Rana, a then Ph.D. student at Purdue University, once said to I-MAG’s copyeditor Ibrahim Babelli “You Muslims have no mother Teresa.” Babelli answered “That’s right. We have Abdulrahman Alsumait [‘Abd Alra’hmaan Al’sumai’t] instead.”
The Kuwaiti doctor who quit a bright career in medicine in the beginning of the 1980s to help Africans to help themselves is considered a role model amongst many Muslim. Alsumait who is now 60 years old and diabetic won several prestigious awards, and what did he do with the money? Donated it to Africa of course, for benevolence is both his mission and passion.
Tell us about the beginnings: How did you learn of Africa’s need for relief work?
Allaah willed that I visit the Republic of Malawi in 1980; a sub-Sahara African country, which was known earlier as Nyasaland. Islaam was introduced to Nyasaland about 500 years ago and more than two thirds of the population became Muslim. However, the number of Muslims dwindled steadily until they became about 17% of the population by 1980, and the overwhelming majority of the remaining Muslims knew hardly anything about Islaam. Thereafter, we decided to establish the ‘Malawi Muslim Agency’, which became the ‘Africa Muslim Agency’ and finally the ‘Direct Aid Society’.
Was your first African trip to Malawi? And what was the purpose of that trip?
Yes, indeed it was. The purpose of the trip was to oversee the launch of a charitable project.
How did your family cope with your continuous travel?
From day one, I tried to make my family involved with charitable work. When they became intimately aware and involved, they did not mind my continuous and lengthy travel, and they used to join me several times during the year in Africa
But the fact that I used to spend about ten months per year in Africa, not one shot but dispersed throughout the year, resulted in estrangement of members of my family, particularly the very young ones, who could not recognise me when I would return home.
Thereafter, I decided to have all my children spend the entire summers with me in Africa without enrolling them in any specific program; they just came with me wherever I went: We travelled on foot, dwelled through deserts and slept in the jungle. Their love for Africa grew with every trip they made to the point that my youngest daughters requested from her fiancé, as an unwritten betrothal condition, that they go together to Africa, which he agreed to.
Do you stay in Madagascar when you go to Africa?
I used to make Madagascar my abode in Africa. For the time being, however, I am heading to Kenya for, probably, a year, and then move on to another country.
Tell us about the organisational structure of the Direct Aid Society. How many people does it employ in Africa and in Kuwait?
In Kuwait, our work force is made up of sixty employees only. In Africa, however, and due to the large number of schools we operate, we have about four thousand employees.
Do you have a process installed for financial control and accounting?
We have installed in place a rigorous seven-tier accounting system. The first tier is field accounting, which takes care of overseeing the financial aspects of our projects, since we carry out the work ourselves and do not rely on agents or representatives.
Each field accountant is responsible for bookkeeping and controlling money that is sent from us and forwarded to beneficiaries, in addition to filing monthly reports. Monthly reports are sent to segment managers who oversee expenditures, and who then forward the reports to the department of control and field accounting.
The reports are inspected for irregularities by this department using previous years reports and field reports from inspectors.
The controlled reports are then forwarded to the general accounting department, which prepares a detailed report about each and every one of our offices in Africa and sends out the reports to our offices there.
Then there is internal and external auditing, in addition to the special accounting office that reports to the chairman of the board.
We heard of one accountant whom you put to the test but he did not change his stance. Pray tell us about this story.
Once, an auditor who works in the second tier of our accounting system called me to report an expenditure that I made and did not fall under the category of approved expenses.
The money he was referring to was about a quarter of dollar and was used to mend my shoes when I was in Sudan. I feigned indignation when he insisted that I should repay this expenditure, irrespective of my position as the chairman of the board.
He did not flinch, even when I made him come to my office and threatened him and tried to bully him. His argument was simple: The regulations stipulate an authorisation from the board for expenditures that are not prescribed; it is not the amount that matters.
I was so pleased with his integrity, even when faced with threats from the chairman of the board, that I hugged and thanked him, and gave him – from my private funds – a one month salary bonus.
Earlier this year, you were awarded the prestigious Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Medical Sciences. Pray tell us about this award.
His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Almaktoum [‘Hamdaan Bin Raashid Almaktoom], the Minister of Finance and Industry in the United Arab Emirates, established an award eight years ago to honour individuals, universities, establishments and research centres all over the world for their outstanding achievements in the field of medicine, with particular emphasis on genetic research.
This year’s award was the give for the first time to charitable organisations based within the United Arab Emirates or international that work on providing aid and relief to needy areas. Direct Aid Society was the first recipient of this prestigious award among international relief organisations, and the Human Appeal International, based in Ajman, was the first national society to receive the award.
In how many African countries does the Direct Aid Society operate?
We currently operate in thirty two countries. Each country has its own office with dedicated staff overseeing administrative, financial and contractual aspects of our work there.
Which countries are you giving priority to in opening new offices?
At this stage, we have suspended the opening of any new office in light of the unusual circumstances that befell charitable work throughout the Muslim world. But we remain active through our existing offices.
Please tell us about the achievements of the Direct Aid Society so far.
More than six thousand and five hundred shallow wells were sunk to provide clean water for African villages. We have now more than one hundred and thirty eight hospitals and clinics that received over four million patients.
We also established eight hundred and forty schools that house about half a million students, in addition to colleges and universities in Zanzibar, Kenya and Somalia. We are supporting more than fifteen thousand orphans throughout our operational bases, and may of those orphans have already graduated as physicians, engineers and academicians.
How do you prioritise your charitable work?
Our strategy focused, since the start, on education. I believe that only through education can impoverished nations escape the vicious cycle they have been stuck in.
You opined during an interview broadcasted through Al-Jazeera that Zakaah (mandatory alms) may be used in relief efforts of all types. Do you still hold this opinion?
I used to argue that if Muslims did indeed pay Zakaah no Muslim would stay poor. Now, I believe that Zakaah on stocks being traded at Gulf counties stock markets would be sufficient to alleviate poverty throughout the world; Muslim and otherwise.
How do you assess African acceptance to your mission? And with the widespread activities of missionary Christians, is their any change in African attitude towards your efforts?
Some Africans, like any other people, accept our presence and help, whereas others don’t. We neither force our beliefs upon them nor do we take advantage of their needs to impose any system or set of rituals or morals upon them.
Africa is a beleaguered with troubles and military conflicts throughout. Do you fear for your life?
I was shot at many times, and an anti-personnel land mine exploded beneath our feet during the civil war in Mozambique. I was in Somalia during the civil war in that country during the period of 1991 to 1992, and was shot at repeatedly. I also received many death threats throughout the years we have been working in Africa. But danger is a part of our mission, and we do not complain.
Do you provide relief aid to Muslims only, or do you include non-Muslims in your efforts? And is it true that you cooperate with Christian organisations?
The laws of Islaam, as dictated our Prophet, mandate that we do not discriminate in helping people, irrespective of their religion. Not only that, but the mandate covers non-humans as well, for the Prophet (P.B.U.H) related the story of a prostitute who was absolved or all her sins because she saved a dog who was about to die from thirst. We always cooperate with Christian organisations, and with priests, for the common good. We maintain cordial relationships with many other non-Muslim societies as well.
Following 9/11 and the vicious attack on Islaamic charity work, how was the Direct Aid Society affected?
We are an Islaamic society that faced backlash similar to the backlash that faced all other Islaamic societies after 9/11.
For example, our teachers and preachers have been expelled from many places. Nowadays, if any ruler or a politician wishes to get rid of anyone, under whatever pretence, it suffices to invoke the terrorism accusation; the accused is always guilty under those circumstances and the accuser is not obliged to provide the proof.
The Direct Aid Society aims to develop rather than provide relief and/or aid. When did you start providing relief efforts?
Providing relief was not our goal when we started our work in 1980, but one cannot stand around watching when people are dying of hunger; what is earmarked for development could very well be used for relief. Our goal has always been to help the development of the places where we work.
What is your happiest recollection from your work in Africa?
My happiest recollection is of the orphan Zaynab Qara when she graduated from medical school and was ranked on top of her graduating class throughout all of Kenya. This was the same Zaynab that I first met when she was nine-years old walking barefoot and wearing rags and not covering her head, which went against the tradition of her non-Muslim tribe.
And the saddest?
The saddest recollection is holding a dying infant in my hands, and this happened quite often. I try to control my emotions and conceal them, but later I would hide away and cry like a baby.
Would you like to say something to our readership?
I sincerely hope that our brethren in humanity would learn, first hand, our culture and civilisation to learn the truth about us, and not to stop at what our enemies say about us. Once the true knowledge has surfaced, then let our brethren in humanity judge our work for what it really stand for.
Tel. (Kuwait): (00965) 252-835-5
Fax (Kuwait): (00965) 252-839-9
website: www.labaik-africa.org (Arabic)
P.O. Box 1414
State of Kuwait
Go to I-MAG Books and download an E-booklet with photos on Direct Aid efforts in Africa.
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