The first time I had the conversation was with three South Africans at an outdoor restaurant in Dakhla, Morocco. They had spent the last eleven months traveling up Africa’s west coast and were trying to sort through what they’d seen.
“All the American college girls in Ghana…” one of them said, trailing off. His point was that Ghana already had plenty of help while most of West Africa had none. But still more bubbly heroes landed in Accra every day. “It’s just…” frustrating or infuriating or stupid or disgusting. I don’t remember what he said but I remember what I said.
“But you can’t really diss do-gooding.”
Here I am now four months into my trip and I’ve had the conversation many more times. Its had in places like I’m sitting now, a dorm room at a camp site, where the white people sit around a table and confide in each other the revelations and disappointments of their experiences here.
So much of what we know about Africa in the west comes from stories designed to attract our money or our sympathy. To do that the story must be sure not to diss the do-gooders, or the Africans.
But around a guesthouse table at the end of the day, at the end of four months, those premises can seem false.
So the conversation dances around dangerous conclusions, dances around fears that you might sound racist. Or hopeless. The conversation is really about one question though: Why. Why is Africa so messed up and how could it get better.
Why, the Israelis ask, did the Tanzanian man they tried to help start a restaurant just run off with the money?
Why, the Indian restaurant owner asks, are his employees so lazy?
A lot of the time the conversation ends up dancing around the idea that people here are just lazy. The more you think that might be the case, the less willing you are to say it.
I’m willing to say it because I believe it isn’t true. I believe that western people have imposed western ideas on cultures with different priorities. Are Africans lazy or are Europeans so focused on tasks and far-off goals that they lose contact with their friends and family and the enjoyment of their life?
But in so many ways Africa has been colonized by western ways of living and is now irrevocably linked to them. The ubiquitous cell phones and expensive western clothes are incompatible with a mentality that prioritizes an 11am beer over heading back to the office.
Never mind that most people aren’t heading back to an office but to a plastic table where they sell cell phone credit or bananas for a few pennies profit.
So as Africa sinks deeper into the trap of this cultural divide, good intentioned people from the same countries that helped cause it, try to help Africa “catch-up.” They try to teach them the “right way” to farm, the “right way” to teach, the “right way” to run a business.
They try to give food to the hungry, care to the sick.
You can’t diss the do-gooding.
But I’ve come to believe Africa is an enormous, thin-iced lake and the west is sending lifeguards.
People are falling through so they send warm blankets too, and stack them on the melting sheet of ice. And then they send swimming instructors.
The responses are as logical and well meant as they are short-term and possibly corrosive.
Someone else will send ice cubes to preserve the lake. Can you see the shrinking ice? There are 800 million people living on it. How many lifeguards and swimming instructors and ice cubes do you think the NGOs can send? They’ll keep sending them and if you cared you’d donate a warm blanket to the drowning children of Africa.
What I like about this metaphor is that it doesn’t present an actual solution. What I like about this metaphor is that if someone is drowning you SHOULD send a lifeguard.
What I don’t like about this metaphor is it presents the challenges Africa faces as “problems” that must be “fixed.” It portrays it as a dire crisis; as if all of America were the Lower Ninth Ward.
And it would be better if the metaphor were extended to point out that the NGOs are sending fish but not teaching anyone how to fish. Or they’re sending fancy fishing rods with little instruction and no budget to repair them when they break. They certainly aren’t considering that Africans may already know a way of fishing that works better here than what you do on Lake Geneva.
But what you can’t forget is the westerners who are giving of themselves here really are better people than you and I. They are. But that doesn’t mean much for Africa.
I was having the conversation by a pool at a four-star hotel with a high-level European who’s spent 32 years of his life in African development. I asked him what he’d do if he were king. He paused and sighed and didn’t want to say it.
“I know it’s a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s not possible. But in my dream, all the aid organizations, all the NGOs, all the development projects, everyone…. Everyone leaves.”