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Ama and the Jewelry Store

For the last four years, I’ve been a regular at Frankie’s Hotel in Osu, Accra. While not the most luxurious hotel in town, it’s one of the most creative. On the ground floor is a patisserie and ice cream parlor. On the first floor is a fast food restaurant, serving one of the better breakfasts in town. And the second and third floors feature spartan, but reasonable guestrooms. (Okay, the singles are _really_ spartan – 2.5m x 3m, no windows.) But it’s pretty cheap, close to the Geekcorps offices and right on the main street of Osu, which means there’s always something to watch on the streets below.

In the process of becoming a Frankie’s regular, I became friends with Ama. Ama was one of the regular beggars in front of Frankie’s, and by far the most personable. I usually restrain my giving in Ghana to people with disabilities that prevent them from working (realizing that Ghana’s social safety net is somewhat lacking). Ama somehow fell outside this rule. I got in the habit of giving her the cedi equivalent of a couple of dollars when I first checked into the hotel. The rest of my stay, she would greet me fondly when I came in and out, and, importantly, chastize the other beggars, street touts, shady businessmen and others who congregated outside of Frankie’s. I was _her_ friend, and they were soundly instructed not to ask me for money.

Three years into this relationship, on my last trip to Ghana, Ama surprised me. When I first saw her, I greeted her, asked about her health and the health of her daughter. She asked me when I’d arrived, about my wife, and then turned serious. “When do you leave?” I told her, and she said, “Before then, I need to talk with you. It’s important.”

I figured the time had come to hit me up for a lot of money, so I put the conversation off until my last day in town. The night I was leaving, Ama stopped me in front of Frankie’s and asked for our talk. I had about $10 in cedis that I was prepared to give her. But she was more ambitious: “I want to stop begging. I want to become an orange seller. I need (about $50) to buy the tray, the oranges, to pay some debts and to have some security. Will you help me?”

$50 seemed like a lot for an orange business, and I suspected I was being scammed. So I offered the $10 in my pocket. She told me, “I’ll be honest with you. If you give me that money, I will take it, but I will still be begging. I need medicine for the baby and some food, and that money will pay for that. But to stop begging, I need you to give me more money.”

So here’s the thing – one of the things you’re taught when you start living and working in developing nations is that you don’t want to hand money out to people without conditions. Even gifting money with contracts and guarantees leads to problems – one of my oldest friendships in Ghana has been injured by my lending money to my friend to help him farm and his inability to pay the money back. If I gave her the money, wouldn’t I be encouraging her to look for big handouts from other people she met? If she didn’t become an orange seller, would she be embarrased the next time she saw me? Would I be angry? Would she ask me for more money? What would I say?

I concluded it was the wrong thing to do to give her the money. Then I went upstairs, found my remaining cedis, gave her $50.

So on this trip to Accra, I’d been avoiding Frankie’s, worried that I’d find Ama begging and not know what to do. Yesterday, walking to the office from lunch, my colleague and I walked past her usual corner.

Ama and her store

Ama was there, in front of her new jewelry store. She’s selling inexpensive jewelry, mostly to the tourists who walk through this section of town. She seems very happy, tells me her baby is well, and is very proud of her new enterprise.

I have no idea what the exact steps between begging and shopkeeping were for Ama – I hope to spend some more time with her before I go and find out more. And I realize my $50 was only part of the picture – I’m guessing Ama asked a number of other friends for similar sums and put them together into enough money to start the business. Or maybe someone was impressed enough with Ama’s independence and desire to change that s/he financed the booth and she’s mostly running it. And I still think that it was, logically, probably the wrong thing to do.

But she’s really happy, and I’m really proud. And if you’re walking by Frankie’s in Osu, please say “hi” and think about buying a necklace. And congratulate Ama for me…