Friday, October 28, 2016 1:56 pm
By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
I have just returned from Accra, Ghana, where I went to attend a panel discussion on African Women and Philanthropy, to mark the 15th anniversary of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) the first Africa-wide grant making foundation. I co-founded AWDF in 2000 with Joana Foster (Ghana) and Hilda Tadria (Uganda), and we began operations in 2001. The panel also featured Leymah Gbweh, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate. I have a long history with Leymah, dating back to the period when Liberia was going through a civil war. Leymah has founded a number of initiatives over the years to address peace, security and governance issues, and AWDF has supported all of them.
At the panel discussion, the first question we were asked was about our earliest recollections of acts of philanthropy. For me, it was my parents. I believe that most Africans get immersed in cultures of giving from an early age. I grew up observing my parents helping family and friends with contributions towards school fees, vocational training, medical expenses and personal milestones such as weddings and funerals. They gave financial support, material assistance and provided accommodation. I therefore understood, like many others who had a similar upbringing, that no matter how much or little I had, there was an obligation to assist others.
My mother was always giving something to someone. I watched her give away money, clothing, foodstuff and her exquisite collection of dishes. I saw her give advice and support to women in the neighborhood. She would take in women in distress and offer them a shoulder to cry on and give them sound counsel till they could get back to the rigours of life. From my mother, I learnt the value of solidarity with other women, and the importance of being your sister’s keeper.
My entry point into institutional philanthropy was through my involvement as the Executive Director of Akina Mama wa Afrika in London (AMwA) (1991-2001) as well as Comic Relief, UK. AMwA was a development organisation that supported African women in the UK and Europe, as well as women’s movements in Africa. In 1996, I started raising funding for an African Women’s Leadership Institute, an AMwA program which was to be a regional networking and training forum for young African women – I was still young then! I was very alarmed when I got a letter from a European funding agency (after eighteen months of waiting) declining to fund the leadership institute. What upset me was not the No but why they said No.
According to them, African women’s priorities were food, shelter, livelihoods, etc., and not leadership development. I could not understand how a group of people in Europe, no matter how well meaning they were, could decide what African women needed. I went on to raise significant funding for the leadership institute from other sources and today, the AWLI has trained over 6,000 women leaders across Africa. It is interesting to note that a version of the very project that was deemed unworthy of funding showed up as a project of one of the funding agencies who had received the proposal from us a year later! The lesson I learnt from this, after being awakened from my innocence, was that other people had a better idea of how African women’s leadership could be encouraged, anyone other than African women themselves.
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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]