In the summer of 2004, Mak C.K, then a 26-year-old budding filmmaker, traveled to a rural village in Tanzania, east Africa, to teach young orphans English. His intentions were simple. Innocent, even. He wanted to travel, make videos, and do charity work at the same time.
He thought he was doing good, equipping them with a skill for their lives ahead.
“I met John, one of the brightest orphans, and he hugged me and cried on my shoulders for 15 minutes. These were kids that would sit on my lap telling me their ambitions.” the 38-year-old documentary film director shared on a Skype call with The Pride from Mexico, where he’s completing his next project.
Fast forward 12 years, and Mak was caught off-guard during what he thought would be a simple reunion with this same group of orphans.
As he started gaining international accolades for his film work, his return to Tanzania made him realise that most of the orphans he met never came close to their dreams.
John had been pedaling alcohol on the riverbanks and even went to prison for petty crimes.
Another orphan he met, Daniel, who had later gotten married, found his wife murdered outside his house after a vicious robbery. Never fully recovered from the attack, the single father is struggling to raise his toddler after failing to find stable work for two years.
Upendo was the only one in the group who left the orphanage but was forced to head back shortly after. In order to make ends meet, many of her friends prostituted themselves on the Tanzanian streets and Upendo herself was close to similar fate. In the end, she returned to the orphanage to seek shelter. She never managed to find a job.
Jackie became a mother. Yet, trapped in an abusive marriage, dependent on her husband for financial support, she never had the chance to pursue her dream of owning a bakery.
Realising that his charity stint in Tanzania paid little more than lip-service as opposed to actual help to those who could really use it, Mak decided it was time to act. His first concern was how much of the cash collected by aid organisations was actually reaching the orphans.
“There’s nothing unambiguous about giving aid. The aid industry is the richest and the most unaccountable in the world,” he lamented.
Mak revealed that most of the time, their charity trust’s fundraising efforts only saw a fraction of the total donation reaching those who need it most.
Instead of going through the usual donation system, Mak wanted a completely transparent process where donors could see how their cash aid was being used.
The idea? A personal film project cheekily titled Buying Happiness, which has tapped on crowdfunding platform indiegogo to support its cause.
The premise was simple. The orphans would send in their pitch of a sustainable project and its potential cost, and Mak would in turn research and evaluate if the projects are worth crowdfunding for. He then offered these orphans a one-time financial support and full autonomy to change their lives for the better. In all, eight orphans were identified to become beneficiaries of project Buying Happiness.
The catch? The group of orphans receiving this cash aid would have to allow Mak full access to film their lives. As Mak is accountable to donors who have pledged amounts from $10 USD to $10,000 USD for the project, he is committed to showing viewers exactly how much money each orphan, and consequently, each project has received. The filmmaker intends to return to Tanzania periodically, over three years, to chronicle whether the cash aid has changed the lives of the orphans for the better, or at all. Is monetary support enough for them to beat the odds in life? Was the money used in the way it’s promised?
The film has raised over $38,000 USD to date, and Mak has been candid since the start about how the crowdfunded cash would be distributed. Part of it will go into film equipment rental, local transportation, meals, accommodation, administration and production support in Tanzania. Mak wants his donors to know that he is working to keep these fees to a strict minimum, and the producers of this film, himself included, are not paid.
The rest of the funds will be used to finance the projects of the orphans, who have plans from obtaining a university degree to starting their own beauty salon business.
At the heart of Buying Happiness is one of Mak’s most cherished values — helping a fellow friend. But it’s a big project and the plucky director admitted to doubting his own idea sometimes.
“As their friend I don’t know if I should be giving them fish. I get the wise saying of how we should be teaching the needy how to fish not helping them fish,” he hesitated.
But others have egged him on.
He shared: “I have a close friend who asked me point blank; how much worse could their lives be? We are not talking about people at crossroads in life. We are talking about people who cannot even feed themselves. Do it.”
For the allocation of aid, Mak has been evaluating each project individually for achievability and long-term sustainability before deciding if he would help to crowdfund for them.
“Let’s take Jackie for example. She loves baking and has been wanting to set up a home bakery to make a living. All she needs is a charcoal oven and some baking material like flour, yeast, and flavouring. It’s like, if me and my friends don’t go out this weekend, I could turn her life around,” he said.
And what if the orphans still struggle, even after such massive support?
Mak reckoned that his project would give them a chance, though he couldn’t guarantee that he would really change their lives.