Being involved in community building initiatives for more than a decade now, there are experiences along this path that sometimes leave one feeling torn apart and completely dejected. It took several failed attempts to quit this line of work until I came to the realization that for me this was not a mere job or occupation…, it was a CALLING! Abandoning it, for me would be the most vivid example of what living without purpose meant.
What I’m about to tell you is not based on hearsay, or some pre-conceived understanding of grassroots level issues, or some academic write up on the matter, it’s based on practical lived experiences.
Post-South African Apartheid Era, the ‘ghettoized’ dwellings of the country called Townships presented a great opportunity and the most fertile ground for the planting of various ideological seeds within these communities. This opportunity also gave rise to the building of _jamaat khanas_ and small _masaajid_ by the established Muslim communities in these areas.
Although any Muslim would tell you that this was certainly a great move by the established communities to present the long awaited message of Islam to the previously deprived populace – my experience over the years being involved in dawah work in various Townships across the country paint a gruesome picture of disaster unfolding on account of this phenomena.
WHAT COULD THIS DISASTER BE…? I have had to learn that while we possess the intention to improve these previously disadvantaged communities – spiritually or otherwise, for some reason we also seem to have this deep obsession of wanting to own them. Yes! as complex and diverse as the responsibility of offering services to any community may be, we possess all the chutzpah to claim ownership of these communities. Let alone one organization, entire governments are unable to take care of their communities satisfactorily.
To us, building a masjid in a particular Township and paying the imam’s salary means drawing the territorial borders of this community for as long as we live. This is such a deadly practice which I’m not sure exists in any other part of the world.
There’s an oft quoted statement which goes: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”. We all like quoting this and similar statements – posting them on whatsapp groups so as to get an adrenaline rush when people reply with emojis of acknowledgement and thumbs up. At least it makes us feel important and appear to be wise…on whatsapp groups. Believe you me, working with different human beings over the years, I can assure you, it’s very rare to find people who believe in this statement in real life. My experience in the field has shown me that it has almost become an oxymoron for people to do the work and then care less about who gets the credit. In fact, many a time credit is sought in work that we didn’t even do or work that we took short-cuts in doing.
Although I treasure the quotation above, I don’t fully agree with it, because by nature human beings are hungry for recognition and acknowledgement of the good work they do. That is why in Islam we are taught that, yes, we will definitely get recognition, but we are compelled to have the belief that true recognition and acknowledgement only comes from Allah – and honestly speaking, He’s the only true possessor of recognition, honor and giver of credit. If He gives credit, there’s no pretentiousness or hypocrisy or strings attached to it.
Where’s the everyday story we sing of doing actions only for the pleasure of Allah? Our way of doing things for Allah means doing it for Allah in such a way that the whole world can see that we are doing it for Allah.
Initially I used to take this matter very lightly, until I witnessed the far reaching and devastating effects it was and is still having on Black and Indian Muslim relationships in our country. To the extent that I would even be part of discussions of some prominent Black Muslim brothers uttering words like “we don’t need Indian sympathy or their money”. Now…, anyone will tell you that when Muslims discuss about other Muslims only in racial terms and omitting the understanding that they are talking about their fellow Brothers and Sisters in Islam, this only spells disaster and irreparable repercussions for both the offender and victim alike. And the result…? The enemy whoever it is, rejoices.
Whilst I’m not a fan of these circles of discussions that breed racial discord among Muslims, many a time I ask myself the question – how would I react if someone came to my house and gave me a loaf of bread on a daily basis, and then after a short while started dictating to me how much milk I should put into my tea, or how many teaspoons of sugar I should take, who I must invite into my house and who I mustn’t invite? Without a doubt, I will reach a point where I become completely _gatvol_ with this type of attitude. I will wake up one day and tell the person: “to hell with your loaf of bread, I don’t need it anymore”. Even though I know that I desperately need that loaf of bread I will reject it because my freedom and sense of self-worth matters more to me than being under the bondage or servitude of another human being just because they are giving me a loaf of bread.
This is exactly how most of our Muslim brothers and sisters living in the Townships feel about this situation. They feel completely entrapped. While they value and appreciate the help that comes from outside, they can’t live as if they have no minds of their own, or someone else who comes from outside knows better what’s good for them. You can well imagine…this situation is deeply frustrating.
In certain instances, demands are made by the supporting organization that the Imam has to adhere to their syllabus, even though the Imam knows there’s a syllabus better suited for his community than the one being presented by this organization.
This phenomenon of claiming ownership of these communities has reached such alarming proportions that the “master organization” will adopt any means necessary to prevent any other organization to make interventions in the community, even if they have no expertise or resources of doing it themselves. Regret to say that I’ve sat in many meetings where daggers were drawn at each other due to fighting over ownership of a particular Township. These are the unfortunate episodes that I’m talking about, where the two elephants go head to head at each other. The “two elephants” can sometimes be two competing organizations, or an organization and the leadership of the community. In most instances the situation gets really ugly and out of hand. To such an extent that you silently question people’s belief in Allah at that moment.
These fights sometimes become so gruesome that the “owning organization” will rather let the entire development of the community go down the drain but will never back down in allowing others to add value. To them it makes more sense to leave the community suffering and large numbers of people becoming _murtad_ than to lose their self-imposed power over the community. This type of behavior breeds an atmosphere of deep hatred, mistrust and anger that it sometimes takes a miracle to contain.
I ask myself, how can someone claiming to serve the _deen_ go to bed every night with a clear conscience, knowing that the area where he lives in there’s a beautiful masjid with hot water and all the amenities required to build his community, but yet hinders progress in another community just because he is not recognized as the owner or main stakeholder?
I would many a time hear people who built a masjid in a Township making statements like, “what kind of people are these? They can’t even change a light bulb if it gets finished – they can’t even fix a broken tap, they have to wait for us from so and so place to come and fix it for them.
YES…, They can’t fix the tap or replace that light bulb. WHY MUST THEY? They were taught from the beginning in many apparent and subtle ways that the masjid doesn’t belong to them – they are merely statistics and tokens in those structures. Their opinions on how to develop the community don’t matter at all! The real owners will come and fix the tap if it breaks or patch up the roof if it leaks. Why must they bother!!!
Remember, here I’m talking about people who have been and are still running from their own pockets churches built by their “White Colonial masters”, even though some of those churches are not half as beautiful as some of the masjids that get built in the Townships today. This tells you that they have much more than the capability to run their own institutions. But not as long as they still feel that both them and their institutions are the property of someone from a nearby community with a slightly fairer skin color and a different make up of hair than theirs.
In conclusion, the only reason I felt such a deep compulsion to write this article, is not to point a finger at anybody or try to curry favor with anyone, I’m merely sharing this because I know that the majority of people do what what they do with a sincere intention to help, but sometimes they just need to be guided and shown the right way of how to do it. For me seeing the gaps and not addressing it, and venting it in private meetings with my ‘Black Bothers’ won’t help.
My sincere advice to our organizations would be, let’s begin to adopt an abundance mentality. Believe you me, the work to be done in this country is so abundant that it will take the hard labor, sweat and commitment of our next three or more generations to set matters right. Crying over one Township in one corner of the country somewhere is not worth it. Let’s have an attitude of adding value as best as we can without wanting to taking control over their lives and entire communities.
How much more can be achieved if each organization with a particular expertise provides service to these communities and create empowerment with a vision of permanently pulling them out of the dungeons of slavery and servitude. Let’s do as Abu Bakr (r.a) did with Bilal (r.a). He purchased his entire freedom, and not a single day did he repeat the words that, “remember I freed you”.
I conclude with a piece I read by: H. Swanepoel and F. de Beer, Titled: _Community Development: Breaking the cycle of Poverty._
At a trouble shoot session of an NGO conference a middle aged gentleman stood up and said that on the whole he had few problems running projects. The only problem he had he said was that ‘every time I have a successful project, the people steal it from me’.
A community development worker was responsible for launching of refuse removal projects in informal settlements in and around the metropolitan area of Johannesburg. These projects did two things. First, it helped clean up the area and second, it created a small income for a group of people who would otherwise be unemployed. She came back one day from one of these areas much earlier than usual. When asked why she was not working that morning in that certain township, she reacted by saying: ‘This morning when I arrived at township X before I could drive into the area I was stopped by a group of people I know well. They are the steering committee of the refuse removal project that we have launched. They stopped me and showed me that they wanted to talk to me. They said to me that they are very thankful for what I have done and for my help to get a project going, but they added that they have decided that they can go it alone now. They don’t need me anymore. ‘The question put to her was: ‘Do you feel sad that the people have taken the project?’ Her answer: ‘No, heavens. This is a fantastic thing! The people have accepted the ownership of a project that was always theirs.
Ml Ebrahim Mokgabudi