall older boy has managed to secure the ball and with a desperate expression on his face, he hands it back to me.

It cannot be shared. They do not understand the concept of community sharing.

I take the ball back feeling totally exasperated. What the hell do I do now?

I really don’t know how to put the lid back onto this volcano that I erupted with my actions. I hand the ball to one of the men who stands there. He accepts it with no expression at all.

There is nothing to do but leave.

We drive away towards the dunes, in our Gaz 66 truck.
I feel upset, anxious, misunderstood, stupid, ignorant as many, many other emotions swim around my body.

Most of all, I realise that I have much to learn about the art of “Giving”.