We do not need your money

I chip in 400 shillings (3,36 euro) like the team asks of me. They are my family. If Kevo is not doing well, I will contribute as much as the other guys contributed. A bit later, everything is arranged and we all go out for lunch. It is a celebration of our bond, friendship and trust. One of the guys pays for all of our food from the left-over money. This was the first time that I gave money. That I made the conscious decision to open up my wallet and give cash.

At the training site (February, 2018)

Just a few days prior to this I walk into the training site at 9am. I go upstairs, open the doors and then I see Kevo… In a corner of the gym he is sleeping on the boxing bags. It can’t be comfortable and I do not understand why he is sleeping there. Maybe, he arrived really early and was still tired. I decide not to think too much of it and instead get ready for training. A few days later, when I arrive at the training site he is again sleeping on the boxing bags. Some of the other guys are already there, eating Mandazi’s and offering me some food as well.

Kevo wakes up and training starts. Though, he does not seem as fit as usual and his head is not entirely in it. Normally, the acrobats are full of energy and happiness. They skillfully switch between joking around and being serious. Kevo is always a part of that. He is quite a remarkable person. He is tall and strong, very reliable and pleasant to work with. He is quiet when others are speaking but when he has something to say he demands attention. Nonetheless, there is still the hard reality of living in a slum. The hard reality of having an inconsistent income. When acrobats have a show, they earn a lot of money in one go. There is no money during the time when they do not have shows. They just continue to train hard and hope for a new opportunity. This means that the acrobats have to manage their money very well. Moreover, the acrobats are very open to offering each other financial support because they understand each other’s situation.

There is often a lot of controversy in the development world about just giving people money. Personally, I prefer to never give money mainly because I do not think it is satisfying or sustainable for the person on the receiving side. If I would ask the acrobats if they wanted 10 euros from me, they would say no. If I would ask them if they want to perform and then they can earn their money, they would be happy to do so. Many people do not want to be someone’s charity case and they want to work for the money they spend. They have pride in what they do and in themselves. In having the ability to take care of a family. Just giving money is not a solution, it rather takes people’s agency away.

The team is a family, a safety net. They will never drop anyone once you become part of it. They understand each other and are transparent about their issues. Money issues are common in this area, but the acrobats found a solution to that. When they are offered a show that does not include the full team, they pick the acrobats who need the money most. This way, they can support each other without having to give money. It is ingenious and preventive and as long as shows continue to come; sustainable. Though, the way things are, one can still get in trouble. The acrobats have a microfinancing system called Choma that helps in case of emergencies. They came up with this themselves and it is based on trust. Everyone contributes some money and then it goes to the person who needs it most, next time it will go to someone else.

Acrobats preparing for a show (March, 2018)

As the training comes to an end the acrobats start having team meetings and leaving me out of them. They rarely leave me out, so I wonder what they are discussing. Finally, one of them walks up to me and takes me apart. He tells me that they had been having discussions on whether they wanted to include me or not, but since I am part of the family I had to be included. It turns out that Kevo, who also has a wife and child, has been having trouble paying his landlord the rent and because of that, he had been sleeping in the training hall. As a solution, the team decides that everyone should contribute 400 shillings (3,36 euro) (if they can) so that we can contribute to his rent for that month. Instead of giving the money directly to Kevo, another team member collects it and calls his landlord. The money never crossed Kevo’s hands. Instead we gave it to the landlord and when the rent payment was completed we used the left-over money to make sure Kevo would eat a full meal.

You might wonder why they have created such a strong support system for each other. Besides the fact that they are friends, a team and family. It is simple, in their accumulation of capital, they are dependent on each other’s strengths and fitness level. If one person in the team is unfit and unable to fully contribute, it will bring the whole team down and eventually have financial consequences.

The common misconception that some people are always asking for money is interesting in this case. The acrobats do not need your charity money. They have created their own system. They were even hesitant to include me in this event, even though they knew I could have easily contributed even more. They treated me as an equal, just like I treat them as equals. They do not need money to be given to them. Like most other people, they want to work for it.

*Name has been changed

Author: Veronique Sprenger