My Tuppence Worth

No point in whining about a thing if you’re not prepared to take some action. So I’ve written a letter to Bono, my mate Matt and all the boys who Make Poverty History. I doubt anybody will write back; I’ll let you know if they do:

Dear Sirs 

It is difficult to know how to begin this letter. How to start in order that I can grasp your attention before you bin it?  You’re busy, I know, and I’m sure you receive sack loads of mail every day. 

If I were to begin by revealing that I am the descendent of East Africa’s earliest white colonizers, you’d dismiss me as being inherently un PC.

If I were to tell you that I am a housewife and mother of three, you’d sigh heavily and say ‘oh gawd, some silly woman who thinks she knows what she’s talking about’.

If I were to tell you that I never went to university, you’d presuppose I didn’t have the education and couldn’t possibly offer anything in the way of value to an operation that posts jobs for policy managers, research analysts and advocacy specialists. 

But I am working on the assumption that – because you are of charitable disposition – you will read a little further to understand what it is I might have to say.  

As the spawn of settlers I have no other home.  My family has been here since my grandfather – a man of modest means from Scotland – arrived in 1904 – over 100 years ago. That means two things: that I have a fundamental and intimate knowledge of my part of Africa (her language, her geography, her problems, her people, her soul, her vulnerabilities, her cunning). And – because it’s home – I really do give a damn. It probably also makes me a little cynical of many aid efforts. But a little cynicism gives an edge of reality. And that’s always a useful thing to have when addressing a problem. 

As a woman, I empathize with African woman and I have observed them: they are Africa’s spine. As a mother, I understand what children need in terms of care and education. As a housewife, I understand about budgets and monitoring what I spend; I know how to worry about money. 

As for the fact I didn’t go to University, one ought not to overestimate the value of higher education: it’s not what knowledge a person has that counts, it’s how they use that knowledge.  

So, in the hope you’ve got this far down the page and haven’t dismissed what I might have to offer before I’ve even started simply because I lack the conventional credentials, let me assume for a moment that I am the decision maker in your organization.  

This is what I would do:  I’d stop considering Africa in such patronizing light for a start. Africa has resources and manpower. It might seem a hopeless case, but there is hope. Little shards of it glinting amongst the chaff.  Like needles in a haystack, not easy to find and careful you don’t prick your fingers whilst trying.  I’d put those resources to work – nothing is so rewarding – so morale boosting – as a little bit of successful commerce. Why must Africa always be regarded in terms of handouts? What about a leg up instead? I’d offer loans – or inputs – with attractive conditions to farmers and small producers. That’s what my husband does: provides the inputs to 50,000 smallholders who grow tobacco. Once the crop is in and the farmers have been paid, they are in a position to pay their loans back and possibly extend the reach of their land in order to increase their earnings next year. Yes, yes, I know growing tobacco isn’t terribly PC anymore, but it’s a great deal more PC than adding another 50,000 families to Africa’s list of hungry and impoverished.  And anyhow, it doesn’t have to be tobacco: it could be any number of things. Africans are amongst the best traders in the world – look at their markets for God’s sake – realize that potential; embrace them in commercial ventures. It’s much less demoralizing than throwing money at a problem. And much more sustainable.  

 I’d concentrate my efforts on women. I’d certainly employ them to monitor my projects in Africa – in the end they are responsible for the welfare of their children (single parenting and domestic violence are the reality for many African women – and they don’t have access to the support their similarly suffering peers in the West do). Should you question my applause for the African women, assuming I’m a wicked old man-hater (I’m not, I’m happily married, thanks), let me put to you a challenge: the next time you’re on the continent and being driven from one charitable effort to another in a nice new air-conditioned 4×4, take a look out of the window: who’s selling tomatoes on the roadside? Who’s carrying water? Or firewood? Who’s roasting maize cobs or brewing tea in the hope of tickling the taste buds of passers by and enticing a little trade? Who’s weeding that field? Now look again: who’s under a tree smoking and gossiping with his mates?  

And I’d educate the children. But in a less conventional way than we do our own privileged children: remember an African child has probably never had access to a jigsaw puzzle or a book. I’d teach them to learn first. For then my education programs would be much more meaningful.  

 I would understand the media that Africans rely on for information: the radio, their own language newspapers. And I’d understand the enormous part cell phones play in their lives and see if I couldn’t manipulate that to good use.  (Did you know, for example, that brewery profits have slumped since the mobile phone arrived here: the blokes would rather the kudos of owing and using a cell phone than forking out for a beer)? 

So, that’s what I’d do. And I’d do it by surrounding myself with people who could help me implement my plans because they know Africa as well as I do. Because they understand her machinations, her strengths, her limitations. Because they have lived with her. Because they love her.  

But as I said, if you’ve even got this far, now’s the time to diss what I think: after all, I’m just a mum: what would I know? But even if I have made you consider Africa’s difficulties from a new perspective for the briefest moment, I’m glad I took the time to write.  


And now I’ll get off the soapbox I’ve been teetering on all week. Not content with relocating the family to splendid Outpost isolation, husband has organised that we go camping this weekend. To get away from it all, he says.

Get away from what exactly, I wanted to ask.

11 Responses to “My Tuppence Worth”

  1. Iota Says:

    I love this letter. Trouble is, if you get a reply, it’ll be full of statistics and policy (I know; I used to work in an organisation that wrote those kind of letters). Projects targeted at women are very popular in Western aid circles. Loans to small producers has been done. Education is always a buzz word. They think they work with organisations who know grass roots Africa. They won’t read your letter carefully enough to know that you know all this.

    But I’m glad you wrote. It might be the butterfly stamp, who knows? Please let us know if you get a reply.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I will Iota, I promise I will. Though I agree: I’ll get a letter that tells me they know all this already. If – indeed – I even get a reply. Thanks for reading it.

  3. MisssyM Says:

    If they’ve any sense, they will not only reply but offer you a chance to engage with them further.

    A cc’d copy to Gordon brown might be worth a punt. Who knows?

  4. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks MisssyM. No replies so far … not that I really expected any. Yes, perhaps I will cc Mr Brown … thanks for that.

  5. Honey Says:

    sent over here by Randall, what a great letter thanks. It made me think a little more today. I hope you get some well considered replies.

  6. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks Honey (!). I’m glad it made you think; thing is it needs to make the boys with the wherewithal to make a difference/make poverty history think too … will keep you posted vis a vis reponses. If any.

  7. Pat Says:

    Hi RM! Also from my dear friend Randall and my reaction is simple GO GIRL!

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks very much, Pat! And for dropping by.

  9. Patsycake Says:

    WOW – I should have read this before my response to your last post –

  10. How Can you Make Poverty History if you haven’t seen the Poverty? « Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] Poverty History if you haven’t seen the Poverty? Well I got a response. Just the one. To the several dozen letters I wrote to all those who aspire to Make Poverty History. I won’t reveal precisely who wrote – […]

  11. kizzie Says:

    absolutely amazing! I’m speechless. Thank you Thank you Thank you

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