Stop donating books and things just  because you have no


There might be those reading today’s column, for whom the name Hornsleth means nothing. So, let us start with the story of Kristian Von Hornsleth. The year is 2006 when this infamous Danish artist descends on Buteyongera Village in Mukono District. 

He had come on the invitation of a politician seeking election as Member of Parliament, who had courted him as a do-nor, to ostensibly, support empowerment, increase household incomes and eradicate poverty. The sorts of buzzwords synonymous with government, donor, and NGO types.

Hornsleth was no ordinary donor though. He came up with an interesting proposition for the poor villagers. Each of them would receive a piglet if they agreed to add his name – Hornsleth – to their names. Poor and devoid of any airs and sense of identity, over 300 residents signed up and received the piglets. They also got new identity cards from the Local Council, on which the name Hornsleth had been added to their other names.

This scheme was to run as a revolving “fund” where the residents are required to return half of the brood so that it is distributed to other villagers. Over the next five years, up to 5,000 new Hornsleths would have been added to Uganda’s population. Hornsleth had even announced a photo exhibition of the project’s progress in Copenhagen, whose theme would be, “We Can Help You, But We Want to Own You”.

Unfortunately for the residents, the scheme lasted only four months because the ever-edgy and oft-riled then Minis-ter of Ethics and Integrity, Mr James Nsaba Buturo,  put a stop to it. There were threats to arrest him should he step foot on Ugandan soil again. He didn’t return. The locals were furious.

The Hornsleth project is a great case study for us to critically analyse charity – both local and foreign. This week, I visited a refugee project which works with young people. I was happy to see that they keep a library for the beneficiaries but my excitement was unceremoniously cut short when I noticed the contradiction between the book titles and the supposed primary users of the library. The books themselves are great if only they were in a post-graduate school library where those who have use for them can find them.

But the tens of them were stacked up on shelves, probably never opened because the refugees can’t even comprehend basic English well enough. Yet, someone somewhere thought to donate tens of copies of books on corporate social responsibility, commercial mediation, international marketing, cost benefit analysis, and the like. Subject matter that is above the grade and needs of young people for whom reading anything is already a chore.

It is a sight that you are likely to see in literally every public and private school or community library. Books are irrelevant to those for whom they were meant because the intention of the donor wasn’t to advance the acquisition of knowledge but to feel good about having given to some poor school or project. 

It is not just books. We receive millions of unusable materials – from dilapidated equipment, to torn clothes, damaged beddings, and shoes that weren’t good enough for the poorest in the West. Do you know why this happens at scale? Because in the West, you can get a tax rebate if you show that you donated to charity. 

We need children to read because knowledge emancipates the mind and unlocks imagination, ideas, and innovation. But the reason they are not reading isn’t because we don’t have enough books and materials for them to read. It is because the schools asking you for money to build libraries can’t even commit just an hour for kids to just read.
It is because we would rather romanticise little beautiful libraries with coffee shops where we idle our evenings away, analysing Hornsleth instead of funding reading programs for kids in public schools. And because of that, when it comes to our turn to donate to our communities, we very rarely rise above the dehumanising standard set by Hornsleth.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye

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