The Story of Charity in Africa

August 22, 2013

One of the first questions - after which school to pick and whether Johannesburg is safe enough to move there - prospective expats typically ask me is what kind of volunteer work might be available for them or their spouses. If you bear with me, I'll provide some answers. But first, my (evolving) views on charity.

In a way, this is the African story. For decades, no, centuries, people from the West have descended on Africa to do good. To help those less fortunate souls who can't help themselves.

Let's dissect that last sentence.

"To help"

It is such a noble intention, helping someone in need. You can't fault anyone for that. The question, rather, is how to help, or even whether helping at all best serves the intended beneficiary's needs. If you look back on Africa's history, the outcome of our "help" is such a mixed bag. From Livingstone and the missionaries following in his footsteps to all the food dumped - literally - onto Africa in the last fifty years, we don't have all that much to show for. Foreign aid has propped up corrupt regimes, imported food and clothes have crowded out farming and small manufacturing, and Western-style ideas of education seem to have only helped a small elite rather than the masses. The more recent sparks of hope seem to occur wherever people are helping themselves, or at least where aid is being targeted more wisely to the people most likely to help themselves - like microloans for women.

Paul Theroux, who has quite a bit to say on Africa in Dark Star Safari (read my review of the book here), comes to the conclusion that forty years of foreign aid have been useless, if not outright harmful, to Africa. On his long overland trip, he encounters charity upon charity, staffed by young idealistic Westerners driving around in shiny white Land Rovers (who, by the way, are without fail the least likely to offer him a ride), and yet he sees no progress. He comes to view most aid projects as an end in themselves, something that is "funded by foreigners and designed by foreigners and implemented by foreigners using foreign equipment procured in foreign markets."

So basically, we start out with the intention to help, but the act of helping often becomes an end in itself. Building and then running a charity is like any enterprise - it requires our skill and dedication and the reward for years of hard work is to see it grow bigger and bigger.

I know this first-hand. Nothing would please me more than seeing Alexandra Baseball grow into something huge - say, townships all over South Africa empowering children and families through the sport of baseball under what might be called the Alexandra model - and being able to take the credit for it. That is my Western mindset. But shouldn't the ultimate measure of success be the total dismantling of the aid organization one has built? Shouldn't shrinking, rather than expanding, be the goal from day one?

We do this with our children. From the day they are born we slowly disengage ourselves from their business, until one day they leave the house on their own two feet to conquer the world (helicopter parents excepted). But when it comes to Africa, maybe we like the act of helping a little bit too much to ever actually let go of it.

"Those less fortunate souls"

But are they? Less fortunate, I mean? Fortune and happiness - if only one could hold a key to those. After three years in Africa, I'm not so sure anymore as to who is to be pitied and who is to be envied. I'm glad, of course, that I don't have to live under the threat of Aids and tuberculosis, that my house is warm and dry and under no danger of being dismantled, that I'm relatively safe from rape and other violent crimes, that my kids and husband can get to work and school in a reasonably safe manner - I could go on and on. But I've also come to see that many Africans have an outlook on life that makes them more at peace with themselves, gives them a greater sense of community, a less hurried life, more opportunities to smile and laugh.

I often wonder if Westernization, which inevitably comes with foreign aid, will eventually drive out that African personality. That one day you'll wake up in South Africa and all your phone calls will be returned promptly but no one will smile at you anymore.

"Who can't help themselves"

The question is, why shouldn't they be able to help themselves? Do they always want to? Back to Paul Theroux: He served a a Peace Corps teacher in Uganda and Malawi in the 1960s and returns forty years later, only to see the school he once taught in crumbled and neglected. The white couple who founded and ran that particular school had died, and no one stepped in to preserve it. Or rather, no one locally. Young foreign teachers were still coming and going, but Africans neither taught (the government didn't pay them enough) nor even kept the school grounds tidy (a squatter had taken up residence in the crumbling staff quarters).

Photo courtesy of Jacky du Plessis

"I wanted to see some African volunteers caring for the place," he goes on to say, "sweeping the floors, cutting the grass, washing windows, gluing the spines back onto the few remaining books, scrubbing the slime off the classroom walls. Or, if that was not their choice, I wanted to see them torch the place and burn it to the ground and dance around the flames, then plow everything under and plant food crops.... Maybe none of these flawed schools were problems at all but only foreign institutions like foreign contraptions - like the big metal containers that were sent full of machinery or computers that were distributed and used for a while and then broke and were never fixed. I saw them all over Africa, the castoff containers at the edge of town. Whatever their contents might have been, what remained as the most valuable object was the metal container itself. The empty things became sturdy dwellings, and there were always people or animals living in them."

That's some tough language, but I saw the same thing in South Africa. Parents from our school would go into Diepsloot, the township nextdoor, and spend hours and weeks setting up a new library, cleaning shelves, sorting and labeling books. Another time we bought inexpensive fleece and sewed and sewed until we had outfitted an entire community with infant beanie hats. If it wasn't for our involvement, the library simply wouldn't have happened, the babies remained hatless. The building and the shelves and the fabric - I get that. Those require capital. But organizing and labeling books? Threading needles and hunching over your work for hours? I wonder where all the locals were who could have done that. Yes, some of them work incredibly long days as domestic workers, mostly women, leaving at the crack of dawn and sometimes not returning until the weekend, scratching out a living for their families. But with 40% or higher unemployment, you can't tell me that there aren't a bunch of people out there who could help build shelves and label books and sew clothes.

In the end, my boys became proficient with a needle and understood the art of a good seam, along with the idea of putting in time to serve others. The entire project taught them something. It helped our family, if you will, just like going to Africa helps young volunteers a whole lot in terms of life experience.

But did and does it really help those in need?


I promised some tips on volunteer work opportunities at the beginning of this post. Read Volunteer Opportunities in Johannesburg for more info. 


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