Remember that old joke that has its punchline as “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you?” What makes this funny is the recipient’s well-reasoned doubt that he truly needs whatever it is the government has to offer. Sometimes, as a foreign missionary, I think that you could easily replace “government” with “church” or “mission” with the same result. People may indeed want help, but it’s not necessarily along the lines the giver is willing and able to do.
Here in Niger, Westerners are clearly associated with great wealth. What’s worse, though, is the common assumption among the people that we’re getting paid a lot of money to live and work in the world’s poorest country. Sadly, when speaking of United Nations and international non-government organizations, that is indeed the case. In Niger, most foreign organizations pay a 25% hardship bonus above base salary for living in “primitive” Niger, as everything Western costs more to buy in the country. At the end of the day, we’re all considered financial mercenaries of a sort. Yes, the Westerners want to make a difference, it seems—but only if we’re well-paid to do so.
I recently attended the opening of an obstetrics fistula repair hospital in which the visiting American surgeon addressed the crowd and said (along the lines of), “I have been richly blessed by these female patients”. His Nigerien interpreter (roughly) rendered his words into French as “Ces patientes m’ont biens enrichis “ or in translation, “These female patients have made me rich”. The interpreter was simply sharing his understanding of Western charity in the developing world. The only real reason anyone would come to these places is to earn a lot of money, right?
The Nigeriens generally lump missionaries into the same category as diplomats, UN staff and aid workers (and sometimes spies!). This means that many people believe, like the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow, we possess a pot of gold. We’re obviously here in Niger to distribute resources to poor people—since Islam teaches one earns Godly merit in this fashion--- “so what do you got for me?” underlies so many of our conversations. If we missionaries respond, “I have Biblical knowledge, vocational training, health and sanitation techniques, etc, to share with you”, I think the average person thinks we’re holding out on them. Somewhere, we’ve got the hard goods to hand out—as that’s what we foreigners do.
I’ve discovered the pervasive perverseness of this mindset. While promoting local technologies like pressed clay bricks for construction at the Bible School, I learned that some Nigerien Christians figured that I actually had the money to build in cement block, but I was using this “cheaper” method to pocket the difference! It reminded me of the accusation against 19th century missionaries in Hawaii, “they came out to do good, but instead did very well.” * Still, everyone here knows someone working for a church or a non-profit who finds ways to manipulate project funds for personal benefit, so what can one expect?
There are many approaches one can take to deal with these realities on the mission field, but I’m not sure if there’s a way to make them totally disappear. Some days you just shrug your shoulders, some days you try to explain the facts to whoever will listen and on other days you wonder why you are even dealing with these false claims, when you just want to obediently serve God in missions. But like the response to the government worker in the old joke, one must recognize that there are many people who don’t want the kind of help we missionaries left our homes to provide. May God direct us to those who do!
*This is unfair, as it was usually the missionaries’ children that became wealthy land speculators and traders on the Hawaiian islands.