The world economy is changing. With the sluggish recovery of developed countries and slower growth rate of developing countries, the world is starting to pay attention to Africa’s emerging markets.
23 years ago, a Chinese monk clad in a long yellow robe had set his sights on this territory.
“When I first got there, the Chinese were demonized as a people. Once they see us, the African children cried, screamed and fled till none were left. “Master Hui Li sits in front of me and recalls the moments when he first began offering shelter to the African orphans and how they escaped from the orphanage thrice.
Master Hui Li is the founder of Amitofo Care Centre (ACC). In 1992, under Fo Guang Shan Monastery Master Hsing Yun’s instructions, South Africa’s first Mahayana Buddhist temple — Nam Hua temple was founded. Later in 2004, Malawi’s first Buddhist orphanage — Amitofo Care Centre was established. ACC gradually established more orphanages in Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia, providing services such as sponsoring the care of the orphans, building of schools, providing food relief and skills training while assisting in the rebuilding of traditional African culture. As of now, there are more than 8000 sponsorships, within and outside of the centre, for children who lost their kin or their chance of an education. Master Hui Li is affectionately known as the children’s “African daddy".
On the afternoon of 12 December 2015, a journalist from the Chinese Buddhist Culture Network met the legendary “Monk daddy" for the first time. Despite traveling across African all year round, the 60-year-old monk didn’t looked as tanned as one would expect. He sat crossed-legged on a wooden chair, wearing a grey knitted hat with a calm and sincere expression.
The “cultural hybridity" of ACC’s children
Chinese Buddhist Culture Network: During the activity session, the children had shown that they are able to communicate in Mandarin. They are familiar with the Buddhist etiquette and at the same time practicing the traditional African kneeling ceremony. What is your opinion on this cultural phenomenon that is taking shape in ACC?
Master Hui Li: Actually ACC has already brought about a fusion of oriental and African cultures. We go to Africa with no intention of behaving like colonial masters during the colonial times. The colonial masters were dismissive of other races, cultures, beliefs and had governed Africa with discriminatory and dominating mindsets. Cultures, beliefs, languages, writings and races are intangible assets of mankind. Although there are great differences among different races, cultural beliefs and languages but these differences should not make us enemies. The world is beautiful precisely because of its rich diversity.
ACC does not come into Africa with a sense of superiority. Neither does it carry out discriminatory or exploitative practices. It does not denigrate the local African culture. ACC children follow a curriculum that prioritizes the learning of their mother tongue and culture so that it can be passed on to future generations. Secondly, they are required to be taught the respective countries’ education syllabus. Lastly, we introduce the Chinese culture to further nurture them, so that they can grow up to be well developed individuals. .
I believe that different races, cultures and beliefs are like the sun, moon and stars in the sky. Nobody owns the sun, moon and stars but anybody can claim to own them. Even if I practice Buddhism, I will not say that it belongs to me. It is an asset of mankind. I will not reject Christianity because I do not practice it. Christianity too, is an asset of mankind.
Spreading the seed of Buddhism towards the African land
Chinese Buddhist Culture Network: Throughout history, the Chinese people had tried four times to introduce Buddhism to Africa, but for various reasons, their mission came to a premature end. You are the first person to introduce Buddhism to the Africans. How did you manage to accomplish this?
Master Hui Li: I am a monk and there are not many choices. I carry the responsibility of propagating the Buddha’s teachings on one shoulder and mission of promulgating Buddhist practices to benefit mankind. After coming into contact with Africa, I was surprised that there were little trace of Chinese culture or Buddhist practices. Being a descendent of Yan Huang, also a disciple of the Three Treasures, an idea came to my mind and I felt that I should do something. Thus began our mission of “Promulgating Buddhism in Africa, Continuing the Wisdom of Buddha", which was to spread and to adapt Buddhism teachings and practices to Africa.
The first stage of this process was working hard to get ourselves ready, which is focused on establishing a presence in Africa. “Nam Hua Monastery" in Africa was built during the time I was still with Fo Guang Shan Monastery and it is now under the management of Fo Guang Shan Monastery. The second stage is to execute our plans to establish roots deep inside Africa, which laid the foundation for what ACC is today. ACC is an orphanage, but at the same time, through sheltering the orphans, we bring to them Chinese and Buddhism culture.
Cultivating compassion is the primary goal. Children are free to choose their faiths when they grow up.
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: Will the ACC children become Buddhists when they grow up?
Master Hui Li: ACC is always under the pressure of the local government. I would like to say that we do not convert the children or require them to take Buddhist oaths. Whether they become Buddhists or Christians in future, at the very least, they will not be unfriendly towards Buddhism.
It does not really matter to me whether the kids become Buddhists when they grow up. Neither am I anxious to have more people ordaining to be monks. I simply hope there are more who can be enlightened on life and death and be liberated from suffering.
I feel that preserving and passing down of one’s own culture is important. If the children grow up in Christian or Muslim families, there are no reasons to force them to convert to Buddhism. Whether or not they convert to Buddhism is secondary. Educating people to become compassionate individuals is then our primary mission. Before the age of 18, the children have to follow the rules of ACC. After that, they are considered adults and I respect their choices. They can choose any religion, be it Islam or Christianity. I will not insist that you must be a Buddhist.
Africa reflects our ancient self. Education is the cultivation of human nature.
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: You have brought a lot to Africa for the past twenty years, what has Africa given you?
Master Hui Li: The Africans are humble and kind-hearted.
Singing and dancing are part of their national culture. They have a great sense of rhythm and groove. The early humans were like this too, jovial and carefree. Before religions like Christianity and Buddhism were formed, all mankind started with the worship of the sky and land and they prayed to spirits and ghosts. The human nature is universal. Thus, I see my ancient self in the Africans,
Education is about cultivating the human nature. In ancient times, the Chinese said that proper education starts from youth. This is very true. Our habits define how we live our lives. Cultivating good habits will translate to a better life in future. On the other hand, one would be in trouble if bad habits developed since childhood continues into adulthood. Therefore, we teach our children to be clean and polite and let these virtues become their habits from young. The children recite scriptures like the “Heart Sutra”, “Great Compassion Mantra”, “Amitabha Sutra” and classics like the “Confucious Disciple Regulation” from young too. I believe that this is actually equivalent to having conversations and learning from the sages and the children will learn a lot from these classics. The children are simply leaning what you teach them. Therefore, if the child does something wrong, the grown-ups should reflect on their teachings. Our children are Africans but they speak Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent because they learn from a Taiwanese teacher. If I had assigned a Chinese teacher to teach the child to sing, he would sing with a Chinese accent.
The environment is of utmost importance in education. The children must be given the right direction. We always let the children know that they are not responsible for Africa’s plight today, but if Africa does not change in the next 20 to 30 years, they are the ones to be held responsible. They must develop a responsible attitude from young because one does not just live for himself. What he does will affect his classmates, friends, family, the community, the school, and even the whole country. Thus, we remind our children every day that they have to manage themselves well and grow to be intellectual, cultivated and cultured individuals that will scale greater heights in future.
Building mutual trust with African countries
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: You have been doing charity work in several African countries, how do you find the attitudes of the local communities and authorities?
Master Hui Li: The local authorities monitor us, fearing that we will change the children for other motives. Sometimes they request ACC to feed the children with meat and let them attend church. ACC assured them that the teachers and caregivers in school are all locals and the number of martial arts instructors, Chinese teachers and volunteers are far less compared to the locals. Communication is required to establish mutual trust.
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: Has the situation improved?
Master Hui Li: We are currently venturing into new countries. As such, this will be accompanied with a lot more challenges than before.
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: What is the monthly expenditure of ACC?
Master Hui Li: Our monthly budget (including construction fees) is around 1 million US dollars. ACC now adopts more than 8,000 children. Those staying in the orphanages require full attention round the clock, while those living out of the premises are provided with food. ACC has always wanted to help raise more children. Therefore, while the developed nations are seeing families with less children and plummeting enrolment rates in schools, ACC is increasing the number of children we shelter.
A life of Mendicancy
Chinese Buddhist Cultural Network: At the presentation ceremony of Chou Ta-Kuan Cultural and Educational Foundation, you mentioned that, “I am like a slave for the blacks as well as an international beggar." Why did you label yourself “an international beggar”?
Master Hui Li: This is because monks beg for alms throughout our lives, and I have indeed been soliciting funds for the orphans. There is no difference between a beggar and me.
However, ACC never pressurizes our believers for donations. I always tell my followers, the offerings made by the donors should stem from their hearts. Whether they make any donations or not, it’s all part of destiny. If I am affluent, I do charity to the best of my financial ability. When funds are insufficient, I simply make do with what I have. I do not wish to ask for donations constantly as it greatly pressurises my followers. We let nature takes it course and do our work to the best of our abilities.