Question and Answer with Mama: I want to help, now what?

I recently received this question from a young man who visited I am sharing it for two reasons. Firstly, it is an essential question: What do I do now that I want to help? For some, it’s because they saw a news story, saw a documentary or read an article. They are aware of a situation in Africa which has touched them deeply… so now what? Secondly, I know that this blog has some of the smartest readers I know. I’m sure that some of you will have excellent comments for J. Please feel free to share them.

Hello Mama,

My name is J… and I am just a regular person and trying to make a difference. Its an ironic introduction, but there it is. In the sea of modern civil and uncivil social lobbying and social activism, one kid’s perception must seem irresolute against the gale of cries for awareness, action and justice. I am traveling to Ghana and my family is helping me spend this coming year studying and volunteering there. The orphanage I hope to volunteer with is dedicated to ending child slavery in Ghana, and indeed the founder escaped child bondage, went to college and started this movement. He asked me to help raise awareness of the real danger of child bondage in the Ghanaian countryside, and to stimulate income generation with the families of freed children and of those at risk of human trafficking. The avenue that this project as followed has become the empowerment of woman by selling small hand made goods through the premise of fair trade to the United States. It seems like a long shot. I choice to be the mediator between the United States and the folks in Ghana.

The most descriptive method to describe my role in Ghana is to follow the lead of this organization and go beyond a superficial realm, resolving of the most difficult of issues facing children at risk of human trafficking. The risk for those children is the endemic cycle of poverty, disrupting education and family stability. Without those chains broken these communities threatened by slavery cannot be reached. The cycle is viscous; while poverty inhibits education and education is the key to elevate poverty. The complex will stop only when these youth are inspired with an education that provides empowerment and independence. Ghana is celebrated as a shinning example of democracy, yet underneath the hopeful outward vision, the entrapment of poverty has become profuse for many Ghanaians.

Honestly, my efforts have fallen into an overwhelm daze of fool hearty plans, and my ability to help is not materializing. It is a harsh realization that chills me to the bone. My imagery for this project has deviated far from the reality I have found. There just seems to be no doors open to help these children. It is not right for me to let these kids down. I am letting this orphanage down! I cannot afford to go to Ghana till the beginning of this coming month. I have been looking for a way to help them till I can go, and my searching came across your website.

My journey begins at the bottom of the mountain heart breaking failures. The bottom line is that there is no representation for these children in the world or even in Ghana. While, the potential is slight, my efforts are devoted to changing the livelihood and education of for this community. I have volunteered to attempt to mediate access the United States and facilitate trade for this community. My plans and dialog with my friends in Ghana are only very minimal now. Yet, still I hoped to learn about your organization and if you might have any advice. I sent this e-mail in the hopes to learn about Africa and how my efforts could be best used to help.

Thanks for your time


Dear J,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your care and concern for Africa’s children. For, be they in Ghana or elsewhere, they are Africa’s children… therefore in some way, they are my children. I sincerely appreciate your deep desire to help them.

I have read your email a couple of times now and I am left thinking that you do have a genuine desire to help; but have made an error that I have seen many times in my years of working with Africa: a lack of planning. Unless you have left out some of the details; it seems to me that you (and perhaps even your friends or associates in Ghana) have left out the most important step in wanting to help (other than the desire to do so of course!): and that thing is very good planning.

If your family is indeed interested in helping you with your travel expenses and wants to see that money go to good use; I am sure that you also want to ensure that their money is well-spent and doesn’t go to waste. If you rush too quickly into Ghana without a concrete plan in place to help, you will soon find that your financial (and other) resources will be used up. Then, if you do come across a sincere opportunity to improve lives in a concrete way; it may no longer be possible to do so.

I tell all people (from my own children, to leaders of organizations, clubs and churches) who want to make a real change in the lives of Africans to do two things: RESEARCH and PLAN! I simply cannot overemphasize the importance of these two steps. The failure to properly do these two steps leads to countless examples of failed attempts by individuals, church missions and yes, even major non-profit organizations to make any real change in the long-term.

Make a short list of things that you would like to accomplish and make those concrete, measurable things. Do not list “make kids lives better”. List instead something like: “provide funding so that children can purchase school uniforms”. I hope that makes sense the way I am explaining it.

Additionally, please ask your friends in Africa (perhaps one way that you can help them is doing it yourself or finding someone you know who has experience in the arena) to write a business plan. It might sound overwhelming; but it is imperative.

Most of the disastrous plans and programs I have come into contact with in Africa over the years are caused by the lack of understanding of local cultures, resources, and yes even local desires. It is easy to say: everyone wants to go to school or get education. But it is not necessarily desired (or appropriate) for an organization to have the aim of all African children in a village or town to attend university either. Perhaps if you sat down and talked to the people they would tell you that it is in their tradition to farm, or herd and they simply need tools to do so. Then, your aim could instead be to ensure that children receive basic education with the option of advancing to college if they so choose; but also plan on providing agriculture-based training for those who want to farm. This is just an example from the top of my head. I hope it makes my point clearly.

I’m sure that you have heard the term “African solutions for African problems.” This isn’t said to tell Westerners (be they American, European or Australian) to get their nose out of Africa’s business. It also means, more importantly, that we must ALWAYS consult people to know what their specific needs are and then strive to help them to address those needs.

I therefore urge you to do something before deciding to go to Ghana or to move forward with your plans to help: listen, plan and pray. Listen to the “real” needs on the ground. Plan diligently before you start any program to solve them. Then pray that you’ve done the right thing and follow your intuition (which is often God’s way of speaking to us to ensure we follow the right path for ourselves and others).

If there is anything else you would like to ask or if you need assistance looking over your plans as you start to formulate them more concretely; please don’t hesitate to contact me.


Lessons From My Broken Nose

I hit my nose on Sunday. OK, to be more precise I got hit in the nose on Sunday… hard enough to break it. I’d love to tell you a story about how I took up semi-professional boxing; or that I was fighting with a bear in order to save a little girl’s life. But the reality is: it was a simple case of someone bumping their head into mine, a loud cracking noise, followed by lots of pain and a nasty little concussion.

I’m sure that by now, you are wondering why on earth I’m telling you this story. After all, you come to this blog for information about Africa or food or fair trade. Why would you care (other than the fact that I’m sure you are just generally a caring soul), what the condition of my little nose is today? Well, you’ll have to follow me forward to my visit to my neighbor’s house to know. I popped into visit her yesterday morning after spending most of the morning dizzy and in bed. I casually mentioned my concussion so that she knew that I wasn’t drunk at 9am; and she said: “Wow, isn’t this your 3rd time now?!” (It is; but I won’t bore you with the details; other than to say I was caught off guard by a little girl… twice… in the past!) She continued: “Once you break your nose, you have to be really careful for life. It is incredibly easy to break again.”

This is going to sound really stupid; but I never knew that. Sure, I knew it about bones. Rather, I knew that some people “had problems” with a formerly broken ankle or knee for years afterward. That some of them call it their “weak ankle” for life. But, somehow I thought that it was something to do with the severity of the break. And besides, it’s just cartilage in your nose, right? Here I was thinking someone had put juju (voodoo) or an ancient Indian curse on my poor little nose. Nice to know it isn’t the case!

Again, what does this have to do with Africa? Well this morning, now that my head is feeling a little better, I started thinking about the parallels. Africa has been “broken”. Colonialism, slavery, apartheid, dictatorships, AIDS… the list goes on. But, what do we do now? We can sit and complain about how it isn’t fair. We can tell ourselves that someone has clearly put a magic spell or curse on our continent. We can talk about how unlucky we are and how much life “owes us” because we’ve had an undue amount of hardship. We could do any of that and many would say that we’d be completely within our right to. I though, would disagree.

I think that part of our problem in Africa (or in much of it) is that we have reacted and continue to react. We don’t plan. The problem is that reaction implies that someone else is acting. The actor, the one who makes the initial decisions, is the leader… we are the followers. Like a dance where you allow the other to lead. We are allowing ourselves to be lead into the future. And in some cases, we are like bulls with a ring in their noses (their already broken ones), with a master who holds the chain attached to that ring leading us down the path to slaughter.

We have allowed our leadership to sell off our resources (one word: China); to continue to steep us in hatred (see: Zimbabwe); or to convince us that as long as we have someone outside of the country who can send us money to eat, all is well (see: Eritrea). But all is not well. Those of our children who are becoming educated are using their new skills to build someone else’s empire be it in Oslo, London, Paris or New York. We continue our mass exoduses from countries like Ethiopia, Somalia or Senegal in order become the workforce (often illegal) of another nation. We tolerate living without democracy because our dictator du jour tells us we aren’t ready for it yet or that democracy is a Western concept. Rubbish! There has never been a more democratic place than Africa. We had chiefs selected by their communities when Europe had kings. We had participation of the people when America’s colonies were still in the planning stages of their revolution. Let us learn our histories before we were colonialized. We have known glory. We seem interested in forgetting all of our history before colonialism. That is our error.

But, I’d like to suggest a more interesting option. Let us admit our weakness and our challenges and move forward. I know now that my nose is more likely to break in the future (at least the near future). We know that Africa is still fragile and able to be broken again if we aren’t careful in our planning. Does this mean we put our hands up in the air and quit? We know that hundreds of years of colonialism have left their scars on our nations. Of course, how could it not? We know that in places like South Africa or Zimbabwe, where we only recently regained our freedom from colonial rule, the “breaks” were even more severe. But, that should mean that we plan with even greater care. It should mean that instead of putting ourselves in harm’s way out of some reactionary desire to hurt the one that “broke us”; we should plan methodically to ensure that our future’s mean we are safe and happy.

I think it is way past time for us to say “Yes, we are fragile; but we have been strong before and can do it again with careful planning.” With time, we will one day forget we were ever injured. It will just be ancient history in our great-grandchildren’s history books. And most of all, they will be proud of what we were able to build for them.