Posted by: sean | July 30, 2007

"Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa"

A new friend of mine sent me a blog entry on a Washington Post piece attacking Americans and Europeans who want to “Save Africa,” and especially those who want to “Save Darfur.”

Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?” The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization.”

There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

Regardless of whether Africa is “in” or not — whether it’s the cause du jour — if anyone’s to be giving a finger rapping to well-meaning white kids from the ivy league, it certainly ought not to be Uzodinma Iweala, the American-born and -raised son of a cabinet member of the Nigerian thug extraordinaire, Obasanjo. The piece’s author went to a D.C. prep school then to Harvard, and is now off to Columbia med school, so I imagine that his time in Africa hasn’t been much better than that of those pasty-faced do-gooders who “fly in for internships.” (Incidentally, does Iweala take the boat from Washington, I wonder?) Furthermore, I think it’s telling that Granta named him in their “Best of Young American Novelists 2.” 

Fairly or not, Iweala reminds me of my time in the UN system. The UN works on a quota system for permanent posts, presumably so that the secretariat be filled with people from all over the world. This might be a good thing if it weren’t for the fact that the quota for countries like Nigeria are taken up by people like Iweala, not the Africans and Asians who have lived their entire lives in their native countries and had to fight against the odds to get an education while working at a human rights NGO in countries like Cameroon or Bangladesh. I once took coffee breaks with a brilliant European intern who wasn’t getting paid and couldn’t get a proper job in his section, despite the fact that he’d completed his PhD in a relevant field and was widely published in his field’s academic journals. The person who was second-in-charge in his section was a European guy who only had the equivalent of a B.A. in his field, but whose dad happened to be a former diplomat (and UN functionary) from an African country. This guy had lived his whole life in a European capital , but he had a passport from Africa, and the intern’s compatriots were over-represented at that UN organization. So that was that.

Another thing that bothers me about the remarks made by Iweala is that he doesn’t mention, for example, the role that such a campaign led by Americans (mostly black and religious groups) played in negotiating an end to the civil war between the north and south of Sudan. And guys like him are the same ones who are quick to fault Europe or the US for not having done anything for Rwanda. (I’m also in that camp, but I’d like to think that I’m somewhat more consistent in my criticism.) Furthermore, what about the Congo? If Central Africa had been left to its own devices instead of given the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force (from five different continents), I imagine that the death toll would be considerably worse than it already is.

So while there’s something to be said about “African solutions for African problems,” I’m afraid that entrusting Libya, a country that’s responsible for many of the current problems in Darfur and Chad in the first place, isn’t necessarily such a hot idea just because Gadaffi isn’t white. Likewise, Uganda’s and Rwanda’s African solution to the Congo and Mbeki’s African non-solution to Zimbabwe aren’t exactly what I’d call steps in the right direction.

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Responses

  1. You are missing the point my friend. The writer, Uzodinma Iweala, is resisting the stereotypical perception of Africa: that we are an abyss of death, disease, war and corruption. And his point about African solutions for African problems takes route in the fact that he understands, unlike westerners seem to do, that Africans and the African Union understand the continent better than non-Africans and certainly better than westerners. Africans genuinely have each other’s best interests at heart whilst the west, as Iweala stated, could be accused of ultimately trying to assert their cultural superiority. Iweala makes great points in his article- and you will find that so many Africans feel the same frustration and irritation at the west for making us some kind of prop and some kind of cause. We do not deny that there are significant problems in Africa and that some of the solutions for these problems suggested by African leaders have not been very effective but we are fed up of the west’s insipid perception of Africa. We are fed up. The west must learn to see us as normal human beings leading normal lives. Not everyone is starving and not everyone has AIDS. And we do not to be “saved” as if we were a cause. People tend to over generalize when talking about Africa. The recent problems in Madagascar have now become an “African problem”- this is nonsense! We all have different issues, that are more complex than westerners seem to understand. People, particularly in the west, need to learn to treat us with respect and dignity because even though their monetary and medical aid has helped certain areas in Africa it has also has teh averse effect of robbing us of our dignity and our value. Africa, as many problems as it is facing, is a beautiful continent with beautiful people. It is rich in many ways and it is progressing in various ways- you just wouldn’t hear it on the news. This is the kind of think that Iweala is trying to say.

    Secondly, your point about Iweala being American- born and raised in America and about how his time in Africa not being “much better than that of those pasty-faced do-gooders who “fly in for internships.” ” is silly because it suggests that he does not know what he is talking about. Yet clearly he does because his views reflect those of numerous Africans living within Africa and around the world. Besides if Iweala says he is African then no amount of American education can change that.

    Thank You,
    K

  2. Thanks for commenting K. I understand your frustration, but I have to respectfully disagree with part of what you say, though:

    Africans genuinely have each other’s best interests at heart whilst the west, as Iweala stated, could be accused of ultimately trying to assert their cultural superiority.

    This is pretty off the mark. Do Kampala and Kigali have the people of Kivu’s best interests in mind? Does Addis really care about the people of Ogaden, much less Mogadishu? Come on, let’s not be naive.


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