The Sufi Muslims in Senegal have a strong belief in the importance of giving alms every day. It doesn’t have to be much, but at least a token offering to someone less well off than you. I have always believed that charity was a fundamental good. However, I know that the one thing that can change lives more than anything else is empowerment through dignified work.
Being here, I began to wonder if I would be a bad Muslim. Would I hand someone 500 CFA just because they ask? No — a banana, orange, or apple maybe, but cash, no. I’ve seen too many examples of how small change can corrupt and create a cycle of poverty that is unbreakable, especially for the children involved. Throughout my own life experience, I have only ever seen a handout (few extreme exceptions aside) disempower. An exchange, on the other hand, I have seen empower beyond measure. An exchange proves to both parties that they have something of worth to offer.
As I get ready to leave Senegal, I think about this as I realize how much I have collected here. My pack is suddenly bursting at the seams, filled with objects that I never knew I wanted. Necklaces and bracelets I will never wear spill out of new batik jewelry bags. Tie-dye fabrics need to be folded and refolded to fit properly into the remaining crevasses. Looking down at all of these items, most of which I know I paid too much for, I realize the joke is one me. Senegal’s sea of endless entrepreneurs has won me over. I didn’t think twice about the 5000 CFA piece of fabric, the 3000 CFA necklace, or a 2000 CFA contribution for a beach mat, because each time I exchanged money for goods, I gained a conversation and the seller gained resources and capacity.
I look down at my bag again, packed and so much heavier than it was when I got here. I take note and think, perhaps, in my own way, I actually have been giving alms all along.