The readings for this week really challenges anyone who even as much as glances at them. It was really inspirational to realize the many fronts on which we can make a difference, not to mention a reminder of the definition of the word profession (a calling, work that has meaning in and of itself outside the profit it brings – Bogenschnider p.225) a word which sadly has become synonymous with the concept of a job or a career, inadvertently draining the passion from the promising field of Family studies.
Here in the U.S., politicians and intellectuals are obviously the two basic groups who have to joggle ideas, knowledge and resources to propose, enact, implement and evaluate policies. As I sat back to reflect on the discussions in the text, it seemed quite “simplified”. I couldn’t quite directly reconcile this process with the scenario back home. Why? Then I gasped, but of course! The Third power house is missing.
Any guesses on what that might be?
Answer: Local traditional and/or religious leaders!
Yep, they are that third and crucial foot of the tripod in most parts of Africa, without which policies often come crashing down. This group is widely accorded more trust than the political or intellectual group. They achieve this feat, by shaping opinions and influencing decisions in communities right through to individual families. They live with the people and often make substantial contributions to promote the well-being of families and communities.
A look at the continuous process of promoting school attendance of the girl child in Nigeria, gives us a glimpse of how policies can be facilitated by these leaders. Figures show that more boys than girls are in school. This disparity is brought about particularly, by the low value accorded by some local beliefs to girls’ education and poverty.
National awareness of the prevalence of this problem has led to several political and financial commitments through advocacy and sensitization of policy makers. Programs have been planned and implemented, and while some have failed, others have gone on to record impressive successes. Over and again one key characteristic of succeeding programs has been an involvement of the leading traditional and/or religious leaders in local host communities. When these leaders in their regular interactions with the people use and consistently reinforce key messages, which favorably link proposed policies to the local tradition/religion success is assured. For instance proclaiming that educating all children is a cultural duty and drawing up inferences from the local context, has been shown to make many parents take their children to school, including girls.
On the other hand in situations where local leaders have been indifferent or worse still, spoken against policies/programs, doom has inevitably been the outcome. A quick reference was the recent boycott of the polio immunization campaign in parts of the country in 2003. The immunization campaign was literally brought to a halt by local and religious leaders upon calling on parents not to allow their children get immunized. These leaders argued that the vaccines were contaminated. Responding to the rumors about the vaccine, the federal government set up a committee to access the safety of the vaccines and samples were sent abroad to be tested. The results of the committee were rejected still by these leaders; and even though the truth of the rumor that the vaccines were contaminated were never established all efforts by the federal government to dispel them failed.
After about a year of boycott, the deadlock was finally settled with the local leaders playing the significant role in the process. Shortly after this occurrence, a meeting was hosted by WHO and UNICEF in the West African sub-region. The aim? To inform traditional and religious leaders (in the wake of the recent polio crises) about issues that affect children, to ensure that the right messages were passed down to the people.
In one sentence, the federal government having lost the public trust of one state became handicapped in providing health services. While the local leaders unfortunately disrupted national and global health plans, they believed they were acting to protect the interests of their people.
These experiences serve to illustrate the prevalence of communitarianism in most parts of the continent, where the transmission of information and authority flow downward from community leaders who are the gate keepers and decision makers-a crucial power house which can neither be ignored or excluded from social policy issues.