Something for Nothing

Monday, August 14, 2006 | Ibo, Mozambique

The streets of Ibo's town see little traffic on an island that has only one truck and a few motorbikes.
The eerie ambiance I had perceived during my first few hours on Ibo was quickly forgotten as I began to recognize the overwhelming friendliness of the locals, unparalleled in nearly all my travels. (The delightful city of Hama in central Syria remains distinguished in my mind for the unmatched hospitality of its residents, but I will not soon forget the beaming smiles of the locals on Ibo.)

The only exception to the rule of near universal cheerfulness and warmth on Ibo was the island’s "tourism officer," who hounded me and all other visitors to the island in an attempt to convince us to register our names in his log and pay the five dollar "tourist tax." Most considered him a pesky, overeager young bureaucrat and obliged simply to be rid of him.

I, however, was convinced from the start that he was nothing more than a self-appointed "tax" collector who had managed to procure a poor approximation of an official-looking hat and log book
and who made a living by suckering foreigners into believing his con. Either this, or he was actually official, but even so, he was clearly pocketing half of the money, as his methods of collection and recording were so disorganized. High-mindedly refusing to perpetuate such corruption, I spent the entirety of my trip avoiding the officer on his rounds, fabricating elaborate excuses as to why I was unable to pay, and finally, flatly telling him to his face (much to the amusement of the other Western tourists then on the island) that I "wasn't interested" in paying, as he had provided me with no service.

An unwillingness to be flexible is the greatest failure a traveler can have, yet here I embraced it. This case was the final straw in a long series of frustrations I had endured during the past two months in East Africa. On at least one occasion in the preceding weeks, a person had walked up to me on a city street and tugged at my shirt sleeve, flatly saying—not asking—"Give me," as if I had come to that city on that particular day for the express purpose of giving away my shirt.

Other times someone would reach out their hand and place it on one of my belongings or items of clothing and pause, looking to me as if asking for permission, but only out of polite formality. Their shock at my refusal indicated that they had been fully expecting me to relinquish the item to them with a casual wave of my hand and an "Oh, sure!" Far more commonly (usually several times a day, no matter where I was traveling), a pack of children, seeing a white person, would run to me, shouting "Give me money! Give me money!"

A curious sense of entitlement exists among many people in the region—a sense which, I believe, has been largely created and perpetuated by the international aid organizations. In the name of American values, yet seemingly in fundamental contrast to those most basic of capitalist principles, US aid organizations give and give and give, thereby eroding local desire and the incentive to produce goods or provide services as a means of income.

And so the dubious tax collector was baffled at my refusal to pay him something for nothing, an exchange which was perhaps a perfectly normal transaction according to local logic. My interactions with him lead me to conclude that, beyond just chipping away at the financial incentives to work, gifts have even undermined many East Africans’ very understanding of the way in which capitalist exchange functions—that you must reap if you wish to sow.

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