I have a problem with charity in Africa. Not any kind but the one that has become the mission of the wives of African heads of states commonly called first ladies. If there’s one thing that numerous African first ladies have in common as portrayed by the media, it is a big heart. A heart so big that they can’t help but distribute love and kindness to those in need. From Chantal Biya in Cameroun who has even received an honorary doctorate degree for her career in biscuit and toilet paper distribution to Marieme Sall in Senegal who took it upon herself to provide poor elderly women with foam mattresses, to Dominique Ouattara in Cote d’Ivoire whose love for poor and disadvantaged orphans make her organize the fanciest fundraising gala event in West Africa where only the richest of the rich deserve a seat, to Aisha Buhari who inspired her daughter Zara in following her footsteps in food distribution, I wonder if African first ladies are all trained in the same philanthropic school.
There are two main reasons why I can’t stand the so-called charity work of these ladies. First it is the fact that they as women, wives of the most powerful men of their countries are weakened to religious nuns who don’t ever question, challenge or influence policies. Their only mission is to be kind or presented as such and this only deepens the gap between men and women in politics. The idiom of “behind every great man there’s a woman” is constantly abused to justify the withdrawal of these women from politics and some heads of state such as Buhari of Nigeria were not embarrassed to humiliate and reprimand their wives in public when they “dared” share their opinion on governance with the public. The fact that the wives of the most powerful men in the society are reduced to smiling, obedient, loving, caring , gentle and sympathetic people who are only applauded for their aesthetics of generosity annoys me to the extreme. How do we empower girls to engage in politics and contribute to the development of their societies when they are presented weak and powerless women as role models?
Beyond the fact that the first ladies are limited in their roles and reduced to Miss Charity, the second thing that aggravates me with the philanthropic agendas of these women is the hypocrisy behind it. I stumbled upon the interview of Zara Buhari, youngest daughter of President Buhari of Nigeria in which she was showering her mom with compliments. According to her, Mrs Aisha Buhari taught her to give to the less privileged and that has inspired the daughter to engage in charity work. The funny thing is that this is presented as a proper education of a girl: one who is taught to be nice, caring and kind to the poor. I on the other hand was never taught to give the little I have to the less privileged but to fight for equal access to basic needs such as food, shelter, education and health which are not supposed to be privileges in the first place. People should be outraged by the fact that in their community, they are born with enough to feed a million people and their daily spending can provide shelter for hundreds of people. Far from bashing the rich of wealth in general, I believe that poverty is routed in the unequal distribution of wealth and one shouldn’t feel the need to share for others to deserve to feed and live.
In another contest, let’s say in a country where parents can afford to feed their kids, or the government provides for those that cannot, I wouldn’t mind those whose hard work and sacrifices have provided more wealth than the average person to show some kindness and donate part of their hard-earned wealth to add a sparkle to other’s life. But in societies like ours where poverty is the most widespread ailment, and this because policy makers and decision makers who are nothing but our presidents and their co-politicians, it is unacceptable that the wives and kids of these very people whose poor governance, inefficiency and in most cases corruption have created or enforced the precarity in which their people are living dare talk about charity and servicing the less privileged. If these ladies so care about the well-being of their people, they should focus on destroying the root cause of poverty in the first place. Owing a mansion, an SUV or spending vacations at the nicest resorts in the world can be considered privileges but not having a daily meal, a roof over one’s head or a school to study at. A Chantal Biya must realize that her husband is a failure for haven led Cameroon for three decades and still there are numerous kids who can’t eat on a daily basis. Her charity should be about questioning overspending starting with her daughter who spends $400 on a single limousine transportation fair from her fancy house in Beverly Hills to her university.
Michelle Obama didn’t spend her Fridays distributing vegetables in elementary schools to promote healthy eating among children in the United States; she advocated for a policy change in school meals which led to Health Hunger Free Kids Acts thanks to which kids from low income families are fed a healthy and balanced meal twice a day at school. If our first ladies have a passion for orphans, then they should advocate for policies that will provide security and care for all orphans. Same for the ones that focus on the disabled, or the elderly and so on and so forth. People should not be donated as charity what is supposed to be their right.
Some will argue that the first lady title is not a function and therefore these women are not obliged to defend or promote any cause. I give them that. However, they shouldn’t take us for fools either by pretending to better the lives of these very people their husbands have deprived of dignity. We need to remind our leaders and their accessories they parade as first ladies that our basic needs are not privileges for them to share with us. And I cannot feel any gratefulness towards those who rob our fountain and pretend to quench our thirst with a few drops of water. I wish to see African women, regardless of their status advocate for equality instead of reinforcing injustice trough phony philanthropic projects. And the wives of our heads of state can either be true to themselves and stand for social justice or remain in “the other” room and keep quiet as Buhari has requested from Aisha.
Farida Bemba Nabourema
The Disenchanted Citizen of Togo