Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Giving and receiving: reciprocity

There seems to be a general recognition that each one of us is perpetually in debt to our community, perhaps for its affording us opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Some might resent this, so maybe I should modify this claim and state, in addition, that even when the community has been nothing but a source of heartbreak, many still feel an obligation to make it better so that others don’t have to suffer through the same negative experiences in the future.

The challenge to give backto one’s society is a difficult one to meet, especially in this day and age. Life demands much of us- some would say too much- in the name of meeting our basic necessities. When the sun sets and its time to shuffle home and lay down to rest, few people have extra coins in their pockets to spare for a stranger. Still, there is something to be said about giving back.

There is a reason why most religions ask their faithful to be their brother’s keeper. There’s a definite reason why charity, the giving of alms and the provision of relief and humanitarian services are encouraged by religious organizations. There’s an explicit reason for the persistence of the Harambeephilosophy among East Africans. You are free to speculate on what this reason is. My personal opinion is that giving backis only half of a larger concept, that of reciprocity, and that it is the philosophy of reciprocitywhich should be of priority to us all.

I’m trying to avoid being idealistic about giving back. It is too easy to develop dependence on a benefactor and to become a parasite on that well-wisher, expecting him/ her to provide solutions for every crisis that crops up. I emphasize reciprocityto point out that most of us have something to offer to others, and that giving goes in both directions. It just takes a little creativity to realize that. A donor may write a cheque to a community to fund the construction of a community center. That does not stop members of the community from volunteering their services to aid in the construction, or to maintain the community center after it has been built. You do not have to pay back the person who has helped you in kind. It is just as admirable to give to a completely different person, to help them by using your ability/ skill.

Reciprocityrequires a sense of responsibility to the community of one’s origins, or to the community that one resides in. I recognize that monetary donations are necessary for the achievement of certain goals. However, I also want to emphasize that a contribution of one’s personal time and effort can be just as important.

A non-denominational Christian group in a neighborhood that I lived in a few years ago would take advantage of the spring break to go out into the community and volunteer their services to those who needed them. Some of them would take on a task that most of us would view as being dreary: house-cleaning. Consider that the residents of some of the homes they visited were physically handicapped or unwell and couldn’t get around much. Basic housework was an impossibility for them, hence they were reduced to living in squalor. The volunteers efforts may not have received air-time on the evening news, but I do believe that in the eyes of the residents of those homes, they did a world of good. I only wish that the volunteers’ engagement with those homes and families was a year-long one rather than a once-a-year effort.

Elsewhere, I met a group of young men and women who would visit a community center on a weekly basis to help the kids there with their assignments and to befriend them. Most of the children were new to the area and were struggling to fit in because of their unfamiliarity with the language and culture. Being able to chat with “big brothers” and “big sisters” who had the time to listen to them made a big difference in their lives. The children were assured that there were adults they could turn to for support when their own parents were unable to provide that type of guidance.

None of these efforts at volunteerism would have come into being if the people involved had not felt a sense of responsibility towards their communities and if they had not reaped rewards from these efforts. Note that when they went out to offer help to those who needed it, they first inquired as to the needs of those people. Their agenda was not prescriptive. Rather, there was a conversation between them and members of the community, and a relationship was established. Believe it or not, the relationship was a reciprocal one. Each of the young men and women that gave something to the community received something in return: a sense of purpose, appreciative smiles, assistance with something in their own lives with which they were struggling, new friendships, new knowledge and understanding, increased self-esteem. I think that in giving backthey received much in return and this, in turn, strengthened their bonds with the community.

This is something that we should generally keep in mind, especially when wondering why our community ties are fraying and why youth are apathetic about their surroundings. Maybe the simple answer to these questions is that we don’t invest enough in teaching others to understand that they do have meaningful relationships with the rest of the community, whether or not they recognize the existence of those relationships. Perhaps the key to reviving our commitment to our communities is reminding each other that we do have a sense of agency, that we can in fact make a difference by doing little things on a long-term basis and that, in giving, we receive.

First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine on 22nd April, 2008.

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