Christiana Ankaasiba Akpilima-Atibil (MA, MPA, ABD)
(Doctoral candidate in Philanthropic Studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indianopolis, USA)
“Making a Living, Making a Life”
If there is one question that vexes many reflective people, it is the question about one’s purpose in life. Philosophers, religious teachers, and ordinary people have all, at one time or the other, written about and pondered upon this issue. What exactly are we here for? Is that even a fair question? Do we have to have a purpose in life besides just focusing on making a living? Isn’t making a living and trying to provide for our own families in these tough times hard enough?
These questions are not only relevant at the private level, to each person’s attempt to figure out their life’s path; they are equally relevant at the public level, to the success or failure of the efforts that various groups and individuals are making to improve the conditions of life in Buluk. This short essay is not about shaming people into feeling obliged to contribute towards the development of Buluk; it is about inviting Bulsa of all walks of life (as well as well-wishers) to examine their purpose in life and the legacy they would like to leave behind. It is to encourage people to think about the kind of imprint they can make in this life to let future generations know that they were also here. In other words, giving of one’s time and resources (however small) to impact the human condition positively is not just about helping beneficiaries, it is also an avenue for benefactors to express their values and to leave a legacy in the public sphere.
My mother (God bless her) passed away in 1995 but the mango trees that she planted and nurtured to maturity by our compound house in Kanjarga-Luisa still stand as a testament to the generous way in which she lived her life. Even though our movement provided seedlings of various trees to many people in the village to encourage tree planting, the others failed to water theirs and let them die. Some of them figured they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits. We heard later on that some of the seedlings that we planted were even uprooted by some villagers. The only trees that survived from our tree planting exercise in Kanjarga were those that my mother planted that day. In spite of her heavy duties she found time to water her trees.
Not only do the mango trees continue to provide succulent fruit for the children in the area and income for my brothers every year, they also provide a very good shade where people cool off in the hot season. I did not have to pay for tarps for the performance of my father’s funeral because those trees provided adequate shade; and I heard that there may be plans to designate the place as a polling station. Though my mother has been gone for more than a decade her memory and legacy live on in the village through the mango trees that she planted, as the latter provide both a private and a public benefit. Recently Ghanatta Ayaric talked about the trees that he had planted in Gbedema and encouraged others to do likewise. The question is: what will people remember you for when you pass on? What will your legacy be? It is never too early to reflect on this question.
The tendency to help others or not depends partly on how we define our purpose in life, whether or not we feel responsible for ensuring the public good, and how we see our role in effecting social change. In a society where the majority of people (or the majority of the elites) believe that their purpose in life includes using their private resources of “time, talent and treasure” to leave their society or the world a better place than they found it, voluntary organizations dedicated to promoting community development are more likely to be successful at getting local support. In contrast, in societies where many individuals are socialized to think (1) that their main responsibility is to their own family, relatives and friends; (2) that it is the sole responsibility of the government, other public agencies and international NGOs to make things better for the people; and (3) that it is a world of “every one for themselves and God for us all”, it is very difficult for voluntary organizations to mobilize local resources for philanthropic and social projects.
Where do you place yourself in the above spectrum? Besides the few professionalized NGOs that are providing services to beneficiaries in our two districts, voluntary groups like Bulubisa Meina Yeri (BMY-Network), all with the objective of making life livable for our people, have been seeking volunteers and cash (as well as in-kind) donations to carry out their philanthropic projects. Examples of two projects that come to mind include the health outreach that the BMY-Network organized (in collaboration with the Tamale Teaching Hospital) and the holiday classes that it facilitated in August to enhance high school students’ success at their external examinations.
I do not have information about how successful the remedial classes were in terms of the level of support (volunteers, cash and in-kind donations) from BMY members and Bulsa in general, but I do know that the last attempt by BMY-Network to organize a health outreach to some villages in the Bulsa South District failed for lack of adequate support. How many other projects that could have improved, or even changed, lives in the two Bulsa districts have had to be shelved because the groups or individuals involved were unable to garner adequate moral, physical, and financial support from other Bulsa at home and abroad? What may have prevented you from contributing to these and other worthy causes? Is it something to do with your own philosophy of life? Or does it have to do with shortcomings in the charitable organizations’ make up and tactics?
Sometimes people who would otherwise be willing to contribute to a worthy cause are genuinely concerned about transparency and accountability and are worried that their contributions may go to line the organizers’ pockets rather than helping the targeted beneficiaries. Some also worry that there would be no mechanism for tracking the use of their donations. This is to be expected in a country where public officials misappropriate public funds with impunity. Organizations soliciting donations have to allay these kinds of fears by taking the necessary steps to avoid any appearance of impropriety. One way is to have clear financial controls. Another is to acknowledge and appreciate donors (including individuals, local businesses and corporations, and even local government) and to find the most appropriate ways to be accountable to them in writing. It also helps for donors to get a chance to see how their gifts are being used to help people.
The individuals involved have to show that they are people of integrity, not people who see philanthropic work as an avenue for making a living. It is, therefore, usually easier for volunteers to receive support for this kind of work than for professional staff of charitable organizations, since the assumption is that the volunteers will apply most of the donations to the project rather than to administrative overheads. What this implies is that volunteers have to be prepared to work with the skills of professionals without the benefit of salaries. Obviously, it is not easy to find such volunteers, but it is not impossible.
Other times people have the best of intentions but lack the knowledge about how to solicit for the support they need for their project. Not all methods of solicitation are appropriate for all types of prospective donors. Research has shown that whereas email mass solicitations may bring in small contributions from many people, especially if the case for support is well put together and presented, they rarely attract major gifts. The Bulsa political and intellectual elites and the wealthy among us, those who have the wherewithal to make big donations, will not respond to mass appeals (just like their counterparts in other societies around the world). They are more likely to respond to personal solicitations, courtship and attention.
It would be a mistake to assume that all wealthy Bulsa or big men (or women, for that matter) ought to automatically feel like contributing towards a particular cause because it is for the benefit of Bulsa. As stated at the beginning of this essay, people see their purpose in life in different ways. It is up to voluntary organizations seeking assistance to identify these people and try to orient and convince them to help their place of origin. Though everybody desires accountability, this category of people is more likely to expect more accountability and to want to know exactly how their contributions were spent. They did not make and accumulate their wealth by spending it foolishly!
A corollary to the above point is that voluntary groups working to improve lives in Buluk need to actually ASK for what they need and make the case for support. Studies have shown that people say they have never given to charitable causes because no one asked them. Ask and, most likely, you will receive. Not asking and expecting people to give will guarantee that you receive very little. This is where the database that Ghanatta Ayaric is in the process of compiling can be very useful in helping to identify prospective Bulsa donors, can provide information about them and help make a case for support based on their interests and their areas of expertise.
Also, just like their counterparts in other parts of the country and the world, many Bulsa big men and women will most likely want to be publicly recognized for their contribution, especially if they make a major donation. Depending on the donor (and that is why working through someone who knows such donors personally is important) solicitations should not just be about what the donor can give towards the development of Buluk, but also how their gift will be recognized and appreciated. Contrary to popular belief philanthropy is rarely purely altruistic. It often serves both the giver and the recipient in various ways.
Whatever we do, we have to be especially careful not to foster or encourage dependency among our people and our communities. The objectives of any individual or organization trying to effect change in Buluk should include empowerment and self-sufficiency in the long run. No community is ever so poor that it does not have any resources at all. Programs should always include participation by the recipient communities both as donors to themselves and recipients. At the minimum, all communities have human resources. Donors will more likely be willing to give if they know that they will not have to continue giving forever and that the communities will be empowered through whatever programs are implemented to stand on their own feet and contribute towards their own development. Bulsa are a proud people who will do better with a “hand up” than a “hand out”. In essence no external agent can develop another person or group of people; voluntary associations and social organizations can only help communities to develop themselves.
The problems that need to be solved in Buluk to open the way for sustainable development are so complex that very little can be accomplished by one organization or one individual. There will be the need for productive partnerships between the voluntary associations or groups and relevant institutions within the two districts. The complexity of the situation also means that though it is important for volunteers and amateurs to tackle different issues as best they can, some of the issues will need to be tackled by professionals. This is something to think about as we put our heads together and our shoulders to the wheel.
Everything that I have stated above is based on the assumption that while a few are volunteering their time and their skills and talents to form and manage organizations like BMY-Network (and others that may be in the pipeline) to lead the charge for development in Buluk, all of us will be thinking about how best to contribute whatever we have to support the cause. Not only should we be thinking about making our own contributions, we should also be thinking about how to use our personal social connections to solicit support for the causes that we care about in Buluk. Then we should act! Whatever purpose we determine for our lives on this earth, it does not preclude leaving Buluk better than we found it. What legacy do we want to leave behind? We can all do something. If nothing at all, we can plant trees or help others to plant trees to reverse the negative and devastating effects of climate change in our districts. There is no question that we all have to make a living; but knowing where Buluk is right now as far as development is concerned, we also have to think about how each one of us can help to make a life for Buluk.
(Endnote 1) Around 1974 a group of Builsa students belonging to the Young Christian Students (YCS) movement in various secondary schools and training colleges in the North decided to spend one day of the long vacation to encourage tree planting to prevent desertification in Buluk. Because I was then the President of the YCS in the Wa Sector (made up of all the secondary schools and colleges in the Wa Diocese) the group chose my village, Kanjarga, as the site for the tree planting campaign. Other YCS members who participated in the exercise included the late Reverend Percy Abangdin (then a student at Nandom Secondary School and my predecessor as Wa Sector President), Ms. Benedicta Abagdem (Wa Sector Secretary), the late Ms. Katherine Adaavalik and Mr. Dominic Atibil.