Charity ball

Charity balls are bizarre occasions – particularly ones that are aimed at poverty. You sit there is all your finery, sipping wine and nibbling at raw salmon, while somebody up the front is telling you about children who are too poor to bring lunch to school, and who struggle to hold their pen because they lost fingers in the war. The din of clattering cutlery and small-talk rises above the distinguished speaker, whom we are so privileged to hear from as he has come all the way from Rwanda. We are so privileged we can ignore him.

The Y-GAP Asante Sana Ball was a momentous occasion, with the historic St Kilda Town Hall decked out with giant African statues, pillars throwing fabric flames and exotic flower arrangements on every table. I’m not sure how much the tickets cost because Merridie shouted both David and I, but I gather they weren’t cheap. The proceeds would be going to two projects in Africa – classrooms for an overcrowded primary school in Malawi and a safehouse for children who have exited slavery in Ghana.

I’m impressed with these people. Their projects seem really great and they seem to have an incredible amount of know-how. I’m used to trivia nights in church halls and barbeques at Bunnings, but these guys are auctioning off guitars signed by U2 and opening Fairtrade coffee shops at major train stations. When I was doing this kind of thing with VGen (World Vision youth movement), we were teenagers and uni students. But these guys are young professionals working as solicitors at top-tier law firms and accountants at Price Waterhouse Coopers. They know how to work it!

I’m feeling slightly depressed, and I’m sure that it’s more than a vague sense of inadequacy. I think it’s the juxtaposition between these extremes – the champagne and the expensive cuts of meat, the stories of children living in abject poverty.

I’m also conscious of some elements of the ball, which might actually perpetuate the kind of injustice we are trying to fight. I nibble at my chocolate cake, encrusted in giraffe-print marzipan. Was the cocoa harvested by the enslaved children, like the kids at the Ghana project?

They’re raffling off a $5000 diamond ring, the kind that might put your back out if you wore it too long. A woman with a tiara, leopard-print dress and a tanned cleavage struts the room, offering people raffle tickets for $40 a pop, in exchange for a glass of champagne and a chance to win the prized jewel. Were the diamonds in the ring used to finance militant groups in Sierra Leone or Zimbabwe? They didn’t say.

It’s easy to get excited by wads of cash, because we are infused with a mentality that money solves everything. I remember running a fundraiser when I was in high school – something about protecting platypus habitat. We decided to make milkshakes and sell them at lunch. I remember the big jar of gold money and feeling proud. But I also remember looking out over the oval after lunch, and seeing it littered with disposable milkshake cups. I wondered how many might end up in the river.

Sometimes we give with one hand, and take with the other.

I sigh at the BHP Billiton MCG box they are auctioning off at the ball (what has this company done to the environment and to indigenous groups in Australia and around the world?). I gasp at the shopping-tour fundraiser advertised in our showbags (a percentage of the money you spend goes to projects in Africa – as does a percentage of the greenhouse emissions produced from the manufacture of the shit you buy).

But – as David keeps reminding me – these people are on a journey. They run advocacy forums educating young people on issues of slavery, so they are further along than most. We are all contradicted. These young professionals are straddling two very different worlds, and it’s gotta hurt a bit.

At the same time, we need to think of responses to poverty that go beyond giving money. Cash can fund some excellent development projects that have some wonderful, life-giving consequences, but without challenging the fundamental systems that we benefit from, children will always be enslaved in Ghana and the Malawian education system will always be impoverished. The West has a great deal of responsibility for much of the world’s poverty – whether through the Structural Adjustment Programmes it imposes on countries steeped in debt, or through the Western companies that benefit from slavery.

Our continual giving absolves us from guilt and allows us to continue sinning, much like the indulgences of the Catholic church. By continually being in the position of donor, we reinforce a position of power.

But 16 committed and passionate young Australians have been to Africa, and have seen the product of colonialism and oppression firsthand – even if it hasn’t been articulated as such. Some of them might come back, run a couple of fundraisers, get married in a few years, and then push their experiences to one side. But some of them will be fundamentally changed, and will continue the journey. Some – like the good soil in that Gospel story – will dedicate their life to fighting injustice, inspiring many others to do the same.

And some kids in Malawi and Ghana will have a better future now. Some of them might also use their opportunity and power to fight injustice, and bring many others with them.

The ball is jarring…depressing and hopeful all in one. I am choosing to hope.