Monday, July 16, 2007

Stop Trying to "SAVE" Africa




This past May I wrote a blog peice called Bono's Lament for Africa- Critiquing the Best of Intentions. My purpose was to point out a disturbing trend I had been noticing for years, among even the most well-meaning individuals. Africa, long neglected except to report bizarre stories of one tragedy or another, has suddenly jumped onto the radar of the West. Turn on television shows, the news, magazines etc. and Africa is prominently featured. Or better put, it is the West's image of Africa--starving, destitute, impoverished, disease-ridden, war-torn...and the list could go on. From ONE bands to celebrities adopting babies, Africa as a dark continent of misery and woe is the cause du jour. Yet, even with such well intentions, this depiction of a diverse and vast continent is as one-sided as it's prior neglect.



What's worse, those of us in the West who paint ourselves over as missionary saviours manage to at once erase Africa's historical past as well as our responsibility for the present state of things. I wrote my past peice after being bothered by ads of white (and black) celebs depicted in face paint with the words "I Am African" plasterd underneath. Speaking to people who live on the continent of Africa or in the Diaspora, I found they were equally annoyed--some angry--about the entire affair. But, because those who do this "mean well," it is hard to point out their hypocrisy and paternalism--especially when it may seem as if the food, medicines, etc. they dole out are more important than our grievances. However, Africa need not hold its tongue and trade in its dignity for Western "aid." Because it is that very paternalist and condenscending view of Africa, those portrayals of the "Dark Continent," which lie at the heart of the exploitative relationship that creates odious debt, unfair trade, neglect, etc.

The article below is by Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian national who finds himself equally disturbed by the modern Western fascination with "saving" Africa. His voice echoes that of many Africans from various parts of the continent, but who are often relegated to forums and online comments. That he was afforded a space in the Washington Post may signal a coming change in the West's view of Africa (equal human beings rather than "victim projects"), but I wouldn't hold my breath.



Stop Trying To 'Save' Africa

By Uzodinma Iweala
Sunday, July 15, 2007

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/13/AR2007071301714.html

Last fall, shortly after I returned from Nigeria, I was accosted by a perky blond college student whose blue eyes seemed to match the "African" beads around her wrists.

"Save Darfur!" she shouted from behind a table covered with pamphlets urging students to TAKE ACTION NOW! STOP GENOCIDE IN DARFUR!

My aversion to college kids jumping onto fashionable social causes nearly caused me to walk on, but her next shout stopped me.

"Don't you want to help us save Africa?" she yelled.

It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to the pound to adopt stray dogs.

This is the West's new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back. Never mind that the stars sent to bring succor to the natives often are, willingly, as emaciated as those they want to help.

Perhaps most interesting is the language used to describe the Africa being saved. For example, the Keep a Child Alive/" I am African" ad campaign features portraits of primarily white, Western celebrities with painted "tribal markings" on their faces above "I AM AFRICAN" in bold letters. Below, smaller print says, "help us stop the dying."

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.

Why do the media frequently refer to African countries as having been "granted independence from their colonial masters," as opposed to having fought and shed blood for their freedom? Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned? How is it that a former mid-level U.S. diplomat receives more attention for his cowboy antics in Sudan than do the numerous African Union countries that have sent food and troops and spent countless hours trying to negotiate a settlement among all parties in that crisis?

Two years ago I worked in a camp for internally displaced people in Nigeria, survivors of an uprising that killed about 1,000 people and displaced 200,000. True to form, the Western media reported on the violence but not on the humanitarian work the state and local governments -- without much international help -- did for the survivors. Social workers spent their time and in many cases their own salaries to care for their compatriots. These are the people saving Africa, and others like them across the continent get no credit for their work.

Last month the Group of Eight industrialized nations and a host of celebrities met in Germany to discuss, among other things, how to save Africa. Before the next such summit, I hope people will realize Africa doesn't want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.

Uzodinma Iweala is the author of "Beasts of No Nation," a novel about child soldiers.

7 comments:

oyaniyi said...

I agree, the constant focus on Africa's death and disease is disconcerting and annoying. No one ever reports on the U.S. as the murder and child kidnapping capital of the world, or better yet, as the world's leader in environmental racism or homelessness. But Africa is on fire in a lot of arenas. Do you think the media should not report these problems? Or that it should report more balanced images?

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