Activism and the Almighty Dollar


A few months into trying to organize the first Toward an Africa without Borders Conference in 2002 it suddenly hit me – Activism needs money, and for this particular conference, between keynotes and paper-clips we would need more than 30,000 dollars.   An amount so shocking that a friend in a drunkenly candid moment all but shouted, "Conferences are overrated – give the money directly to the people!"  So I stopped and asked myself, "Why are we doing this?  Surely there is a deserving African child with a running nose."  The simple truth is that there can be no change without dialogue, no international solidarity without conversation.  Plotting (and this is the business of activism) is always first through dialogue.

So in that manner I justified the 30,000 dollars.  It was now just a question of raising the money.  Easy enough, Toward an Africa without Borders is a UW-Madison organization so with a proposal in hand, we went from student organization to university funding sources and before long we had the money.  And so we lived happily – event after event sponsored through the university.

But were we content? No! We just had to ask ourselves – Why do we keep organizing Pan-African events in Madison, Wisconsin – the land of cheese and brutal winters that last well into May?  What’s the point of yelling where no one can hear you?  And get this – over 50% of our African participants were being denied visas.  And the humiliation: one elderly participant – I am not joking – was asked the last time he had been with his wife.  So many went through the humiliation, paid the US$100 in visa fees only to be given a rude No. 

The African continent is huge; there is space for the sort of things we do, we argued.  So in 2004, after the second conference, we agreed future conferences would be on the continent.  This is not to say we gave up on Madison.  In South Africa, we found a willing partner – Durban Institute of Technology and the dates were set, a call for papers sent and committees formed. 

But where to go for funding? Well, the various university bodies of course.  So we put on our Sunday best –and we went knocking.  "Well this looks really good" said the Dean of International Affairs "in fact our mission is to internationalize, but we have no money for this sort of thing."  Not to worry we said, a few more doors and some will surely open. "Well, well, Africa, you say, yes the continent needs help, but how will our people (read Americans, students, community) benefit?"   It did not matter how much we argued we were creating an aura of international good-will and ambassadorship. 

But things were still not bad.  Having heard that Bill Gates was giving money whether you are on the left, right or center, and Oprah was building 40 million dollar schools in Africa, we knew there was money out there somewhere. 

But before long we started asking ourselves; is there Money so bloody that it could very well bloody our khaki pockets? Is there money so bad that it hurts your cause?

Here the road became difficult: There was Audre Lorde shouting "The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house!"  And on the other – as one Africanist scholar (identity withheld), a rather rotund man, told me on another occasion: "Of course you can take dirty money –always take dirty money and do some good with it. In fact it’s your duty to take dirty money."  What to do? 

So we had heated conversations in our meetings, in bars, with friends and strangers, even African historians.  I asked far and wide and it always came back to the two schools of thoughts.  "You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle his house" and "take the bloody money and do some good with it."   And if you prefer well worn out clichés as I sometimes do when in doubt – does the end justify the means?  Or can the means corrupt the end? 

Bar conversations were the least fruitful.  The answer was always the same, "if my enemy bought me a beer, I would drink it and then…and then smash in his face with bottle – yeah man!" I was told time and time again. But the historians asked "How dare you forget your own history.  Didn’t your Mau Mau steal guns from the white settlers? Didn’t Menelik use European guns to drive Italy out of Ethiopia?" 

So the dilemma remained until someone came up with a brilliant idea – how about the African wealthy?  Because their money is still dripping with blood from a warm kill I was reminded.

So the questions rolled.  Well, I finally came to my conclusion, which does not matter much because the world is fueled by Iraqi oil.  But here it goes anyway: As activist organizations we have to go back to the grass-roots.  In the course and cause of looking for money we tend to forget our constituents.  No, don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that solidarity is formed by money – just that relationships are formed when people are allowed to shape the organizations that speak for them. 

We are not the first generation of activists to face the dirty or clean money dilemma, but I do think we are the first generation whose first instinct when organizing is to e-mail Oprah or Bill Gates and God forbid, Shell, which it turns out, also feeds money into the Bill Gates Foundation.  We are the first generation to think we can actually bring fundamental change with foundation money.  So yes, we need to go back to the grass-roots, to the people and to other activist organizations. 

In our case, we are still knocking on doors but carefully reading the plaque on the door.  And when it says "Shell" we remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and we ask ourselves, do we want this oily hangman involved in our plotting? 

And so it goes.  We are looking forward to a successful conference this July.  As you make preparations to join us in Durban, I leave you with this question: Is there money that is so bad that it hurts your cause?  Can the means corrupt the end? 

Kenyan Poet Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (AWP, 2006), the coordinator for the Toward an Africa without Borders organization and a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine. 

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian.

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