All that glitters… isn’t gold!

There is a lot of debate as to “how to fix Africa”.  First of all, I’m not sure that it’s broken.  The media would have us believe that corruption, famine, HIV-AIDS and constant human suffering are the faces of Africa.  And, when that becomes boring or overwhelmingly depressing; they switch gears and show us the bright, beautiful (white) faces of rock stars, Hollywood movie stars and whatever other stars they can pluck from the sky who tell us how they are saving Africans through their latest causes-du-jour.  After all, stars matter right?  So, if they are in Africa buying children (say what you will, Madonna, it’s the case!) or improving their public relations as their publicists all recommend then we’d all better follow suit!  They are smarter simply because they are rich and on television or have been given the gift of a melodious voice.  And well, all that glitters must be gold.

Here’s the thing: I may have an incredibly sarcastic tone here; but it’s for one good reason.  I am so very tired of hearing about this or that European, American or other westerner who has come in on a white horse to save Africa!  Sick and tired of hearing how those who are more educated than the women that I deal with on a daily basis have the solutions for them.  I do not agree that it makes more sense somehow (though I’m still unable to follow the logic personally!) to have other people solve the problems for us.  What can a poorly educated woman in Mali or Uganda know about what she needs?  She hasn’t ever flown to Italy, read the latest literature on sustainable development, chatted up rich donors at an NGO conference… she’s probably so backward that she has never even left her village to visit her own capital city.  Why on earth turn to her for solutions, right?

For almost a decade now, I have been working with men and women, African people who are interested in building a life for themselves and for their children.  They have told me what I’ve already known: Africans want to EARN a living; not be handed one.  If those jetting in to refugee camps for photo ops had the slightest inkling of our history, our cultures and who we are as people; they’d seek other solutions.  African women are proud women and they want the same things that most women want: a fair chance to build something for themselves.  Given the choice between having a hand-out and sleeping in a house with no roof; I’ve seen African women choose no roof.  This might sound nuts to many of you, admittedly.  But, if you go to most parts of the world (including the US or Europe 50 years ago) the same would have been true for most people.  Pride wasn’t something negative.  It was the gut feeling you had that you don’t take something for nothing and that it was better to be poor and have your dignity than to receive hand-outs and live without it.

I’d even argue that if you asked someone in many rural parts of the world today they’d tell you that hard work is what people should be respected for, not what they own.  At some point in America (and more recently, other parts of western culture), it became a feat to get as much as is possible while doing as little as is possible.  We aren’t there yet in Africa (most of us anyway) and it is my sincere prayer that we don’t ever want to be.

Ask a grandmother, any grandmother… Korean, Indian, Kenyan, American, Icelandic (or one from any other part of the globe) and she’ll probably tell you the same thing: People want opportunity.  They don’t want to sit at home or in a refugee tent waiting for someone they don’t know to decide their future… no, even if it’s a “good future”.  Just because some people feel good after handing out charity doesn’t mean that it is something that makes both parties feel good.

Those of you who visit this blog often know that I believe that most issues are not black and white.  The same truth applies to this one.  Yes, punctual charity is sometimes the right thing to do.  There is no way around assistance after a major natural disaster for example.  Even the wealthiest countries need aid in times like these.  But, it is equally important to allow governments (and even to require) that they be prepared through long-term planning to do as much as is possible for their own people in disasters.  If governments know that they can depend on hand-outs, what incentive do they have to do what others do: planning?  If we train our young African children that living off of hand-outs is normal; what kind of future will they be inspired to build for our continent?

I’ve heard a lot of talk from some, even name-calling and mud-slinging whenever someone says “Africa needs to become self-sufficient”.  Often, people are called racist hate mongers for merely pronouncing what has become a dirty word: accountability.

Here is the thing: I am a mother. I am actually a relatively strict one judging by modern Western standards.  But, children seem to enjoy being in my home.  I have asked them why and it’s because they know that in this home, there are two things: expectations and opportunities.  We expect the best behavior; help when it’s asked for (taking out the trash, etc) and basic respect.  On the other hand, we offer opportunities: to share your feelings, views and opinions for example.  We listen to what you might need and do what we can to increase your opportunities to earn it.  We don’t give charity; we give you an opportunity to earn it.  Want to come to study every night and have dinner with us?  You are welcome to; but you’ll be expected to do the dishes.  Kids know they aren’t imposing because we treat them like a member of the family.


Sustainable employment is what will help African women; not charity.

So, I ask you to think about this the next time you are deciding what to do with your time, your money or your prayer: Consider, are you offering opportunity with expectations?  Support ethical trade, not handouts.

Because if you are just putting some cash in the till of an organization which will “fix Africa’s problems”, you might just find that in the end, they are actually making things worse for the average African woman or child.  Opportunity might not be as shiny and pretty a gift as something marked “FREE gift from charity X”; but then again… not all that glitters is gold.

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Facing Our Fears

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot to my family and friends about fear.  I don’t mean those fears we all have as children of things which are under the bed at night waiting to get us.  I mean the fears that we are all called to face from time to time when we are looking something in the face that might hurt us, even gravely.  I mean the fears that come with knowing that no matter which decision we make, something will be lost.

It is in those moments that we have the real opportunities to grow, inspire others and create our futures.  It is the decisions we make in those moments which create heroes, legends and saints.  It is also in those moments that we create our own future regrets, sadness and suffering.

Until now, my words might sound a little theoretical or dreamy.  After all, we aren’t all intended to risk our lives trying to save a lady from a burning building right?  I mean, the fact that we call these people heroes means that we elevate them above ourselves.  They are like fleeting superheroes, wearing capes for an hour, or only for a moment.  But these people… they are not us.

Let us leave the concept of super-people for a moment.  Let’s not focus on people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Joan of Arc … Let us instead discuss every-day heroes.  After all, we can open a newspaper and read about them all the time.  Just this morning, during a 10 minute period of browsing the Internet, I came across stories a family who decided to donate their house to a charity which helps children suffering from cancer, a high school girl who decided to start a foundation to put water wells in for poor African villages, a man who decided to be the whistle-blower on corrupt government officials… the stories are endless.

Given that so many people do these things, the things that 50 years ago we might have found normal to do; why is it that we hear so much more about the negative?  After all, no matter your place on the planet, no matter your religion, or ethnicity or nation there were certain basic codes to live by: fairness, dignity, and honor.  It seems to me, that the good news wasn’t headline news because it was expected.  The corruption, lying, cheating, etc; well, that stuff was interesting because it was rare.  Now, it seems we’ve swung in the opposite direction.  We think that good deeds are rare and that the negative garbage that we see (held almost on a pedestal) is what is normal and usual.

I spent a period of my life, like most people, looking at all of the things that go wrong, that are abusive and hurtful to others.  After “bathing in” that sub-culture for a while, I can see why so many people tell me that it’s overwhelming. But in the end, it’s simple.  It comes down to choices, individual choices which add up to build a family, a culture, a society.  These are the choices that build our reputations, our character and our lives.

Do we donate to a cause because we want to do something to help; or do we go the extra step to research what the organization actually does on the ground with the money?  Do we send money home to our family in Africa; or do we work to pool our resources with others so that we can build something larger which will benefit those who don’t have family living abroad?  Further still, do we help those most in need, even if they are from a different ethnic group, region or country?  Do we upgrade our car or keep the old one and use the difference to put a water well in a remote village because we know that it will serve a greater good?  Do we opt to keep our mouth shut so that we can remain on good terms with our home governments or do we give up the ability to buy land, build a home or even visit our home nation… because that is the price of speaking out for the basic human rights of those who live “back home” without a voice.

We can publicly pretend to not know there is abuse of power, corruption and fraud.  We can tell our Western friends and neighbors that Africa is not only filled with dictators and corruption.  But we know, at night in the silence of our bedrooms… at that moment that we place our heads on our pillows and pray to God to bless us… if we are doing what we can to ensure that there is less corruption, less polarization, more opportunity, more hope.  We know in our hearts if we are a part of Africa’s solutions or if we are living in fear of speaking out because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be ostracized within our own communities in the Diaspora or out of sheer pride.  We know if fear rules us, or if we walk through it like our ancestors did.  We know if we are too afraid to walk against the grain.  We know and God knows, even if no other soul has a clue.

As a woman who was born in Africa, I love my continent as most Africans do.  I am not special.  But as an honest and fair woman, I must take the road of facing my fears.  It isn’t popular to tell people that they are supporting corruption for their own political or financial gain.  It is natural to hesitate anxiously before saying “The leadership is selling off our natural resources to China with little hope of the poor gaining anything from it.”  It is no easier for me than it is for anyone else to risk being misunderstood, pointed at or called names.  But I invite you to join me in the dialog.  We’ll agree on some things, we’ll certainly disagree upon many others.  But, if we sit in our corners in fear of the exchange… all of Africa loses.  Maybe we won’t get permission to build our vacation house in Nigeria or Eritrea; maybe our cousin will tell us that we are crazy for airing our national “dirty laundry”.  But in the end, I promise you that there is such joy in knowing that we have answered the call of our consciences…. Come what may.

I look forward to hearing your views!

Love,

Mama

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

I recently received this question from a young man who visited MamaAfrika.com 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.

Blessings,
Mama

Q&A: What is a good NGO to donate relief money for Haiti to?

Here is an excerpt from an email I received this morning. I thought I’d share my response in the hope that it would help others as well
“… told me to ask you if you knew of a good NGO to donate relief money for Haiti. Do you have any suggestions?

– HR”

Dear HR,
Thanks for your confidence! As you already know, Mama Afrika doesn’t have any connections personally in Haiti. We hope one day to be able to trade with and assist women in the African Diaspora such as Haiti; but that is a future endeavor. Let’s talk about today.

As is always the case, when major disasters strike like the horrible 7.0 earthquake that hit the island nation of Haiti, it seems that every organization sounds the battle cry and asks for donations. Don’t get me wrong, this is important and necessary in order to get help to those who need it! But, as someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for years before starting Mama Afrika, I feel compelled to warn people of one thing: Big names don’t mean honesty.

It would be my greatest pleasure to tell you that all of the largest non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross had their “clients” at heart when they made decisions. It is sadly, often not the case though. So, please be wary when choosing who to donate to.

I highly recommend that when donating to organizations you look before you leap. Here is a great website which can assist you with that: http://tinyurl.com/yeu83s2 . They and some other organizations like them, rate large non-profits based on their responsible usage of donations. (My personal opinion is that I wouldn’t donate to anyone with less than a 4-star rating. Financial responsibility counts!) We all want our donations’ recipients to be those on the ground, not some well-paid member of management in Washington DC, or New York, right?

We all know about the outrage after so much money was raised by the Red Cross who led people to believe that their donations would be used to help victims and their families after the terrorist bombings on September 11th or hurricane Katrina. History showed us though that there was deception at the very least and outright fraud in the worst case. We’ve also all heard horrible stories of how monies collected for victims of tsunamis, floods, wars, famines, etc. is filtered off by employees or wasted in other ways.

Even the United Nations hasn’t had clean hands in the past. Those of us working with and in Africa know about the disgusting wide-spread scandals where UN humanitarian workers required young girls come to pick up their families food rations so that they could sexually abuse them before handing out their rations.
The world of humanitarian organizations is full of such tales. And although I would love to only focus on the good that they do; it is important that we as donors are responsible to those we are trying to help.

These abuses, both financial and human are the reason that I left the non-profit sector. The large, corporate mentality where people jockey to move up the corporate ladder at all costs was just not for me. I’m called to help the poorest in the world; not to earn a 6-figure salary and treat my job like I would treat any other job in any other industry.

I recommend asking yourself the following questions before donating:
1. Does this organization already do work “on the ground” in the country where the disaster occurred? This will tell you how well networked they are, what kind of contacts and relationships they have on the ground and how your money will be used if they meet their financial need where the specific relief project is concerned. In this case, for example, if the organization raises 2 million dollars more than it needs to provide emergency relief for Haiti; will it be able to use the money leftover in Haiti, or will it go to a general fund for disasters elsewhere… or even worse, to pay for raises for its employees in the US?

2. If the organization already works in Haiti (in this case), what is their “regular work”? Is that something you would fund otherwise? Are they usually in the adoption field and simply fund their orphanages with money they usually raise? Or, do they usually empower the poor through sustainable living projects like fair trade?

3. Do they have clearly defined goals or are they just saying “Help us”? This should give you some idea of how well they are able to meet the needs on the ground.

Sometimes, if you don’t feel completely confident giving during a particular disaster because you see that there is a large outpouring of assistance (relative to the size of the disaster, naturally); you might be just as well to wait.

I know that this is an unorthodox comment and that many will not appreciate it because we are all flooded by the emotions that naturally come with this magnitude of disaster. The photos pull us in and the stories are so heart-wrenching. But, intelligent giving is important. You might want to give to another region of the world, give your time to help in your own community or plan a fund-raising campaign for a cause that is important to you. That is OK too. Giving is what matters: giving of your time, your energy, your prayers and your resources.

Haiti is one of the few places on earth that has it so much harder than even many places in Africa. They might be the oldest Black democracy in the Western Hemisphere; but they haven’t reaped the benefits one might expect from it. Sabotage from the US from their earliest history as well as corruption within Haiti in more recent times has made it one of the most ill prepared places to deal with this tragedy.

You will, therefore have a chance to wait a few months until the dust has settled to find out who was responsible with their donations, what new projects are emerging due to the increased focus on the country and which of those new (or older) projects you want to fund.

I honestly cringe each time I think about the potential that times like this have to cause people to get burned and decide not to give again later. I know how much harder it makes it for those of us who have honestly and sincerely dedicated ourselves to the poor, even when the lights aren’t shining and the news cameras aren’t around.

I just ask that we all take the time to reflect on what our money will really be used for on the ground… instead of giving only to regret it when we hear in 6 months or a year that the money was used in a way we wouldn’t approve of. Again, I would begin by digging deeper and investigating what organizations are translating your dollars to good works, which are going to remain on the ground to help after the immediate emergency situation is helped and which are doing the most to include ordinary Haitians in the process as opposed to sending employees in. I’ve found two through the site I gave you which are listed as 4-star with financial accountability and I’ve noticed that they have long histories in Haiti, employ Haitians for the clean-up (providing at least temporary employment) and have long-term sustainable development programs. I, personally, would donate to either gladly—and have. You can learn more at: http://www.foodforthepoor.org or http://www.hopeforhaiti.com

And, of course, in a few months when the world is calm again: remember those in the world who most need your help and support those who are trying to assist them in living better lives.
Blessings, Mama

Shame on them…

Ok, let’s get directly to business here… 

I have been asked countless times why it is that African leadership buys weapons before food for their citizens. And frankly, it is the one time that I am left without a response that satisfies me, much less the person I’m speaking with. 

After taking another look at the United Nation’s Human Development Index today, I am left wondering how any African leader can explain the enormous discrepancies in spending! After all, leaders are elected (although not often enough is real democracy present on our continent) with the hope that they will be able to implement programs which facilitate people’s daily lives, improve their living conditions and allow mothers to see their children live longer, stronger and better. 

Isn’t it a universal ideal after all for each generation to want better for future generations?  How is it then that we have managed to breech this rule of law in our leadership’s vision for our nations? 

Since when does it make sense to spend 10% of your national budget on your military; yet 1% on healthcare for your citizens?! What utterly disgraceful numbers by anyone’s standards. These numbers may be true of Ethiopia’s government; but the fact is that you could plug in the budgets of a host of other countries (Eritrea, Angola, Djibouti…) and ask yourselves the same thing. 

When will education, healthcare, access to clean water and other development goals be what leads the decision making process? When will we put our children first? 

Just my thoughts,
Mama