Last year I was invited to return to Ghana. I hadn’t been there for a decade. Although I had continued to read and write about Africa, my focus had been more on a macro-level (global) perspective than a local one. Africa in global history; Africa as part of processes of globalization; portals and ports of globalization in Africa. Africans as actors and agents of globalization but also its victims.
I planned to return to ask the same questions I did some twenty years ago: why are people poor and what can be done to alleviate their situation. How can the empowerment of poor people be achieved? What is poverty and who is poor? I posed these questions to Muslim scholars in Ghana, resulting in many and long conversations and discussions with my colleagues, mentors, superiors and teachers. I listened, they informed me, explained to me the differences between a faqîr, a poor person, and a miskîn, a destitute one. We looked around us, the poor were everywhere. The poor are persons in need, they beg for their livelihood. But they are also needed – the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich.
Poverty is a complex issue, not least from the perspective of a Muslim scholar (and, indeed, also from a Christian one). A beggar lives in poverty; poverty is all around her or him, you were poor yesterday, you are poor today and nothing has changed when you wake up tomorrow morning. Poverty is the stable condition of a beggar. In contrast, a rich person lives a stressful live. Her or his wealth might have been accumulated through hard work or, perhaps, due to good fortune. You might be rich today but you can lose everything tomorrow. Even worse: your wealth might have been accumulated by stealing from other persons, by exploiting or baring others from prospering. A rich person needs to be egoistic, putting oneself first. Bonds to your family comes second, ties to your group matters only if they gain your activities, the community and the state is only needed for protection, especially of your accumulated wealth.
A rich person is afraid of God’s punishment. Therefore, she or he will give alms as to purify her or his accumulated wealth. Alas, the rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Amiata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike tells the story of what happens if the world is turned up-side down, when the poor refuse to receive alms and by their refusal empower themselves and – seemingly – are put in the center of the story. A personal crisis arises if a rich man cannot dole out his sadaqa, alms, to his recipients after the Friday prayers. How could the rich purify their wealth if there were no poor, no beggars around them? Is poverty needed for the existence of the rich? Can there be any wealth if there is no poverty?
Is zakât, the obligatory alms incumbent upon every adult Muslim, a or the way out of poverty, the foundation of a Muslim version of a social welfare system, I asked the scholars? I had read about visions of Muslim economists, about how the state and its authorities handled zakât in Muslim countries in the Middle East, in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. About similar attempts in Africa. About the vision that zakât constitutes a tax on accumulated wealth in a Muslim society, collected and distributed by the state, invested in projects aimed at the eradication of poverty and the provision of social welfare to the poor and needy. But what happens if there is no Muslim state – who is in charge of the collection and distribution of zakât?
Ghana is not a Muslim state but has a substantial Muslim minority. A decade ago, when I had finished my previous research on Muslims and zakât in Ghana, I was standing at a crossroads. A rich person would give his alms (sadaqa) every Friday, some would give a few coins to their distinctive beggars, others would dole it out in a haphazard manner: ‘the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing.’ A collective, organized collection and distribution of zakât did not exist (and, seemingly, had never existed). Was the institutionalization of zakât even a goal to be achieved in the eyes of the poor and the beggars? An individual beggar would lose his or her weekly income if alms were paid as a tax to a zakat board or zakat fund and which would invest the accumulated funds in education, sanitation or health projects in the Muslim communities. What would an individual beggar gain from projects that aim to achieve a structural change, perhaps only visual for the next generation?
“Africa is a dead continent” told me Hajj Umar Ibrahim Imam when I met him in his house in Accra. I was perplexed. Why, I asked my mentor and friend? “Look around you. What do you see? The young are leaving the continent, they do not see a future here. We are dying, in the end there will be only old people left in Africa, old people like me. The young go away, they die on their way to Europe, they drown in the Sahara and in the Mediterranean, they disappear in the darkness of the night. The young die on their way to Europe, the old die when they remain in Africa.” I was silent. My old friend had been reading the signs of the hour, he was living and experiencing the desperation of the youth who could not find a job in the cities, who saw no future as a small-farmer in the countryside, who had no access to influential patrons or politicians who might (or not) help them. Why stay when there was a powerful, shining utopia – Europe, the land of promises and possibilities? Wasn’t this what the colonial masters had told their subjects: Civilization, economic prosperity and technological superiority was in the North, in (Western) Europe?
My old mentor and friend has a vision. “We have to invest in the future of Africa, of our children, of our youth, so that they can stay and don’t have to go away. We have to invest in the land and by developing the land we can invest in the future of our communities.” Hajj Umar Ibrahim Imam urged me to look around. “Look, there is a lot of empty land, undeveloped plots, badly built housing, barely existing sanitation and water resources.” What Hajj Umar Ibrahim Imam had in mind was a kind of a revolution: investing in the land by establishing a waqf or pious foundation.
His idea is simple. He plans to build an apartment house with flats and rooms to be rented by students for a low monthly rate. The income thus collected is then reinvested by the waqf foundation in sanitary or educational projects. When I meet Hajj Umar Ibrahim Imam the next time he has hopefully been able to finish his project – a small but important step towards a positive change.