Monsieur Cadeau

It is perhaps one of the things that first world travelers dread most about the developing world–more than disease, more than red tape, more than language barriers: begging. Even if you’re used to giving to/ignoring panhandlers back home, it’s different when you’re on the road–there are often more beggars, they single you out as the rich tourist and the wealth gap between you and them has never been more apparent–all of which combine to leave you feeling guilty, stingy and bothered.

Begging comes in a wide variety of forms. Perhaps the best targets of a traveler’s generosity are the elderly and infirm, especially near places of worship. By participating in traditional forms of charity directed at those in clearest need, tourists are able to assist in a way that is consistent with local norms and does not result in an increase in the number of beggars especially targeting tourists. The most memorable group of such mendicants, for me, was a group of women outside the famous rock-hewn St. George’s in Lalibela–nowhere else have we had donations of basic foodstuffs (in our case, bread) so warmly received. Other forms of begging can be somewhat more annoying/troubling. In India, children or women with babies run up to cars at intersections thrusting the babies at windows and demanding money. In Egypt, tourist police and security guards demand tips when no services at all are performed (see post of 08.09.16). Perhaps most devious of all, and one we were most amused to have naively fallen for, young women (also usually with babies) in Shenzhen, China will pretend to eat food out of garbage cans, trying to draw sympathy and cash contributions.

Talibes in Senegal (see post of 08.11.22)

But it is a somewhat more frivolous and nagging form of begging that I want to address in my post today. The post is titled “Monsieur Cadeau” (Mister Gift) because that particular phrase is something one hears all the time in parts of West Africa. It is short for “Monsieur, donnez moi un cadeau” (Mister, give me a gift), which one also sometimes hears, but more often it is abbreviated and strung together as if “Cadeau” were your surname. Or there is “ca va, cadeau” (how are you, gift). This sort of begging by children is common in many countries around the world; children have learned to mob tourists for money or candy or whatever tourists are willing to give, often in an incredibly persistent way. Adding to the annoyance factor is that often the children who do this are not really those most in need (though admittedly still far poorer than the average tourist). In Ethiopia, for example, even seemingly middle class (for Ethiopia, that is) youth in school uniforms will ask for a birr, the local currency. The hounding establishes an undesirable begger/beggee relationship between local and guest, and makes genuine cultural exchange for travelers that much more difficult.

The Rough Guide to West Africa says that the children of the Francophone West African countries are some of the worst offenders, in terms of begging; the children of the English-speaking West African countries to the south apparently have not adopted this behavior so wholeheartedly. So are the French to blame? Perhaps. French tourists did seem more likely to engage in hand-outs–one young French woman we saw in the Dogon had pre-prepared a bag of small toys to hand out. Visiting Haiti in the 80s, Derek was surprised to regularly hear “boom boom?” from young children. He later realized that “boom boom” was not a sexual reference but “bonbon” or candy in french. Part of it may be Lonely Planet’s fault. In the past, Lonely Planet used to suggest that travelers hand out school supplies instead of money or candy, the logic being that you don’t want to turn kids into beggars or encourage tooth decay. But handing out pens only resulted in children begging for pens instead of money, and a large secondary market in pens. The fact is, children will ask for whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be coins (for a “foreign coin collection”) or candy or pens, unless their parents or other local adults stop them. There are plenty of charities/NGOs to which effective donations can be made, and succumbing to children’s requests unfortunately turns the kids into beggars.

What do we like to do? Admittedly, sometimes we have given money (though not to children), or even candy if we happened to have some on hand and were so moved, but what we prefer is to give either photographs of ourselves (we took a picture of you, and now have it on our camera; here’s a little picture of us for you to have) or postcards from back home. This of course takes some preparation–having printed photographs or postcards ready–but it’s definitely worthwhile, because it allows us to share a bit of ourselves and where we come from with people who don’t own cameras and will likely never have a chance to visit the U.S. On the back of the postcards, Derek usually writes a funny little note, which the recipient generally can’t read but may have translated some day.

An elderly Dogon examining the New York skyline, Mali

Some of Derek’s masterpieces, give to children among the baobabs in Madagascar

One story about giving, or trying to give, that may appeal to the cynical traveler, from the city of Gonder in Ethiopia. I do not know what Gonder is like these days, but when we were there, there were quite a few young children in town who made it their business to provide various “travel agent”-type services to tourists. For example, one small boy with a bum eye helped set up a taxi for us to get to the airport. Others would help carry bags or provide directions. Of all these boys, there was one that we grew to despise, because he was clearly more troublesome and deceptive than the others. He was also overweight, an obvious sign of his relative wealth or success. Well, from Gonder we went on a trip to the nearby Simien Mountains, a high altitude range that is one of the many spectacular sights of Ethiopia. We were waiting outside of the park proper trying to hitch a ride to the trailhead, when a minivan drove up, with some tourists. We asked if we could get a ride, and they said sure. When we got in, we saw that the bad kid was also in the minibus. The other tourists had not noticed, as we had, what a rotten kid he was, and “hired” him to arrange their visit to the Simiens. Anyway, we gratefully accepted the lift, and after a visit cut short by Derek’s severe altitude sickness, returned to Gonder. A couple days later, as we were leaving Gonder, we ran into the young woman who had hired the kid and the van. She related to us how the kid had had his mother throw her a birthday party, and then billed her for all sorts of food and beverages that they didn’t even consume. Not having learned her lesson, she bought the kid an Amharic-English dictionary worth $30, even writing a note on the first page to prevent the kid from reselling it. The good kid with the bum eye told us that the other kid had returned it to the bookstore for $10 anyway.

One thought on “Monsieur Cadeau

  1. your pictures and insights are beautiful! it's been inspiration to look at your awesome work, derek! thanks again for helping me clean my camera all those months ago in granada!

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