Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Gift of Philanthropy

(Nat and Zack are in the Junction with Jonah who is telling them about the latest story in town.)

Jonah: So the chief threw this massive party to celebrate. You should have been there - the food and drinks were overflowing, the music was the kind that just dances you - in short, the atmosphere was simply p-a-r-t-y!

Nat: Really? It sounds like you had a great time.

Jonah: Of course! The high point was where they revealed this really elaborate cake that had been sculpted to be like a statue of the celebrant. They even had the statue wearing clothes made of edible material. I don't know how they did it - but it was fantastic! Everyone was amazed!

Zack (disdainfully): Typical money-miss-road Nigerian. Why are you boring us to death with what another Nigerian big man does with his ill-gotten gains?

Nat: Come on, Zack - you don't know that these gains were 'ill-gotten'.

Zack (snorting): To say a rich man in Nigeria hasn't made his money by dubious methods is like saying that a night-soil man has been able to carry out his duties without ending up with a bad smell about him. Of course they were ill-gotten gains!

Jonah: So... you're saying that you would have less of a problem if Chief Onitiri's wealth was acquired legally? Not, of course, that I'm saying that it was illegally acquired.

Zack: No - they're both wrong. Stealing money is bad enough - but to rub people's face in it by lavishly spending it is to add insult to injury.

Nat: Of course it's wrong to steal money, but I don't understand your problem with people spending their money as they want.

Jonah: Don't mind your friend. He wants all of us to celebrate by eating groundnuts and gari!

Zack: Come on, Jonah! We're talking about someone who is throwing a lavish party because his child was promoted from primary three to primary four! What is that supposed to tell those people who are struggling to make ends meet? I really think it is time that the government banned, or at least levied very punitive taxes on these kinds of lavish parties!

(Just then, Max enters the Junction, catching the tail end of Zack's rant.)

Max: Who's throwing a party? And how come I wasn't told?

Jonah: Ah Max, come and help me o! Your friend wants to crucify me because I'm supporting the right of people to spend their money and have fun.

Max (dismissively): Oh, you know Zack and his controlling instincts. The only thing that he would love more than drawing up a list of Rules and Regulations governing our behaviour for everything from Picking Your Nose to Scratching Your Behind is installing cameras in our houses to monitor us for compliance with his rules and regs.

Zack: I'm not surprised at your reaction. But I think that such an attitude is very short-sighted. If you were a rich man in today's Nigeria, would you really want to live in a society where people are so poor that they are constantly looking at your wealth with envy, malice and thoughts of criminal activity?

Max: Well, as a rich man, you can always move to one of those exclusive estates that are being built around town these days - that way, the stench of your wealth is kept away from the pure noses of the poor.

Nat: Hmm... I still don't agree with Zack that people should be made to spend their money in 'authorised' ways, but I see his point about it being stupid to be so ostentatious in the middle of poverty. Wouldn't it be better to use your money to try to lessen the divide between yourself and the poor? That way, there is less likelihood of social unrest.

Zack: That is exactly what I'm saying, but these two (gestures contemptuously at Max and Jonah) cannot see past their noses what I'm talking about.

Jonah (raising hands in surrender): Hey, Zack - I only deliver the latest gist - I don't judge the way people spend their money. If you have any issues, don't shoot the messenger - go and complain to Chief Onitiri himself.

Nat: So how would you spend your money if you were that rich? Don't tell me that you wouldn't throw lavish parties like that - the way you were reporting the chief's party sounds like you were really enjoying it!

Jonah: Ah - but there's a difference between attending a party that someone else is throwing, where you don't have to spend a kobo - and attending a party that you are hosting, knowing that you are going soak gari for the next few months!

Nat: Jo-nah! How selfish! (Shakes his head in mock despair) Anyway, that doesn't answer my question. If you wouldn't spend your wealth on parties, what would spend it on?

Jonah: I'm not like you, Nat - my head begins to hurt if I start dreaming up elaborate plans about the future. But if you give me a billion naira, I will be able to answer your question in detail.

Max: In other words, you are afraid of Mr. Attack Dog here (gestures at Zack) who is waiting to pounce on you if you dare say that you intend to have fun with your wealth.

Zack: What about you - no, don't tell me, let me guess - you wouldn't spend it on making life better for the poor, would you?

Max: Brother Zachariah, I don't know where you have got this totally false idea that I'm some sort of monster. Of course I would spend my money in a way that would benefit the poor.

Nat: Really? Now that's a surprise.

Max: Yes! Think of all those caterers that will have to prepare food, all those fashion designers that will have to design new clothes, all those musicians that will have to perform and all those refuse cleaners that will have to tidy up the mess left after the shamelessly extravagant parties that I hold. Of course thousands of poor people will benefit! And for those who are even too poor to do those kinds of work, they can always eat the remains of any food that is left over.

Zack: If that is your idea of making life better for the poor, then may God not let us see what your ideas for making life worse for the poor are. (Crosses himself.)

Max: I tell you, my parties will set new benchmarks of decadence and opulence. The plates and cutlery on which my food will be served will be solid gold and for one time use only. And the food we will serve will be the most exotic, out of this world cuisine! In fact, we will literally chop money at my parties - there will be meals in which crisp, mint naira notes are seasoned and sautéed for guests to eat.

Zack: Disgusting! (Shakes his head.) Absolutely disgusting.

Max: I'm glad you approve, Zack. By the way, for entertainment, I will put you in a cage and hoist you high above the revelry. That way, the partygoers can be amused by your facial expressions as you watch all this going on.

Jonah (laughing): That would definitely make your parties the must-attend event of the town!

Nat: What would you spend your money on, Zack? Something tells me that it wouldn't be parties.

Zack: Of course not. I would spend my money on charitable causes, building schools and clinics and sinking boreholes. Things that would actually make a lasting difference to people.

Max: How very dull and unmemorable. I'm sure your sainthood is waiting for you in Heaven, though.

Nat: How are you sure they would make a lasting difference?

Zack: What do you mean? If poor children have access to schools and clinics, then they can be educated and remain in good health so that their chances of living a good life are improved.

Nat: But you're forgetting one thing, Zack. Schools don't teach students - teachers do - and clinics don't heal patients - doctors do. I'm sensing that from the way that you've talked about schools and clinics rather than teachers and doctors, you feel that the buildings are more important than the people in the buildings in the same way that Nigerians believe that a showy church building is more important than the congregation in the building.

Zack: Well, you do need a well equipped school and clinic if you are to provide education and healthcare. But I get your point - the people are more important than the buildings, and I would certainly include spending money on staff too.

Jonah: Yes, I agree with Nat, too. You may not even have buildings, but you can have well motivated staff teaching students under trees.

Max: I tell you, the real reason our budding philanthropist wants to build schools and clinics rather than spending money on staff is that he wants to be able put up a big sign saying "the Zachariah Kwashi Memorial School" on his building - he knows he can't do that with teachers. He may try and deny it, but he wants to show off as badly as those of us who want to host lavish parties - except he's being hypocritical.

Jonah: What's your problem? Even if he wants to put up signs everywhere in his school, at least he's still contributing towards improving people's lives - that's better than those redundant attempts at philanthropy that you see around town, like those road signs that have name of the road in tiny letters and then have "DONATED BY AMULUMALA SOCIAL CLUB" in gigantic bold letters.

Nat (laughing): Or those stupid city beautification initiatives where they plant flowers on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road. When I see this, I wonder what the donors are thinking - if the traffic fumes don't kill off the poor flowers first, then the local area boys will harvest them for firewood.

Max: All right, I agree - Zack is a holy man, and I'm a selfish bastard. (Grins) But I don't like the idea of giving people these things, even if it looks like they can't afford them. First of all, if you give some thing to someone free, it makes it harder for them to appreciate the value of what you're giving them. Secondly, if you give someone something and they can't give you something in return, it makes them feel of less value. And lastly, I think that giving breeds a dependency culture where people feel that someone will take care of them rather than trying to stand on their own feet.

Zack: So you would charge people? Then how are you using your money to help the poor?

Max: No - I wouldn't charge them full fees. I'd subsidise the service - and I'd accept payment in kind. And it means that the school would be more sustainable than if I was giving everything.

Zack: Even if I didn't charge, the school would still be sustainable, because those people who have benefitted from the school's free education would themselves be motivated to donate money back to the original school.

Nat: I don't agree with you there, Zack. For one thing, even though education will improve the chances of students being materially comfortable, it won't guarantee that they will be rich enough to contribute money back. And even if they are, you can't compel them to contribute money.

Jonah: And you, Nat? What would you do as a philanthropist?

Nat: I'd follow Zack's example and try to improve the lives of the poor - but I'd focus solely on spreading ideas rather than erecting structures.

Zack: Eh? What do you mean?

Nat: I think that what really makes a difference to people's lives is information and knowledge. Imagine how people's lives would be improved if they knew simple measures they could take to prevent illness. Imagine how much more productive they could be if they had a better understanding of how to run small businesses. Imagine how much more powerful they could be if they had the knowledge of how to form and organise civil groups to protest against violations against democracy.

And the great thing about knowledge is that with the right tools, you can spread it faster than you can build buildings. With buildings, you have to wait for the beneficiary of your building to become rich enough before he builds for others - and this may not even happen. But with knowledge, once someone understands something well enough, he can start spreading it to other people within weeks or even days. And because it can be spread in this way, it has great multiplier effects - its benefits don't just stop at the first person you tell.

So my main goal would be to spread simple ideas to improve the lives of people in the area of health, technology, business and political awareness. I wouldn't teach the ideas like they are taught in school - I think that this is a real turn-off. Instead, I would use creative methods to spread my ideas - examples, analogies, interviews, cartoons, competitions, jingles and drama.

Zack: If you're trying to spread all these different ideas, your organisation will lose focus and nobody will know what it stands for.

Nat: Ah, well I'll use different organisations for different kinds of ideas so that they don't lose focus.

Jonah: Sounds interesting... but the problem is that unlike parties and buildings where people can see your achievements, you might not get much credit for the benefits that spreading your ideas brings.

Nat (shrugging): Well, I guess I just have to accept that that may be the price of making people's lives better.

Max: It doesn't have to be that way. What you could do is to tie all these ideas that you want to spread into one bundle and call it a new religion - NathanielEkpenyongism. That way, it'll last for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Nat: Sorry, but I don't fancy myself as a cult leader. I'll be happy just to spread the ideas as they are.

Jonah: Well, that's very interesting - all those ideas on how you'd spend your wealth. Of course, I can't see an end to the hosting of lavish parties, though. There will always be some rich people who want people to know how wealthy they are.

Max (looking at Nat): Oh well - I guess as long as that's going to continue, it looks those organisations of yours might want to concentrate on spreading ideas such as "Musical Performances That Unlock Celebrants' Wallets" or "Getting Big Men Addicted To Your Catering and Cooking"...

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