There was such a joy to their spirit. Imagine hundreds of school children of all ages piling out of windows, classrooms, and hallways in a sea of checkered blue and unbridled energy. They have visitors! They lined up and just as easily broke their crooked-straight lines with squeals of excitement. Song and dance came naturally.
“If you’re happy and you know it shake your body! Shake your body. If your happy and you know it, jump up! Shake your body, jump up” was a party favorite.
Only a few blocks away are the homes of their parents — the impoverished community of Makoko. The story goes that the Lagos state government in an attempt and promise to develop Lagos rounded up its beggars, including the maimed, the blind, the diseased, and everyone in between and put them up in what has grown into a shanty settlement of the neglected.
When do we lose our joy? When do we lose hope?
When in light of the daily reality of millions of lost dreams, do we decide that we can act as the light that revives the flames of hope?
We believe that the time is now.
I have seen the potential of the individuals to impact change and in an organized manner. For about four years I led the Global Shapers Community across Africa and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Shapers, as they are called, represent a network of change makers carrying out hundreds of volunteer projects that have impacted over half a million lives across Africa alone. They do this because they care, they do this because they can.
Ayi Kwei Armah’s ‘Beautyful ones’ are born.
It was a Wednesday after the recently concluded African Philanthropy Forum (APF) in Lagos that we headed for Makoko. The trip is question was in collaboration with the END Fund committed to ending neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) found usually among the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. They do this by imploring us all to remember.
I write to remember.
I remember 39 year old Bayo Okewu. His legs are disfigured — swollen from the thigh down to about 6 times their natural state. I understand now from where the condition — elephantiasis — gets its name. His face maintains the calm disposition of a man who dreams of being more than the excruciating physical pain and social stigma of his condition. Tears well up in watching eyes around the room.
Diagnosis, lymphatic filariasis — a parasitic disease easily prevented by donated pills that cost less than a dollar a year per child. He has worms in his lymph tissues causing his extreme condition. He looks on dejected, all he can do is to clean his legs up and dream.
“Even to wiggle my toe is painful. I walk around but cannot stress myself or else my skin will break small…I don't have money to treat. I have no father. It’s just my mother.”
“I am not a beggar.” He continues, “All I want is an opportunity to do the things I want to do. All I ask is to be able to walk well. That I won’t have sores. That I can have a family. When you have this, you can't do anything!”
Outside, the smell is strong — a constant and unrelenting odor. Garbage piles up in disharmony with its Makoko owners. Old men, with the degenerating limbs of leprosy welcome us. On their left another group of old men blinded from river blindness sit glued to colorful chairs browned by age. Women sit in the sun. The squeals of tens of young children fill the busy square. A curious and bright eyed boy peers over my shoulders watching me write. About 20 children are in a queue for the albendazole and Mectizan treatment against lymphatic filariasis, river blindness, and intestinal worms. They approach a table and hold out their hands to collect each pill as provided in partnership with the END Fund and local partner MITOSATH. They each chew on the observably bitter pill crinkling their faces in a comical parade of expressions, presenting their drug whitened tongue to the compliance supervisor. I learned that the Mectizan could also serve as an efficient cure for lice — providing a temptation for children to fake intake and save the precious pill for a scalp massage.
The little girl in a bright yellow outfit as pictured above plays with the torso of a plump white skinned plastic doll dragged between her and her brother. The doll and her missing limbs eerily mirror lame men and women that crawl across the tarred black brown ground of this overcrowded community of the forgotten.
I am accompanying a delegation of donors and END Fund supporters on this visit. It is not comfortable to be an observer of poverty, but I quickly realize that much better a keen observer than a distant spectator.
Tsitsi Masiyiwa is with us. I follow her grace with keen interest. She is so beautiful in a way that transcends the physical. She smiles from her heart. She cares. In a way that you know that if she could, she would give it all away.
Arriving at the second school, we stand side by side taking in the exuberance of the school children. She starts to share, “I grew up in a township. I would have done the same” referring to the excitement of the children at our visit. “Visitors in the school…run..get excited, I would have done the same.” She turns to me, there is a sad joy in her eyes shadowed perhaps by the realization of the snail's pace of change.
Forbes describes her as ‘The Millionaire's Wife Who Feeds 40,000 Children’, but somewhere I see the truth of her pain, she knows it is not enough. “For how long are we going to do this?”
This is just one corner of Lagos that is neglected. There is a corner everywhere across the continent of Africa that is in the same state or worse.
In sharing the story of my experience of Makoko with a friend from the North of Nigeria, she heard me out patiently only to add “if you cried in Lagos, if you come to the North, I don't know what you’ll do. If you give people 100 Naira in Bauchi, they will want to kiss you. The excitement on their face, it’s like I’ve given you 1,000 dollars.” “In places like Lagos,” she continued, “there are diverse income streams…side hustle possibility to be employed.”
At the recently concluded APF, we agreed that giving as a form of charity and community is part and parcel of our African identity. The unstructured nature of giving however made for inefficient distribution and allocation of funds.
Take for some quick example, we have no means of targeting our funds in the case of emergencies. Giving old clothes, food, perishables, toiletries etc., while important as a short-term approach, are grossly unsustainable especially when dependent on individual supply chains. Cracks in the entire system make the idea of multigenerational scholarship/funds unlikely if not impossible. And more often than not, we do not have the ability or network needed to reach the ones most in need.
“Empower local champions!” was Tsitsi’s enthused response to the question ‘what can be done?’. She continued:
Africa has about 165 thousand high net worth individuals. There are enough of us. Enough brain power to discuss solutions in partnership with government and regional and international donors. Each taking responsibility to full capacity!
These are our communities. We must take ownership. Especially those blessed. When a community is healthy, it’s the business man that benefits. All benefit. Step in and be responsible. Board members should come to this meeting not NGOs. We have to go beyond giving to a little cause.
How much can you give? You don't have to do it alone. Work with others already doing it. NGOs ex. END Fund. Empower champions, empower many more. More Ritas’, [referring to the END Fund champion], skilled and committed partners.
Are you willing to take a risk? Like business, take a risk with our champions. We need to give them the tools they need. Think Fred Swaniker, Dr. Jackie Chimhanzi. Find them and let’s go!
Don't forget the private sector. Empower people, like me, that do not need to be millionaires, but just want to transform the continent.
Someone else helped us to where we are. We are part of someone else’s future generation. If they did that for us, why would we say no to those that need us now more than ever.
In her impassioned speech and our shared experiences of the APF and the visit to Makoko, I am reminded always of Ubuntu, ‘I am because you are. You are because we are.’ Only together can we go the distance needed to move from pity and disbelief at the state of fellow men and women, to a celebration of our contribution to our shared humanity. If not us, then who?
Africans give, we simply need to evolve our giving to match the needs.