At the tender age of six I had my first experience with charity. Kicking the legs of my worn-out desk, I listened to miss Gerritsen. She was telling the class about the poor children in Africa who had nothing, and we had so much. I made my face look sad, to show how sorry I was for the little African children. I knew that was what good girls did. I liked miss Gerritsen because she’d put an angel sticker in my notebook when I’d written my lines without mistakes. The angels wore draped pink outfits and had glittery silver wings. They were sweet, sugary, yet fabulous, like a catholic prequel of My Little Pony.
To help the poor African children our catholic school had organised a charity activity. We’d be collecting the tinfoil wrappers around chocolate bars and send them to Africa. Not the chocolate bars, just the tinfoil. The chocolate we could eat ourselves.
My six-year old self set her jaw: I would collect the most tinfoil and get the angel sticker.
For four weeks I collected tinfoil. Sitting at our scratched kitchen table I’d iron out the creases with my thumbnail, until they’d become shiny sheets of silver. With chocolate flecking my pudgy hands – yes pudgy, I was sacrificing my health and beauty here- I’d put the crinkling sheets in a box and carry them to school. I had the most tinfoil, I got the glittery angel.
It wasn’t until two days ago –I’m over 40- that I asked myself why, for crying out loud, did we send tinfoil to Africa? Without the chocolate even? It seemed more sadism than charity.
I found that a Flemish journalist had asked himself the same question. He had called the Flemish missionaries who had collected the tinfoil. They told him that the tinfoil itself wasn’t sent to Africa. It was melted in Flemish factories to be re-used and sold. Aha. Except that the journalist found no trace of these tinfoil-melting factories. Also, no European country, except Flanders and the South of The Netherlands, had ever engaged in a tinfoil charity action. The journalist guessed that the missionaries’ goal had been awareness-building, so Flemish children will be reminded of those less fortunate when they eat chocolate. Little did they know it worked the other way around: it was my Christian duty to eat more chocolate, because the little Congolese children needed tinfoil.
That little story was my first encounter with charity. It was great. I was giving away something I didn’t need anyway, plus getting social recognition and a nice warm glow out of it? What’s not to like?
When I reached my teenage years I discovered another side of charity: justified anger. What a drug. I’m a soft-spoken person. I catch spiders in a glass and set them free outside. I’m nice. I hate ‘nice’, but there it is. The only time I can really justify getting angry, is when I have to stand up for the underdog. And that’s where charity comes in.
I went vegetarian so I could sit cross-armed at the kitchen table and glare at my family eating lamb chops. ‘That was a living creature playing happily with its friends between the buttercups.’ I would say. Or simply an accusatory ‘Beh.’
I wore black and listened to grunge music. I became the person fighting injustice, just so my pent up rage had some place to go. There is something utterly delicious telling people they are wrong and you are right, and they can’t tell you otherwise, because it makes them look like heartless bastards.
It may not come as a surprise I ended up in the NGO-sector. I worked at an organisation for refugees’ human rights. I loved it. Every time I introduced myself to new people, they’d go green with envy: ‘That’s amazing. You’re doing something to change the world. I just work at a bank.’ Then I’d be extra nice to them, because banks and their employees have money, something NGOs are always in need of.
My colleagues were clever. They were articulate. They worked themselves to the bone. Some of them had pent up rage. Some of them just wanted the pink angel sticker. We all wanted to help people. In fact, we were all so busy helping people that we were too busy to help people. That’s what I found out when one day we got a letter from a refugee asking for legal help, which we didn’t provide.
‘What shall I do?’ I asked my colleague. I meant what recommendations can I give him?
She took the pen out of her mouth, and with her eyes on her files, she shrugged, ‘Just throw it out. We don’t do that kind of stuff.’
I shook my head: ‘But we help refugees. It says so in our mission statement. And I’ve never even met a refugee, I just write papers and go to conferences. Even if we don’t provide legal assistance, we should at least answer him, refer him.’
‘Fine. Then answer him. But there’s nothing we can do.’
If it seems I’m judging her, you’re mistaken. She was smart, she had a brilliant degree, and could have made a lot of money anywhere else. Instead she chose to work long hours for a mediocre salary. She was just busy. I was busy. So, I went back to work. I left the crumpled envelope on my desk, against my computer screen.
It just didn’t sit right. How could we be too busy to help the people we were supposed to help? I re-read the letter: the man was stuck in Italy, his brother in Germany, how could he make it there? I had no idea. But I looked up the contact details of refugee organisations and asylum-lawyers in Italy and Germany. I put them in a letter, and wished him all the best. I just didn’t want him to think nobody cared enough to answer, even if we weren't able to help. During the next year I would collect the occasional letters we would receive from refugees and write back. It was a start.