By: Dennis Kilama
After 15 years of active involvement in the nonprofit sector in Uganda, I joined the Ph.D. program at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy to integrate research with practice in the Ugandan nonprofit sector. At the same time, I am keen to bring a Ugandan perspective to understanding the broader concept of philanthropy. Overall, my research interests intersect with financial sustainability, nonprofit organizations, and traditional African giving practices. In this blog post, I draw from giving practices in Uganda, a country in East Africa, to reflect on the broader concept of philanthropy.
Giving in Uganda is expressed as “doing good actions.” People give to specific causes. For example, people give to others during important life milestones, such as birth, weddings, and funerals.[i] Traditionally, it is expected for family members and friends to give gifts when a child is born; this is at the point you see the child for the first time. Giving at weddings is also a common practice, with special wedding committees established and wedding fundraising meetings arranged where gifts are auctioned, compelling people to give towards the items that would make the typically large traditional and religious wedding successful. Giving is also practiced during moments of death to ensure that the grieving family is supported with things during the season of mourning.
In addition to actions, giving in Uganda is also about “being present.”[ii] If someone dies in a village, the village people are expected to support the bereaved family and be physically present at the funeral. If an individual only sends a financial contribution and instead attends to their farm and not the funeral, that individual is considered a social misfit. The gift is despised because the giver is assumed to value themselves and their gift more than the recipient. The impression that you value material things over people socially disconnects you from others. To opt for financial contributions only instead of physical presence at a funeral is thus a cultural insult. While people may reciprocate and provide a financial or in-kind donation, giving as action and presence in essential life milestones is very important and more culturally respectful. Thus, philanthropy in Uganda is about giving gifts in cash or in-kind and being present to experience joy or trial with others. In this case, philanthropy is collective and a cause and effect of social connectivity.
I see an opportunity to explain how giving by doing actions and being present is exemplified in the community. Uganda has four large Kingdoms: Buganda, Toro, Busoga, and Bunyoro.[iii] These kingdoms today are mainly ceremonial, as there is a democratic government in Uganda. However, the kingdoms strongly influence the people’s way of life. Giving is vital to maintaining the social fabric that weaves the people together under a common kingdom.
Buganda is the largest and most influential kingdom in Uganda.[iv] The Baganda today are people that belong to the tribal group of Buganda. A Muganda is a single individual who belongs to the tribal group. Baganda is the larger tribal group and Luganda is the language spoken. It is the largest tribal group in Uganda. Geographically, the Baganda are found in central Uganda along the shores of Lake Victoria. Throughout history, the traditions and cultures of the people in Buganda have revolved around the king (kabaka). The kabaka and his kingdom are the very essence of what it means to be a Muganda. Recently, the prime minister[v] of the kingdom of Buganda initiated a fundraising campaign to rebuild the royal tombs (in the Luganda language, the royal tomb is referred to as amasiro). The previous grass-thatched royal tomb was listed as a UNESCO heritage site and was established in the 16th century.[vi] A fire had destroyed a large portion of it. The prime minister of the kingdom of Buganda mobilized the king’s subjects to give towards the rebuilding of the historical kings’ tombs.
The fundraising campaign to rebuild the royal tombs was titled “ettooffaali” (a Luganda word meaning brick). The prime minister traveled widely with one message, “Brick by brick, rebuild the lost glory of the kingdom of Buganda.” This way, he appealed to each subject to contribute a “brick” to rebuild the tombs of their kings and ancestors. The prime minister traveled village by village, school by school, university by university, church by church, mosque by mosque, temple by temple, company by company, town by town, and collecting money from the king’s subjects. , the prime minister reached out to them and appealed for them to give. He traveled outside the country to raise funds from Baganda in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and South Africa, among other nations. At the beginning of each month during the campaign, the prime minister reported how much had been raised.
From a Ugandan perspective, this giving towards rebuilding the royal tombs was not a tax but a voluntary action of doing and being.[vii] It was expected of each Muganda to show support to the king. The support was expressed in both doing and being. Giving in doing was demonstrated by gifting the Prime minister in kind or cash towards rebuilding the royal tombs. Giving was also shown by being present at the ceremony where the prime minister visited to collect the gifts. Therefore, giving in this context was the action of making a gift to the king and being present for the king.
The campaign was hugely successful. Its success is evidenced by the fundraising campaign raising an equivalent of 3.1 million USD in two years.[viii] This was from many ordinary people, including children, farmers, small business owners, and others. This gift was collected from people from a tribe with 5.56 million people[ix], 76 percent living in a rural area, and within a country where 30.1 percent of the people live on less than $1.77 per day.[x] The people gave in cash and in kind. After the campaign, the people were more united, and the kingdom’s infrastructure, not just the royal tombs, was being rebuilt. Based on the “Ettooffaali” campaign, the big question is, what is philanthropy from a Ugandan perspective?
Philanthropy is doing and being good to the community. Philanthropy is performing a voluntary action that will fix a problem and involves being present to experience a phenomenon with others. It is a journey we experience with others and not just a destination we arrive at when we give a gift. In rebuilding the royal tombs in Buganda, philanthropy involved giving a gift to rebuild the royal tombs. However, it also involved being present with other Baganda as the collections were being made. This nuanced perspective of philanthropy moves beyond the action of only doing by giving a gift to the importance of being present with others.
This view of philanthropy has three broad implications on the understanding and practice of philanthropy. First, for scholars, there is a need to be more inclusive in our definition of philanthropy. Non-western modes of giving include the role of being present and social connectivity (Ubuntu) under the umbrella of philanthropy. This perspective includes the role of social ties along with tribal connections, religious connections, village connections, and family connections in giving. This connectivity unites people and motivates them to give in to doing and being, even today. It is also evidenced in the expressions of giving, for example, in the international remittances to Africa from Africans in the diaspora; Harambee in Kenya that involves pulling together to build the community; Umuganda in Rwanda that involves working together to build the community; twiza in Morocco that involves people coming to be together to contribute to a cause, Ujamaa in Tanzania that involves sharing work and stokvels in South Africa that involves people coming together to collect funds and after a period sharing them out. All these include gifting by doing actions and being present in the community.[xi]
Second, for fundraisers, there is a need to focus on the social connectivity among people and places. The fundraising milestone of raising 3.1 million USD in a third-world country like Uganda was successful because the prime minister of Buganda leveraged the social interconnectedness of the people and their tribes, faiths, and villages. The prime minister of Buganda was able to bring people from diverse backgrounds together around a common connection, which was the tribe and language of Buganda.
Third, for individuals living in a technologically advanced post-COVID-19 world where people are more physically distant from each other, presence is a gift if it does not place others at risk. Today, there are circumstances where simply being present for others might be the greatest gift for their mental health and well-being. Physical presence is partly what makes us – as has often been said – human beings and not just human doings. That despite the diversity we have in the world, we value being present with others in joy and sorrow and see it as philanthropic.
In conclusion, philanthropy is not just an action that involves doing things for others. It is also being present. The experience of fundraising for the royal tombs in Buganda and the expressions of giving in Uganda prove this to us.
Dennis Kilama is a Ph.D. student at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He is the William and Edie Enright fellow at the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the school.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
[i] Moyo 2011, Transformative innovations in African philanthropy, pg. 1. https://africanphilanthropy.issuelab.org/resource/transformative-innovations-in-african-philanthropy-briefing-summary.html
[ii] Wilkinson-Maposa, S., Fowler, A., Oliver-Evans, C., & Mulenga, C. F. (2005). The poor philanthropist. How and why the poor help., pg.x
[iii] Karugire, S. R. (2010). A political history of Uganda.
[iv] Kasfir, N. (2019). The restoration of the Buganda Kingdom Government 1986–2014: culture, contingencies, constraints. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 57(4), 519-540. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022278X1900048X
[v] Katikkiro, Charles Peter Mayiga, Kingdom of Buganda offical Website, www.buganda.or.ug/prime-minister-office/prime-minister
[vii] Adventino Bunjwa, “Ettoffaali is a Bold Mark of internal potential” in the New Vision News Paper https://www.newvision.co.ug/news/1326148/ettoffaali-initiative-bold-mark-internal-potential, May 14th 2015
[ix] Uganda Bureau of Statistics. 2014 Uganda Population and Housing Census- Main report. https://www.ubos.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/03_20182014_National_Census_Main_Report.pdf
[x] World Bank, Uganda Poverty Assessment 2016: Fact Sheet
[xi] Mati, J. M. (2017). Philanthropy in contemporary Africa: A review, pg. 21.