Sunday, October 25, 2009


As you may have guessed from my last entry, I've spent quite a bit of time lately reading instead of doing what I should be doing, which is grading the giant piles of exams sitting on my desk. And now, to break the tedium of reading dry, statistics-heavy books, which I am doing to break the tedium of grading, I'm now going to write a tedious blog entry to try to organize some of the ideas floating around in my head as a result of reading (thusly passing my boredom along to you).

Aside from the idea that “development” is way too complicated to organize in the all-encompassing way that many aid agencies try to do, there's another aspect of Easterly's book (The White Man's Burden) that has been particularly interesting to me (especially because I've been avoiding doing my own work lately). That is the idea of accountability.

Easterly spends a lot of time talking about how aid agencies are inefficient because they are not held accountable for their actions. Time and time again, international organizations put together big, impressive goals for the reduction or even eradication of poverty and the improvement of basic conditions in developing countries, and then miserably fail to make any headway whatsoever toward the achievement of those goals. And what happens? Nothing. It makes zero difference one way or the other whether or not these goals are met (except that millions of people continue to suffer, which isn't so great).

Easterly goes on to say that setting goals that are unrealistically high, or setting goals that may be achievable but without a concrete plan for how to achieve them, may not be a recipe for disaster, but it is certainly one for wastefulness and inefficiency. I guess in my mind I feel like this problem persists in the aid community in part because there is an of assumption that giving aid to poor countries is Good Work, being done by Good People who are just trying to Help Others. Thus, even if they fail at doing what they are supposed to do over and over again, it is justified because it is a worthwhile endeavor.

As you can maybe tell, I like Easterly's ideas and I especially like his main point: that the best solution (actually, not so much a solution, but rather an adjustment in approach to an unsolvable problem) is to stop setting big, overarching, idealistic goals, and to start setting small, realistic, and measurable ones. Saying “we are going to reduce the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 30% by 2015” is a pretty difficult goal, given the number of different factors that conspire to keep people living under these conditions. Better to focus on specific sectors – education, health, and so on – and set specific, smaller-scale goals in each of these areas. The end goal is the same – reducing poverty – but the second approach provides a framework under which to actually move toward its achievement.

Easterly is mostly talking about the big international associations when he describes the aid issue – the UN organizations and USAID and such. But I think that the accountability thing applies at all levels of development work. My own laxity in grading is an example – there are no real consequences if I don't finish grading the exams in a timely manner, and in my own head, I guess I don't feel as guilty as I should about putting it off because . . . well, my being here is better than nothing, after all, isn't it? So even if the work I'm doing isn't terrible, I'm not as motivated to do my very best work as I should be.

OK, well, speaking of that, I guess I should get back to doing some of that work that I'm avoiding. One more thing I want to point out, though, is that this is why it is necessary to be extremely careful when donating money to any kind of aid organization. You might assume that large, well-established organizations are large and well-established because they have developed effective means of achieving their goals, and that this implies that the money you donate will be used effectively. But this is not the case, in part for the reasons I mentioned here. A stunningly large proportion of money donated in good faith – even or especially to big, established organizations – is wasted. I'll have to write some more specific examples of the way I see that happening here. But for now – grading, yay!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Well, exams were this week, and as I predicted, they were pretty much a giant cheat-fest. The sad thing is, the average grade appears to be failing. I haven't actually graded everything, but a glance through the papers tells me the average will be well below 50% in all of the classes I am teaching. Cheating isn't good, and failing isn't good, but at least it would be nice if it were one or the other. Cheating and STILL failing is just depressing.

However, proctoring exams all week, I did realize several things that I think will help me. You know all that stuff I said about ethics before? I think that I was approaching things in the wrong way. I think that, in part, the communal approach that is prevalent in every aspect of the society here is what is motivating the cheating. Talking during an exam, looking off of each other's tests – they just don't see these as “cheating.” It's more that the students want to work together and help each other out on everything, including exams.

From the perspective of a lonely individualistic American, the whole “communal culture” thing is kind of a puzzle. On the one hand, people are generally very generous, open, and welcoming. As I mentioned before, the second I give one of the kids something, no matter how small, they turn around and share it with their friends and siblings. And no matter how poor, people always have a little bit of money to give to the church offering on Sundays (which raises a whole different issue, which I'll write about “later” -- my favorite time to write – namely, how I perceive the good and the ill that the spread of Christianity in Africa has wrought). So in that sense, it is very positive.

On the other hand, it seems to me that this mentality translates to a failure to take personal responsibility in many cases. It's great that people are so supportive of each other, but on the other hand, if everyone is relying on someone else to help them do math, nobody is going to end up learning math. I've talked about another downside of this mentality before in the context of the business community: businesses are difficult to run because family members expect to profit even if they are not involved in the actual running of the business.

Speaking of that issue, the whole “cheating” thing brings me back to something I brought up then – the extent to which certain processes that are key in development are universal or must be modified in the context of a culture. Does the educational process as we know it in the US really work in all situations, or might there be some way to adjust it to take advantage of the communal learning mentality? From my perspective, there's no way to get around the fact that individual responsibility is necessary in learning – what YOU put in is what YOU get out, in the end. But, while this may be true, maybe there would still be a way to organize classes differently here than in the US, so that they better fit a communal culture mentality.

I'm being very vague, and the reason for that is of course that I have no idea whether or not these thoughts actually have any merit. And even if I knew they did, I wouldn't have the slightest idea of how to go about “organizing classes to fit a communal culture mentality.”

I've been reading two books simultaneously for the past couple of days – The End of Poverty, by Jeffery Sachs, and The White Man's Burden, by William Easterly (don't worry, I'll be sure to bore you all with a thorough review once I've finished reading them). To vastly oversimplify and summarize: Sachs argues that the Western world is not fulfilling its responsibilities to developing countries, and that if we would just all get together and donate a big chunk of cash, the countries would have enough of an economic stimulus to get out of the “poverty trap” they are in and “gain a foothold on the development ladder.” Easterly believes that “development” is such a complicated process, with so many unknowable variables, that there is no way that Westerners will ever successfully be able to “promote development” in other countries in a big way. The two are not arguing completely mutually exclusive points (which I'll be sure to get back to when I write my oh-so-fascinating review), but I have to say that Easterly's viewpoint resonates more with me. I can't help but feel, being here, that I and my fellow outsiders will never fully understand what's going on around us well enough to brainstorm workable solutions to some of the problems that we observe. The cheating issue is just one specific example of this.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Today was a “Fuck Everything” kind of a day.

Fuck the dozen-plus people who called me “white woman” today, especially the ones who know my name.

Fuck every person who demanded that I give them something.

Fuck the students for not giving a shit.

Fuck the half-dozen unrelated people who, at various points throughout the day, made fun of the way I talk.

Fuck my skin for getting sunburnt despite sometimes twice-daily sunscreen applications.

Fuck Jeffery Sachs for writing an interesting book (The End Of Poverty) in such a boring way that it's all but unreadable, and also for being an arrogant prick.

Fuck Robin Cook for writing the incredibly shitty medical thriller Terminal, which I read to take a break from Sachs.

Fuck weird meat.

Fuck all the children who mocked the way I run today.

Fuck my pot belly.

Fuck the rude, aggressive men who get angry and pushy with me because they think I'm not friendly enough.

Fuck the smell of burning trash that permeated the school all afternoon.

Fuck the dust.

Fuck the generator for being noisy and smelly and expensive to run.

Fuck the heat.

And fuck me for letting all these insignificant little things get under my skin.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


This week was relatively uneventful. School began as usual on Monday and kind of petered out, so that by the end of the week, only a handful of students were showing up. This is because the latter part of the week was designated as “review for exams,” which most of the teachers and students interpreted as “don't bother to show up to review for exams.”

Since I don't have much to say about school this week, I'm going to write about something I've been meaning to touch on for awhile: the language here.

. . . Ack. I have to pause for a minute. One of the mothers next door is shrieking and beating one of her kids and he is yelling and crying, and it's very distracting.

OK, they stopped. God, it's so unpleasant to hear that. I know that I wrote a little bit about the domestic violence situation here, but it's something I'm going to have to revisit at some point. Not today, though.

Anyway, the language.

The language situation here is really interesting. As in Kenya, there are many different local dialects (the region I am in is dominated by the Krahn – or maybe Khran? -- people, who have their own language), but this place differs from Kenya in that the majority of people usually speak English. However, it's a version of English that's so different from American English that I often can't even tell whether people are speaking English or the local dialect. In Kenya, that was not true – while many people spoke only dialect or dialect and some Swahili, those that did speak English generally spoke a very British English with an accent that was not too difficult to understand.

Here, the difficulty in comprehension is not just a matter of an accent, although many people have a very heavy accent (by my Northeastern American standards, obviously; “accent” is a completely relative term). There are significant differences in word choice and order that make it hard to understand as well. For example, people sometimes greet you by saying “How de body?” or simply “Fine?” And they often leave out connecting verbs or articles, use only present-tense verbs, and replace “I” with “me” or “he” with “him,” as when the kids proudly state “Me do maths today!” or demand “Give me football!” Then there are some things that are called by completely different, though still obviously English-origin, names. Asking for “avocado” in the market is useless; we've learned to ask for “butter pear,” or, to be more accurate, “buttah pay-ah.” “Papaya” is the British “pawpaw,” and mangoes are “golden plums.” “Colored pencils” or “crayons” are simply “colorings.”

In light of this, when I first came here, I felt even more lost in terms of language than I did in Kenya. Having a conversation with someone who is speaking the same language as you and being totally unable to mutually comprehend each other is a really bizarre experience. I felt as though I was living in a foreign language country, piecing together meaning from context and individual words picked out from the conversation. At the end of the day I even felt that kind of mental exhaustion that comes from sustained linguistic efforts, the same exhaustion I felt when I studied abroad as an undergrad in France.

On the other hand, overall, I understand a lot more than I did in Kenya. While the Swahili training we had there was interesting and allowed me to sometimes get the gist of what people were talking about as I eavesdropped on conversations, it was also totally useless at the village level, where people spoke almost exclusively Kipsigis (the dialect of the sub-tribe in my region, part of the larger, Nilotic-origin Kalenjin languages). So while I had no problems with language at my school, where everyone spoke English (to an extent – which brings me to an issue that I'll have to come back to another time, which is how requiring bi- or tri-lingualism from every student potentially interferes with the learning process), as soon as I left the school grounds my understanding of what was going on around me essentially dropped to zero.

It still surprises me to hear people speaking English in the community and to realize that they are not doing it for my benefit. It's also kind of funny to hear and understand people talking about but not to me as I go by, as when children excitedly shout to their friends “White woman passing!! White woman JOGGING!!!!” Furthermore, it's still surprising to me when I hear coarser language; I almost never heard people using English curse words in Kenya, and if they used local or Swahili ones, I didn't understand them. But here, a day doesn't go by when I don't hear someone throw out a “fuck” or a “shit,” often directed angrily at another person.

The extent to which even young kids use this kind of language still shocks me a little bit, though I suppose it shouldn't, knowing that child supervision is frequently relegated to other, often only slightly older, children. As an example: yesterday, I and a fellow volunteer were hanging out with the kids outside, and they started playing a totally safe and enjoyable game in which they attempted to poke each other in the butt with sticks (we're not talking about a gentle prodding, either; we're talking a full-out crack-directed stabbing). One child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, turned around at one point and yelled “Don't touch my asshole!” A few minutes earlier, an older child (around 12) had been playing with his younger brother (around 1 or 2) in a way that disturbed me. “What are you doing?!?” I asked him. He looked up with a big grin and said “Me suck his titty!” This, in fact, was an accurate description of what he had been doing.

Anyway, there is more that I want to write about language, particularly about the ways in which I and other volunteers modify our own speech patterns to be understood, and the mixed feelings I have about doing this. And I'll have to write more about the kids' rough play at some point as well. But, once again, I've written far too much for one entry, and will have to leave the rest for another day.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I've been thinking about ethics a lot lately.

My own personal sense of right and wrong constantly seems to be under attack, in small and unexpected ways. I feel like I'm always being forced to make small ethical decisions that I would never have to make in the US. As an example, simply buying food poses an ethical dilemma; namely, how to respond to the fact that I'm inevitably charged more than I should be. Paying higher prices because I'm a white American goes against my idea of fair play, but at the same time, I can indeed afford to pay more than most Liberians. So how hard do I try to bargain before I cross the line from defending my own right to pay equal amounts to taking advantage of someone who is struggling just to get by?

But beyond my own personal experiences, I've been thinking more about where ethics come from and how values learned at an individual level can affect the society as a whole.

Let's take the example of lying. I'm increasingly aware that truthfulness is a luxury that most Liberians cannot afford. Kids and adults alike lie freely and skilfully to get what they want. It's unfortunately all too understandable why this occurs, however. The educational and other societal systems are so broken-down that lying and cheating are generally easily undertaken and highly beneficial activities. As an example: I just learned today that the exams at my school are all written out by hand on the board. This occurs in classrooms so crowded that sometimes I can hardly write for fear of elbowing a student in the face. I have no doubt that these exams will amount to nothing less than an orgy of copying. But what can be done? With too many students, too little money to print exams, and too few teachers to effectively monitor them, I can't see any effective way to stop it.

I can't help but wonder if this failure to ingrain certain values at the individual level plays a major role in the corruption that pervades throughout the society. If that is the case, it's hard to see a way out of the situation. Morals and values cannot be effectively ingrained in a society where people are using all of their time and energy simply trying to eke out a living. If the system is not fixed, then money and resources will continue to be diverted away from true development work and into the pockets of individuals. Without these resources, children will continue to grow up in an environment in which ethics are not well-developed. These people will then feed into the government and begin an entirely new cycle of self-promoting activities that detract from the country's development as a whole. So how can it be stopped?

Having said that, I know that this is an overly simplistic way to look at things. I am aware that my thoughts on the matter assume that my own ingrained values are correct and should be applied universally, which is not necessarily the case. Beyond that, I do not mean to imply that people here are, by American standards, morally retarded. That is not true at all. For one thing, there is, of course, a great deal of individual variation; many of my students are honest and hardworking. Furthermore, as a whole, there are certain values that are highly developed here. For example, there is a much stronger pressure for people to look out for their family members and neighbors than there is in the US. When the kids are sharing something amongst themselves, and they have an extra few peanuts or piece of banana or what have you, they will invariably give the extra to the littlest one.

I feel like there is quite a bit more I could say on the (admittedly very broad) subject of ethics. But this entry, like most of my entries, is already much too long, and writing about morality is tiring. So I'll leave things there for now.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Week In Review

This week can best be summed up as follows: Pretty lousy in the sum of its individual parts, but somehow pretty good as a whole.

As it turns out, part of why I was so miserable on Monday (which I may have known but was trying to ignore) was that I was starting to get sick. Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning I felt like hell. I now have a better appreciation for the term “explosive diarrhea;” turns out not only is it explosive in the sense that it expels itself rapidly, but it also causes you to feel as though your intestines are going to explode. So that's good to know.

Fortunately, in the sense that it meant my sickness didn't cause me to miss out on any real work, all classes were canceled this week because of a school-wide soccer tournament. Unfortunately, in the sense that the students had a lame excuse not to do any work for a whole week, all classes were canceled this week because of a school-wide soccer tournament.

I'm not going to lie – a part of me was relieved to have a whole week of not wrestling with the students. But wrestling with students is what I came here to do, so a larger part of me was more frustrated than anything to be sitting around with nothing to do (or sHitting around, as it were. HA!!!! Poop joke!).

Boredom is a powerful motivator, however, for good or for ill (usually the latter). In this case, it worked for good; it motivated me to try again to make some contacts at the hospital. I've gone several times now but encountered problems: 1. a lack of organization that makes it difficult for me to figure out who exactly to talk to in order to get what I want, and 2. a somewhat unclear idea of what exactly “what I want” is. “Volunteering at the hospital” sounds like a great idea in theory, but it's not exactly like the US, where hospitals are generally used to dealing with untrained volunteers and have some kind of idea what to do with them. So we're stuck in a bit of a catch-22: I don't know I want to do because I don't know what they need, and they don't know what to do with me because I don't know what I want to do.

But things seemed to move forward this week. I met a nurse who works in the eye clinic and she seemed happy to let me hang out with her and watch her treat patients. So that's a start. I also went to the Red Cross office and found out more about what they're doing there, and asked them to invite me along when they have health club meetings, which they have in several of the local schools (including the one in which I'm working). So the week wasn't a complete bust; all in all, things are looking up, despite this week's sickness, frustration, and total lack of any productive activity.

Monday, October 5, 2009


The past couple of days I've had a growing sense of frustration combined with feelings of incompetence.

It took me awhile to put my finger on it. In part it's my failures in dealing with the students, many of whom still don't understand my English, don't give a fuck about what I'm trying to teach them, and make every effort to cheat, lie, and generally sneak their way out of any actual work or learning. But I could deal with that as part of the difficult-but-rewarding challenges of being here, something to be worked at and overcome, or at least learned from.

A bigger part of the crumminess I'm feeling, I've realized, is the fact that I don't have a lot of interaction with people during the day. I have 3-5 classes a day, which is a good number, and in between I sit in the teacher's lounge or the library and try to work on lesson plans or grading. But it's a very solitary exercise; I almost never see other teachers in the teacher's lounge, and even though there are generally others in the library, I'm not working with them. So I feel like, although I don't have the problem of many Peace Corps volunteers of not having a well-defined job, the job that I do have actually isn't doing much to insert me into the community, or provide me with the social interaction that I need to stay sane.

I can't help but compare myself to fellow volunteers, who by my own observations and from what I've heard are doing a great job of making Liberian friends. We all came here at the same time, I tell myself. So what is wrong with me that I am now struggling to find people to spend time with, and things to do to fill the time, while others don't seem to have these problems?

Fortunately, if this lack of social interaction is truly the root of my frustration, it can be fixed. I can talk with the principal about having more classes in the morning and not having class in the afternoon, which would free me up to do other things that will help me to meet other people, such as help out at the midwifery school or volunteer at the hospital. Or I could talk with my housemate about spending more time helping out students at her place of work, the library. At least, if nothing else, those things would provide a change of scenery. I think it would also help with the paradoxical issue of having too much to do (with 80 to 100 students in a class, I can always fill the time with grading) and yet not enough (grading sucks and I would rather spend the time doing something more interesting and worthwhile).

But in the meantime, I feel pretty shitty. And it's crossing over to other aspects of life, ones that I felt pretty good about even just a week ago. The puzzle of how to motivate the students to work harder and learn better, which seemed like an interesting and intellectually stimulating challenge, today seems like an overwhelming task that I lack the skills and cultural understanding to successfully undertake. The 60-minute round-trip walk to school, which I sometimes make twice a day, seemed like a good source of exercise; today, I felt like I had to drag myself step by painful step. And I could write a whole separate entry about the issue of body image – the transition from average (albeit nerdy and poorly-dressed) American girl to dirty, sweaty, greasy, sunburned, bespectacled, mop-haired hippie.

Anyway. There are bound to be ups and downs in any job, and like I said, I have some ideas for how to pull myself out out of this mini-rut I'm in before it gets any bigger.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The high school graduation ceremony was yesterday. They have it in October instead of at the end of the school year in June because they need to wait for the results from the national exam before they know for certain who passed and can actually graduate.

They decked out the high school gymnasium for the event, moving all of the chairs and benches from the classrooms into the room or just outside on a patio that they covered with palm fronds to keep off the sun. Some balloons and a blue and white lapa cloth printed with the totally non-graduation-related item of a hand sporting a giant shiny diamond completed the decorations (side note: a lot of the cloth here is printed with really random objects – toothpaste, chickens, pipes, scissors, and so on).

In the morning, they had the religious ceremony. I showed up nearly an hour late, which turned out to be right on time (sometimes, the African way of approaching time – or rather ignoring it – is really welcome). Though I was not particularly looking forward to this part of the experience, it was actually very enjoyable. The singing was wonderful, despite being not completely on key and despite the fact that they allowed two random people in the school choir to use microphones, meaning that one alto part and one bass part were about twenty times louder than the rest of the choir put together.

In the afternoon was the graduation ceremony itself. The gymnasium was nearly empty for the morning service; not so for the afternoon. The chairs, inside and outside, were all full, students hung over the railing on the balcony overlooking the gym, and parents and friends who couldn't find a place inside peered through the open windows in the back of the auditorium. The ceremony was in some ways much like a graduation in the US – the salutatorian and valedictorian spoke, as did a guest speaker (though in this case the guest speaker was a member of the ministry of education, and instead of providing inspiring words to the students, used his speech time to blatantly promote the government and his own personal politics). In other ways, it was very different.

The best part of the ceremony for me, by far, was when a local singer took the stage and performed one of her songs. This in itself was entertaining, but even more so because, in the middle of her song, a female student stood up in the audience, walked right up to the dancing woman, and stuffed money down the performer's shirt. After that, nearly every student in the auditorium, male and female, followed suit. They filled the woman's bra so full of money that they had to bring out a separate box to put it in. And the whole time, the woman never blinked; she just kept dancing and singing as though nothing at all were happening. The whole thing was all the more surreal given that the woman was singing a song about Jesus.

Maybe it's just me, but none of the graduation ceremonies I've ever been to in the States have involved putting money in a woman's bra. I have also never been to a graduation ceremony in the US where members of an Indian police force was present, complete with bulletproof vests and rifles, which was the case here. Nor have I been to a graduation where the graduates all show up in a long motorcade of motorcycles, sometimes with three or four people on a bike.

Anyway, the ceremony itself was neat, and it was really cool to see how excited the family members were. Everyone was dressed absolutely to the nines, and after the ceremony everyone poured out into the yard to dance and sing and throw baby powder on each other (this seemed to be the substitute for silly string).
Unfortunately, there's a very bittersweet aspect to the graduation. A lot of students did not pass the exam to graduate. And of the ones who did, many will not be able to afford the time or money to go to college, or be able to pass the separate entrance exams. And even for the ones who do make it there, most will be attending college in a university system that is almost as broken-down and dysfunctional as the high school and elementary school systems. So as happy as it was to see these students succeeding, and to see the community and family support for them, there was still a sombre undertone to the whole event.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Please excuse my last post; I couldn't resist making a brief, pretentious foray into more descriptive writing. I think I got it out of my system now, though.


* * *

The kids.

I said I would write about them at some point, so here goes.

The kids are great. They keep things interesting, for sure. But they also are the source of a near-constant stream of annoyances and minor ethical dilemmas.

Most of these result from the fact that there are just so many of them (in addition to the 17 from next door, there are always plenty more from the neighboring houses hanging around), and they are so bored, and they have so little supervision. Really, given those factors, it's not surprising that problems result.

The big issue is that they are always asking for stuff. No, actually, asking is not the right word; demanding is more accurate. And there's no way to escape from it – they come right up to the glassless windows and stand there, shouting our names (or rough approximations thereof) and requesting bread, bananas, stickers, pencils, pens, or whatever else they happen to see lying around as they peer around the curtains. It's irritating, and exhausting in its constancy, to say the least.

But at the same time, it's hard to know what to do. I don't doubt that the kids are genuinely hungry – they're all so darn skinny. They wear clothes so tattered they can hardly be called “clothes” anymore; usually the boys are shirtless, with a pair of shorts that may or may not have a giant hole in what one would generally consider the critical region of shorts. Sometimes they're just naked. How crappy is it to turn away a kid like that, when I can certainly afford to give out a few pieces of bread, or a banana?

At the same time, giving in to the demands may do more harm than good in the long run. I worry about the message I am sending to the kids – and to the parents and others in the community – when I do give them food, or school books, or whatever. Am I ingraining in them an understanding they can walk up to any foreign person, demand resources, and be given them without qualifications? How will fostering that kind of an attitude contribute to development in any way? I'm no expert, but it certainly seems like that kind of mentality is fatal when it comes to the promotion of real, sustainable development. Why work toward acquiring resources when you are shown over and over again that you can have them for free if you just ask?

There's also the fact that, although I can afford to give out a couple of cookies every once in awhile, I can't give 25 kids a substantial amount of food every day. So where do I draw the line? How do I do things as fairly as possible? I've explained a couple of times to a couple of kids that I don't have enough for everyone, that I can't give them anything because it's not fair to the rest. But there's the nagging part of my brain that says, is it really more fair to give out nothing to everyone than it is to give out something to a few? Things aren't fair in the first place; it's sure as hell not fair that I can buy all of the food I need, and they are helpless and hungry.

I've tried to start asking them, “What did you do today that I should give you bread? Did you go to school? Did you study hard? Did you read and write today? OK, well, if you worked hard today, then I can give you this bread.” But I have a hard time believing that asking those things is actually any different from just giving them the bread without any strings attached. And sometimes we give them food or stickers or pages out of a coloring book if they do little things for us – take our trash out, help us get water, and so on. Still, doing this makes me feel a bit too much like the rich colonial-era white person with the African servant boys, which is not a feeling I enjoy at all.

The other major issue, besides them asking for stuff, is that they go through our garbage and pull out any food item, no matter how rotten or moldy, to eat. It's heartbreaking. It's to the point where sometimes I try to sneak out the back and run to the pit where we bury trash, to toss moldy things away before the kids can get them. But if they see me heading that way, they will literally sprint to intercept me before I can get there. And some days it's just too much work to try to avoid them. I'm happy to give them food that we're not going to eat if it's OK, but I don't want to be responsible for a bunch of kids getting really sick from bacteria- and mold-infested food.

Anyway. Like I said, they're sweet kids, and they say and do funny things. Sometimes they serenade us with songs, and lately they've been making up songs about us (“________ and ________, they are cooking fine rice!!” “_________, she is coming home from jogging!!”). And they genuinely try to look out for us, by warning us not to leave towels out on the porch to dry where they might get stolen, for example.  Of course, that makes it all the more crappy that, no matter what I do, we all lose somehow. If I give them the things that they demand, we all feel good in the short term, but I'm teaching an unfortunate lesson in dependency. If I refuse to give them anything, they are disappointed, and I feel mean and petty. So what do I do?