I was born to two amazing professors who were not religious. In fact, my father's regular response to the question about why we didn't go to church on Sundays was, "When others go to pray, I go to play." Tennis, in case you're wondering. Faith found me and my siblings when university students came to our house to invite us to Sunday school. I was drawn by their sense of personal conviction and their life of service, and opted for baptism into the Christian faith as my 10th birthday present.
My faith has shaped my work as a social entrepreneur, attempting to address Africa's most pressing challenges over the last 17 years, and my work training youth as leaders and promoting ethics across Africa. Twenty-nine years later, as a Sunday school teacher myself, my faith was challenged by a young nine-year-old who asked a series of questions. He asked, "Ms. Ndidi, does God hate Africans?" To which I quickly retorted, "Of course not. God loves all his children equally." Then he asked, "So why do so many young African children die?" I stumbled and mumbled as I responded. "There are many reasons why young African children die. Most of them are man-made, and we cannot blame God." So he asked, "Why does he let it happen? He could stop it." And I said..."Yes he could, yes he could, but he sent us here as change agents, light of the world, salt of the earth, and we are failing."
Africa has had a mixed affair with organized religion, with both positive and negative consequences. The Christian missionaries educated most of our political elite, like Senghor and Nkrumah, built many of our first hospitals and schools. Similarly, Islam has introduced commerce and mathematics across the continent. Today, we have over a billion Africans who profess a strong faith. What is the net effect of this on our continent? A recent "Economist" article said that the face of the future of the world's most popular religion is African. Now, both Islam and Christianity underscore the importance of social impact as critical tenets of our faith. Muhammad is noted for stating that he is not a believer who goes to bed on a full stomach when his neighbor to his side is hungry. And all through the New Testament, Jesus Christ talks about loving your neighbors as yourselves, giving to the poor, caring for the sick, and James, too, says that "faith without works is dead." So I strongly believe that faith-based organizations have a critical role to play in driving social impact in Africa. But for this to occur, we need three critical changes.
The first is that we need to change our mindsets. Both as people of faith and of those who are not religious, their perceptions of those of us who are people of faith. Now, for people of faith and those of us who are religious, we often say, "If God wills, I'll do this; inshallah, I'll do that—by God's grace, I'll do this." Now there are many things, I believe, that we can control—some we cannot. I believe that God is all-powerful, but he's not a micromanager.
He has sent us here as his change agents, and we must stop making excuses and using him. That means that if you're a teacher, go to school and give your students the best. If you're a public-sector official, release the funds meant for that school or public health-care center instead of stealing it for your personal purposes. By claiming that we have no power over our past, present and future, we give too much authority to the wicked who steal funds and beg God for forgiveness.
Now for those of you who are not religious, you also have to change your mindsets about us. There are many of us who are hardworking, ethical and intellectual. It might surprise you.
Now the second step is that we have to utilize our resources and assets for social impact. In England, 1,900 churches have been shut down since 1969, due to shrinking congregations, while in Africa, every single day, a church or mosque is being built. In some communities, you might not find a public health center, a post office or even a school, but you'll find a church or mosque. Some of these churches and mosques are world-class, with excellent audio-visual systems, wonderful meeting spaces, and they organize events that rival international concerts. The sad reality is that many of them are empty during the week. I live in the Lekki area of Lagos, and in my community, there are at least 50 really nice churches, but there's no adult literacy center, no homeless shelter and very few public schools and hospitals. Many of these spaces could be utilized for social change. Imagine if every single church in Lekki opened its doors to the homeless at night, gave them a sleeping bag, a warm meal and a voucher in the morning to learn a vocational course, offered by the unemployed youth who attend that church. That would demonstrate what we preach and what we speak about as people of faith, and what led me to Christianity in the first place.
Similarly, we have to utilize our resources for social change. The 2016 "why give" survey conducted in Kenya reveals that close to 60 percent of adults give to faith-based organizations—even more than they give their extended families. This is not unique to Kenya. It's quite prevalent across Africa. Many of our faith-based organizations have tremendous amounts of wealth that can be utilized for social change. We have to check the sources of uses of these funds and curb the excesses by our faith-based organizations. Now, this will require courage on the part of members, who will have to put their imams and priests on straight salaries, require audited financial statements that will be published and even reject contributions from unethical sources. But it's possible. We're already seeing positive examples in South Africa and Kenya, and the organizations, such as the Africa Council for Accreditation and Accountability that's checking faith-based organizations and ensuring that they comply with biblical standards of stewardship.
Now, the third step is that we have to partner with all stakeholders, and this is especially relevant for the non-religious in the audience. Recognizing the power and potential of faith-based organizations, leveraging their assets, their scale, the public trust and credibility they have, their lower operating costs, their access to the grassroots and their presence abroad. Politicians recognize this, and campaign seasons are always filled with stops and picture opportunities with leading faith leaders. Sadly, once elected, many of these faith-based organizations are ignored. And in fact, a World Bank survey revealed that 30 to 70 percent of assets owned by medical organizations in Africa are actually owned by faith-based organizations, but that there's very little collaboration between the faith community and public health-care systems. One positive example is from Ghana, where the Ghana Catholic Health Service partnered with a range of stakeholders and was able to realize a 31 percent reduction in mortality.
I believe there's so much potential that can be realized when we walk across the divide of faith and, hand in hand, try to solve many of our problems.
Similarly, faith-based organizations can support the transfer of critical skills and knowledge. Many of you in the NGO community or in the private sectors realize how difficult it is to even attract 150 to 200 people to your conferences, sometimes even offering stipends, reimbursements of transportation costs. Meanwhile, faith-based organizations draw thousands and millions every Sunday or Friday...with the promise of a good sermon.
The truth is we cannot address issues around family planning without faith-based organizations in Africa. Issues such as democratic rights and voter registration, ensuring that every member of a congregation has a voter registration card, understands their democratic rights and can exercise that. I really think it's critical that we consider partnering with faith-based organizations to deliver social impact.
It's also important to note that African faith-based organizations have a strong presence globally. There are over 2,000 African nuns and priests in leadership positions in Europe, with more influence than some of our diplomatic envoys, operating at a fraction of the cost. They can serve as influencers and supporters. Similarly, some African churches have a presence in countries across the globe, and the Redeemed Christian Church of God has a presence in 196 countries, serving as a bridge to the diaspora and providing support. If our public-sector organizations could partner with these institutions, we could unlock the potential of our diaspora populations.
I know some of you are still struggling with this topic, but I challenge you to think about it. A wise man once said, "Faith is a risk, but it's a risk that I cannot afford not to take." I would suggest that partnerships with faith-based organizations are a risk, but one that all stakeholders that are committed to social impact in Africa cannot afford not to take.
I often reflect on my conversation with that young boy, and I believe I should have ended it a little differently. First, I should have commended him for asking tough questions. Africa needs more young people who challenge the status quo, even in the faith communities. Secondly, I should have given him a little more hope. Not hope in the afterlife, but hope in Africa today, because the faithful are powerful. Not just because of their beliefs but because of their assets, their resources, their army of volunteers, and because working together, across the divide, we can live as positive examples for what our children—my children, your children—deserve to see. An Africa that demonstrates that God loves Africans and that we are just as capable as any other world region in solving our problems in peace...and love.
I love this quote that says, "Hope is the ability to hear the melody of the future. Faith is the willingness and the courage to dance to it today." I hope that we, as people of faith, can truly live up to the promise of social impact that we have been called to do as change agents in society. And I believe that working with you, all stakeholders, we can truly solve Africa's most pressing challenges. I have that hope ... and I have the faith, and I've started to dance. Won't you join me?