When Helping Hurts

“Hey Bruce….is your phone near you, because it’s been ringing and ringing!” I shout out to my husband, who’s working on the computer in the other room.

“Yes, I know, thanks.  I have it right here…it’s Boniface* who’s been calling.  I just can’t talk to him right now,”  he replies.      (*not his real name)

Oh, ok.  That explains it.  It’s Boniface, a friend of many years from the Maasai community below Kijabe.

Boniface who, as a 10th grade high school dropout back in the early 2000’s, was hired to teach an adult literacy course to the unschooled Maasai women of his community.   He did so, faithfully and cheerfully, for about a year.

Even though he was never paid.

“Somehow” the funds that had been raised and contributed to the local Community Women’s Self-Help Organization to pay for these services never found their way to him.

It was partly because of this egregious “oversight” and partly because of our connection to this Maasai community that we agreed to raise the necessary funds to help Boniface finish his remaining two years of high school (note:  high school education in Kenya is not “free”).

Even though education is valued by families, most often there is not enough money for school fees, especially when one has a family consisting of an aging father with 3-4 wives, homes for each, and numerous siblings/relatives to feed and clothe.  Add to that the livestock:  sheep, goats, and cows, and it’s no wonder that Boniface’s family was unable to assist him with fees past the 10th grade.

Therefore, we thought it a “good investment” to support this kind, articulate and bright young man who had demonstrated such selfless concern for the well-being of the illiterate women in his community.

With the help of many others and by God’s grace, Boniface was finally able to attain the long-awaited prize of a Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (high school diploma).  With this important credential in hand, employment opportunities would be more forth-coming for him.

Or so we thought.

Granted, jobs for Kenyans living in a rural environment are not easy to find, even with a high school degree.  It wasn’t too long after his graduation that we began to get requests from Boniface for further financial assistance.  These are just a few of them:

  • First, it was for funding so that he could go to school to become an airline pilot (declined);
  • Next, it was money he needed to help record and distribute a music CD (also declined);
  • Requests to help with money for the ongoing medical concerns of his father (occasional help);
  • Requests to fund his brother to put through high school (donor found);
  • Requests to help with money for food for the community during times of drought (regularly);
  • Requests to help build a stone house after he got married a few years ago (declined);
  • Requests to help pay for the labor and materials for a new roof for this house (donor money found);
  • Request to buy beads/materials for his wife to make and sell jewelry (declined);

In short, we have become the default financial resource potential, the automatic phone call or text, whenever Boniface has any kind of monetary need, large or small.

Like we are his personal ATM machine; his very own private and exclusive Barclay’s Bank.

He feels this way because we have known him and have had a relationship with his family and community for over twenty years.  Since he was six years old.

He remembers us coming with the evangelistic team from Kijabe to his village, sitting outside on the plank benches, under the spreading branches of the huge acacia thorn tree, for regular Sunday services.


He was there from the start as the church and elementary buildings were planned and constructed, both of which he attended.   Many people and organizations gave the resources for these buildings; we were simply privileged to be living close by and available for direction and advice during those formative years.


In short, we are family to Boniface.  Families help each other out in times of need.  And as Americans, we do have access to many more resources than he does, both our own and through others.

So it is actually quite logical in his mind and in classic African reasoning for him to turn to us when needs arise.

Giving to those in need.  It’s a good Christian thing to do, right?  Well, yes.  Of course it is, some of the time.    Needs are always going to be there for people who live in poverty or barely above it.

Over our almost 25 “off” and “on” years in Kenya, we’ve been happy to help many who have needed it, for any number of reasons:  school fees, supplies, money for food or seeds for planting, weddings, funerals, vehicles, hospital bills, etc.  Often we give just a part of what is needed, while others chip in to give the rest.  This is the traditional Kenyan way, known as harambee (“pulling together”).

But sometimes, too much helping can actually hurt.

In a book of the same name (When Helping Hurts by S. Corbett & B. Fikkert), the authors’ premise is that often, in the zeal to give and give and give some more in the face of the real, desperate and heart-wrenching needs, organizations or persons can unwittingly undermine the very people they are trying to help.

Over-giving can be bad because it creates dependency and encourages lack of initiative in the people who are receiving, ultimately doing more harm than good.   By giving each time a need arises, it’s possible that root causes of poverty may never be addressed.    It’s too easy to just ask for help.

We believe that this is what’s happened with Boniface.  Not that we’ve given to him every single time he’s asked, in fact, far from it.  Paying for two years of high school fees has been the largest sustained amount we’ve ever given to him.

But somehow, for him to grow up seeing the resources of wazungus (white people) put to work in building churches and schools, and through our generosity of providing his school fees, Boniface was hooked; or spoiled; or caught, or any number of words one might use to describe this seemingly “automatic reflex” of his to turn to us first when major (and minor) needs arise.

And who can blame him?  In African cultures, it never hurts to ask for help.  One may not always be successful, but one would be foolish to not at least try for funds when one has a relationship with those who have vastly more available resources than oneself.

As missionaries, we do not ever think of ourselves as being “people of means”, but of course, that’s exactly what we are to our friends who often live either one step up or two steps away from dire need and abject poverty.

Over the years, Bruce has tried hard to counsel Boniface, giving him encouragement to find a job, and to stand firm when necessary against his sometimes pleading, wheedling, and incessant demands for money (phone calls, texts, and emails which some days come non-stop).  We’ve prayed with him and for him, and have also encouraged him to seek help and assistance from his family and church community, which he has done.

However, the requests keep coming.  Early this month, he texted to relay a desperate plea for help with the (very cultural) bride price payments to the family of his wife of 2+ years.  Boniface did not pay the money “up front”, as is the usual practice, but is being pressed to pay it now, within one month’s time.  If he can’t come up with the cash and cows (value:  around $1300) to pay for his wife, her brothers have threatened to marry her off to someone else.

Does anyone have a spare $1300 lying around?  That’s right; neither do we.  More importantly, this is a cultural battle that we don’t want to become entangled in or address.

We actually did receive a small encouragement about this issue just today.  Boniface has texted that he has a plan for how to raise the money. He really loves his little family, and we are thrilled that he has come up with this plan all on his own in finding a way forward out of his latest predicament.

So, please do join us in prayer for Boniface, his wife, and their little daughter, Kate (yes, Kate; named after me).  Pray that his plan will be successful so that the bride price can be paid in full.

Pray that the success of this venture would instill confidence into Boniface as he learns that he is able, with God’s help, to face life’s difficulties and to find hard-but-workable solutions to them on his own.

And pray for us, that we will have Christ-like patience and grace on the receiving end of these calls and text messages; to listen and hear him out during what are very stressful times for him; and to not grow weary with allowing him access to us for counsel and advice.  Like a truly Christian family would do.

So that whatever we do is ultimately helpful, and not hurtful, to him.