Transcript of keynote address by Akwasi Aidoo
September 9, 2023

Thank you. As you said, I am actually not this year’s African Philanthropy Lifetime Achievement Award receiver. I was the first and after me was Machel, and there will be a third person announced very soon. But I am here to express a few ideas and things I have learned in the last two days here. I use the word learn because I am truly super excited and inspired by a lot of the things I have observed and heard, especially from the younger generation among us here. I am 73 years old, and so I belong to that generation that owes the younger generation, a lot of apologies because we ate the fruits of independence, we ate the roots of independence and basically destroyed a lot after independence. What all of you are doing is truly bringing back the soul, the spirit, that sensibility of African dignity, African independence, and ultimately, what the African philanthropy sector aims to do. In Ghana, we say ‘Cho Boi’ and you respond, ‘Yee’. It Is a call for collaboration, enthusiasm, and for being together. It symbolises in many ways, the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu – we are together.


African philanthropy, as many of you have pointed out, has been in existence for a long, long time. It is truly embedded in African cultures, African identity, and so on. In Ghanaian slang, we have a way of saying that it has been since time immemorial. I will give you a few landmarks in our lifetime or in my lifetime, that I think we need to keep in mind going forward. In 1958, I was eight years old, I was born in colonial Ghana. France organised a referendum in its colonies in Africa, asking if they wanted complete independence, the total end of colonialism or they wanted to be Federations of the state of France where they would have some degree of independence, but still be governed by France.


All the countries voted yes, except Guinea. What happened next was that Guinea suffered unbelievable destruction. The French took out, the hospitals, the schools, the electricity, the water supply, everything was destroyed, and Guinea was collapsing. When it happened, it was the time before television, though there were radio stations. I was eight years old, and I remember it so well. In my school, school kids, workers, and professional associations started demonstrating on the streets of Ghana in October 1958. We demonstrated for days and days and of course, our President at that time, Kwame Nkrumah, was a pan-Africanist so he took note of it. Guess what happened? Nkrumah drew from the reserves of Ghana, which had been independent for only one year since 1957, 10 million Pounds. Today 10 million pounds equates to 106 million Pounds. Ghana gave Guinea 10 million pounds, and that is how Guinea survived the French destruction. That is one landmark, one sign of cross-Africa, beyond the community level and country level, cross-Africa philanthropic expression. There was a song that was created immediately by E.T. Mensa, I gave it to our colleagues at the back handling the technology. I don’t know if you can play part of it for maybe half a minute. (song play)


You didn’t hear the most interesting lyrics of it. So, what I suggest is for you to Google the Ghana – Guinea-Mali song by E.T. Mensa. This was the first effort by elected people, and leaders in Africa at the national level to bring Africa together. It preceded the whole idea of the Organisation of African Union, which is now AU. Ghana- Guinea-Mali where one country, it was a federation, unfortunately, the CIA and others… Anyway, long story short, that was a landmark, $106 million was given to Somalia, South Sudan, and given to many of these countries that were literally collapsing, you can imagine what would happen. We also know, of course, that official or institutional philanthropy has grown a lot since then in Africa, which has led us to where we are today. Where in this room, I was counting yesterday, we have at least 20 philanthropic institutions or individuals. At the height of the Darfur genocide in 2003, international media did not really cover it much. However, South African philanthropists, ordinary people, I am not talking of high-net-worth individuals, brought together $1 million to help those in Darfur, Sudan. In Zimbabwe during the Matabeleland massacres in the early 80s, and I went there that time. A community foundation for the western region of the country saved over 20,000 lives.


So, there has been a lot of growth and what I will focus on in the next few minutes is the future going forward from here because that is the theme of this conference. I want to use two metaphors, the first metaphor was from my grandmother, who shaped my life in many ways. She was a farmer and a feminist, and she did so much. She once said to me as I was growing up when I was about 10 years old, she said,’ Akwasi remember this, we are like nature. The tree behind the bush that you see is in the forest, and the forest is in the tree. So, make sure that the tree is always in a forest and the forest is in the tree”. I use that metaphor for African philanthropy, and for what I have observed here. We have different individuals, researchers, philanthropy professionals, and so on. Each one is a tree. But there is an ecosystem of a forest, and what I see happening here going forward is you are making a forest out of the trees. This has what I call the Triple P approach which requires a lot of planning, planting, and creating new things and platforms for philanthropy, and a lot of pruning.


In the forest, you have some Ivy League’s and some predators and so on that destroy and humans who destroy the forest. What you are doing here for African philanthropy is to really not just be together, making a forest out of the different trees, but to ensure that the forest, that ecosystem of African philanthropy is healthy and moves forward.


The forest in the tree, the collective in one, the forest in a tree metaphor I am using is what I call the quadruple C, the four C’s. The first is collaboration, which many of you have expressed here. The second is communication, and not have this solely as an episodic event, but communicate with each other across other platforms. Complementarity (Ubuntu), I am because you are, and the reason is. I have gaps that you fail and you have gaps that I fail in. The last C of the quadruple C is a celebration. I will not say another word about that, because you have seen it on display here. The award is a celebration, it is not just to an individual, but to the field as a whole. The second and last major point I will make on the second metaphor I see going forward is that this is going to be a marathon journey for a paradigm shift. We need a paradigm shift, not just a system one. Kuhn, the one who came up with the idea of a paradigm shift, said it is when the old generation dies and the new one takes over. But no, a paradigm shift starts and takes a long time to develop, until it eventually happens.


There are a number of applicable quotations that speak to that. The African American civil rights activist Florence Kennedy who in my view, was as important and influential as Martin Luther King said, ‘Freedom is like taking a bath, you have got to keep taking it every day’. The reasoning is that you cannot say ‘I took a bath this morning and that is it for the rest of my life’. No. The system never gives up, so we have to keep going. As African Americans will say, we have to keep on keeping on.

The second quote from Flo Kennedy was to ‘let us organise and not agonise because so much of what we stand for, can make us cry every day, and maybe not even get out of bed’. I know my time is up, but I am almost done. The third quote is from Martin Luther King, which has to do with paradigm shift. He said, ‘Philanthropy is commendable, but it must never forget the circumstances and systems that make it necessary’. It is like a disease we cannot just treat the symptoms and our dearest sister Natalia, who is a medical doctor by the way, will attest to that. The third or fourth quote is by the Austrian Jewish philosopher a long time ago, Friedrich von Hugo and this is to the grantmakers in the room. He wrote a long 21-page letter to his niece and one of the opening statements was, ‘The golden rule is to help those who love to escape from us’. So those who give money out to those they love or those grantees that they really want to support must ensure that the grantees are not dependent on them, or one grant away from extinction. Lastly, I do not have time, so I will leave it for now, I will just refer you to it. It is a poem about memories, legacies, impact, and having a healthy appetite for creativity. It is a poem by Sam Walter Foss, an American poet in the 18th century called ‘The Calf Path’. What I will do is give it to the organisers, and maybe they can email it to everyone to read because he really does speak of the future you all are going towards. My apologies for taking more time but I am done. Thank you.”