Diaspora Talk: On gifts, giving, and ‘wetin you send for me?’ [Travel Tips]

On holiday with friends in Accra, Ghana earlier this year.

On holiday with friends in Accra, Ghana earlier this year.

Wetin you send for me?

If you’ve ever been home on holidays then someone has probably said these five words to you: “Wetin yu send fo mi?”. And if you are from Sierra Leone, it might have started as early as when you submitted your passport to the immigration officer at Lungi.

A friend recently came back from Freetown and his laptop was no more, and his wardrobe had shrunken considerably. He had given away so much of his personal items that he hardly had any underwear left and had to make a quick run to Macy’s days after he arrived in the US.

I didn’t understand how he could have given away everything including his boxers. When I asked why, he said that people back home are so poor that they need everything.

While I remained adamant that there were some things that one should never give away, he insisted that he had no choice. He said he had to give his relatives and friends what they asked for.

As he spoke, I sensed a hint of guilt. He felt that he had so much more than his friends and family back home that he was obligated to give.

A couple years earlier, I had been in the same shoes. Buying up whatever little I could as gifts for family and friends back home. And when I visited and someone asked me for a pair of jeans, or shoes, or T-shirt, and I’d give it away without a thought.

Folks living in the diaspora spend a lot of money not only sending remittances back home but also buying things. This is why every time you get on a plane heading to Africa, there are always people with oversized suitcases, and excess luggage holding up the check in lines.

We try to take everything we can back home in hopes that we can make up for our long absences and to say “I know I haven’t been here, but I was thinking of you”. Some might say that giving gifts are an integral part of African life. When you leave the city for the village you carry gifts, and the reverse is also true.

But after 4 years of living in Africa, my views on giving have changed. You can and should continue to give but it should not leave you in the hole. And secondly, you should give without obligation and selectively. Not everyone deserves your generosity.

Here are some things to consider before you head home to give.

1. Seemingly poor people have expensive tastes. I learned that while many are poor back home, that some of our friends and family members have very expensive taste and little appreciation for the amount of work that goes into being able to buy things like computers, Ipads, and Ipods etc.

2. Give quietly. I also learned that while it is good to be generous, that you should give quietly. If you know that you do not have gifts for the entire village then you have to tell the individuals for whom you have gifts to keep it on the low until you leave.

3. Good news travels fast. If you are quick to loan money, and give away your things, everyone will know. And as news of your generosity travels, many more than you expected will come to take advantage of you.

4. Be honest about your financial situation. Because many of us purchase new clothes when we travel and come back with fancy electronics, there is a tendency for people to think that you have more than you need. If you know that you are not rich and you can not give comfortably, then let you friends and family know the real deal.

5. Make them sign for it. A cousin of mine consistently borrowed money from me when I would visit and he would never pay back until i left the country. And when i finally moved back home, I loaned money to many others who never paid me back. To prevent repeat offenses you should keep a ledger of even the smallest loans. When they know you have a log, they wont come back cause they know they have not paid you back.

6. Make it a loan not a gift (More on the last point). Folks will always come through to ask you for money. And even though it may not be much, you need to early on establish a no free money policy. Even for small things say that you don’t feel comfortable giving money away as a principle but you are willing to loan them the money and they can pay it back whenever they have it. Make them sign for it.

7. Help start a business. You will be surprised how far a little seed money can go. Instead of giving money and gifts, challenge your family and friends who want money to come up with business ideas. This way you teach a man to fish instead of giving them fish.

8. Cry hard up. Openly discuss being broke. While not everyone will believe you, it’s good to let folks know that you too have money wahala.

9. Say No. You should never feel like anyone’s cash cow. If the story doesn’t sound correct or that T-shirt really is your favorite, then just say no. Saying “no” is also a good way to test relationships with those close to you. Do they treat you differently because you couldn’t give or didn’t bring any gifts?

10. Wetin you keep for me? Giving is a two way street. So if all else fails, when they ask “Wetin you send for me”, you should smile and say  “Wetin you keep for me?”