“Can you lend me 500 Nakfa until Sunday?”
“Can you spare me 300 Nakfa to tide me over until I get my salary?”
“My wife has just given birth to a beautiful child, can I have an advanced payment?”
Shakespeare tells us to be neither a borrower nor a lender, the Holy Bible counsels us to lend without any thought of getting it back. The Bible was right. On the other hand one clever wit by the name Oscar Wilde, once said borrow money from a pessimist, he won’t expect it back.
Lending and borrowing is a long standing human activity. What do you do if you have the meat and you don’t have the fire to cook it? You just go to the next cave and ask to borrow a piece of wood. And in the meantime you can talk to the lady in the house or rather cave and invite her for dinner. But that dinner could be your last if her husband comes to know.
In our tradition, a lender is thought to have been sent by God in order to make our earthly lives less miserable. Suppose you have a daughter and she is of yearns to get married soon. And she further hastens the marriage by getting pregnant under your nose. That’s when you go out of your way to ask for money; for the wedding feast and maybe for the dowry.
“My daughter is getting married; can you spare me some money until the sun shines on my dark days again?”
The sun is supposed to shine on the rich only. Those who have rich uncles, relatives, or friends with a kindly disposition are lucky.
“How much would be enough?”
“Just give me 5000 Nakfa and I will get the rest from another kind relative like you.”
In the past the sharks who exacted their pound of flesh abounded mostly in Asmara. They preyed on poor people like vultures and could smell deadbeats from afar.
Thinking of such matters, my aunt would tell me about a person who used to visit their house quite frequently when she was young.
“When I was young I knew a certain person who came to our house and who they told me owned a fortune,” she would recount.
“One look and you could not differentiate him from a tramp and he worked as a janitor in a school,” she adds.
“Where did he get all his money then?” I asked curiously.
“He was a usurer! Of all the professions to choose!” she responded.
Later, after he died, someone told my aunt that he would go straight to hell. “Why?” She asked.
“That’s where the Shylocks of this world go.”
I felt sorry for that person. Does that mean that all the bankers of the world will fry in hell when they depart this world? I don’t know. But I know one thing. I am sure that Allah would not take kindly to their actions. Usury is a cardinal sin in Islam.
Most Eritreans in the countryside practice a lot of lending and borrowing, ranging from livestock, kitchen utensils and food stuff to money and jewelry. The poor cannot live without borrowing. If your income, whether in cash or in kind, cannot tide you over until the next harvest, you are forced to borrow or, under very difficult circumstances, beg. But, in general Eritreans hate to beg.
I remember having this friend who was a teacher who used to go around borrowing like hell, a habit which often ended in misunderstanding and resentment. He borrowed with a style of his own. It is pay day and the teachers are in queue in front of the school to receive their salary.
“Would you please lend me 300 hundred Nakfa until tomorrow?”
“But you will get your salary momentarily!”
“I know, you see, the things is, I have to pay the bar owner 200 Nakfa. She said she would call the police. I want the 300 Nakfa just to show my wife that I have the pay intact.
That way she will trust me. After that she won’t care much what I do with it, and you will have your 300 Nakfa back in no time.”
And back when I was in school, our Math teacher, who was a chain smoker, had a talent for inviting disaster. One day as he was explaining a difficult algebraic computation, we saw a shopkeeper standing outside talking to a policeman. Our teacher was late in settling his debt with the shopkeeper. The latter complained that for three months our teacher kept on buying packet after packet of cigarettes without ever paying him a single cent. “I will pay you later on,” our teacher would say.
However, the previous night’s unpaid packet was the straw that broke the shopkeepers back. Never in my life did I feel so vicariously humiliated. I felt like finding a hole and crawling inside to hide. As to our thick skinned teacher he did not so much as raise an eyebrow. He went outside, said something to the policeman and came back. I wished that God created me with the same stuff that he used to mould our teacher and his like.
Our government doesn’t like to borrow much. There is a proverb in our country which goes something like this: Too much give-me-give-me turns you into a monkey. Many African countries seem to have specialized in the art of give-me, and ended up looking quite foolish for quite some time now.
Once there was this interior minister of a neighboring country who never failed his government in his begging tours around the world. He always came back from his begging spree with lots of money and promises. He could even fake tears and made the bravest members of IMF burst into tears. For that he was considered by his government as a man of action and was slated for promotion until the day his crocodile tears started to produce diminishing returns and he was fired.
Some of his detractors objected to his strategy. “Since when does a full-fledged communist cry?” they asked.
They were right. So the next time Mengistu, the Ethiopian dictator, ran short of money, he didn’t have to beg for it. He stole it and left the country.
Some people ask why it is that we do not borrow vast amounts of money from the World Bank like other countries. Now all these countries are jumping for joy because their debts have been cancelled. We could be jumping for joy just like them at this moment.
The issue is not about cancelling or not cancelling debts, but the culture of borrowing for eventual squandering and corruption. In the end it becomes a habit and you fall into lethargy. If you can, it is better not to borrow. You should live within your means and practice continence.
Too much borrowing can sometimes mould your personality and you begin to borrow just for the sake of borrowing.
One day, so it is told, there was this powerful king who had a large army and a bad habit. Being a bully, he picked a fight with his neighbor and the resulting war was the cause of great carnage and much suffering. Unfortunately, the king’s army was decimated in battle and he was unable to continue the war or his aggression. So he began to think, and true to his unhealthy habit and squandering nature, he asked the ruler of the neighboring country who he was in a fight with to lend him some of his army so that he could continue the war quietly.
This story might have been told as a joke, but there is an ironic streak of truth in it.