Saturday, June 7, 2008

Why is Africa so messed up

Lilongwe, Malawi
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.”


scotterickson said...

dude... this is a really insightful blog entry. i may be heading there again this summer to do some fundraising for orphanages. but this question has come up often for me in my own thoughts and wondering what is needed to benefit africa. but so often the cultural priorities do get overlooked... especially when we think the best way is our way.

keep it up! cheers

Anthony said...

I dunno how this may come across, but it seems to me as if Africa is the world's charity case. I mean, how can an entire continent be in such disarray? I agree with what you write about the European at the end... have everyone leave.

What Scott says about things being done the Western way, I agree with that also. Its just horrible to see the state of that continent as a whole. It is as if Africa has a weaker immune system than the rest of the world and they are defenseless against everything that happens there.

Craig said...

Too good.

"Oh, youre JUST travelling"

Kate McNair said...

"The best test of a civilized society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable and weakest members."
-Mahatma Gandhi

Nancy said...

Oh B, Really intense food for thought. I wonder somehow if the old saying "The road to hell is paved with good intention" might apply in a small way to Africa, and overlooking it's cultural, almost DNA, uniqueness.It's all very complicated to me, and i can only perceive this thru my understanding of your frame of reference, In the end i feel injustice breeds violence, apathy and an entire host of response that may be unpredictable.Help is only help if people REALLY want it. Where is free will and most of all DIGNITY in all of this? These are thigs that can't be taught or given. Gandhi is such a elevated thinker, but speaks my perception of truth. This entry makes me think of a Frederico Fellini quote. "There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life." i would change it just alittle if it's ok with Fellini, and say: There is no right, there is no wrong, only the infinite passion of life.Be safe. aml m

3rd Monkey said...

Lots of good quotes in these comments! Should I add two more? "TIA - This is Africa" - Leo DiCaprio's character, 'Blood Diamond'. Or Gandhi again, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Your entry sounds like the kind of topic you could debate forever, I can't really comment as I haven't been to Africa (yet). Really interested in what it's truly like and your blogs are great first-hand experience. Guess it would vary from place to place within the continent too. The world does seem to want to fix Africa up, just wondering what it would be like had no outside influence touched it in recent millennia, how would it have evolved on its own? Still, sounds like life over there would be a great study for human nature, if one were so inclined.

Shannon Reed said...

I just got home from my sixth trip to Africa last week. Each trip causes me to wonder why things are the way they are and what can I do? Thus I found this blog. I will continue to go, God willing, and I know that I can do nothing to bring real change there, but I can take hope to maybe one person at a time. On my first trip there I slept very little due the fact that my mind would race with questions every night, all night long even after an emotionally as well as physically exhausting day working with hundreds of orphaned children. One night while trying to keep my sobbing muffled in my pillow, I remembered an old story I had heard years before of an old man walking on a beach. The man sees a boy tossing one starfish at a time back into the surf after a storm had washed up tens of thousands of these tiny things onto the shore. The man says to the boy,"there are just to many and you can't possibly make a difference" but the boy tosses another starfish into the ocean and said, "to that one I did." Remembering that story has made it easier for me go back to Africa. There are tens of thousands of children there who have no parents and I know that every child brought into this world needs and desires to be loved and nurtured. I know these children will respond to us if we keep going back, especially if they know we love them. I don't pretend to think that anyone, especially that I would have the answer that might bring change to an entire continent, but maybe by the grace of God, I could influence one life and maybe that one life could influence a village or even a district or maybe a whole country. Stranger things have happened and I figure those kids are worth the effort. I don't have any grand plans other than, "we can't stop now, we told them we'd be back."

maryan said...

Hi Brook

that is the question that we need to be asking as african...but see even the a simple thing as asking questions like such..ppl have to do for us

i often think that we are lazy, but then i meet many many african that work tirelessly day after day...

then i think we are stupid...and then i see all my freinds at school that solve problems that normal people have trouble with...

i know its something bigger, its something that we choose not to fix oursleves. and unless we step up...many will be asking this question years to come.

The do-gooders have done nothing wrong, i love them....having been a refugee myself and worn the clothes, ate the food...sang the songs..i have nothing but admiration and greatfullness from the from bottom of my heart.

i think that no matter how hard they try they will not fix the thin ice...its we that have to do it...

they mean well...and in my dream....we as africans will rise...we will lead ourselves...we support our means...and we will coexist in a peacfull productive way....but we will stop once a while to appericate all the do-gooders on at a time....

these are rough times...but i think we just have to keep dreaming those good dreams....

shannon if your reading this i thank you...i can tell you from expreince that those kids will never forget anything you give them for as long as they live..some of the stuff my mum gave me i have forgotton...but one pencil...or one toothbrush...or those shoes that the whole camp had...

i have never let go of...and i know those kids will make a difference in thier own world thanks to you and ppl like you.....yay go do-gooders....

Brook Silva-Braga said...


i'm really glad you found the blog and commented, i hope you write more on your own blog.

my question when i meet exceptional people from difficult backgrounds is always: Why were you able to succeed? What makes you different than others?

I rarely get a good answer--it usually a mix of inner drive and fortunate circumstance--but maybe there's a secret we can eventually learn.

afterfx said...

Let me say this Africa is messed up because of their
Selfishness. Africans are just as smart, capable and possess the potential as anybody else. Unfortunately a nearly unbreakable paradox had formed within the country. Do we need to look out for ourselves and our families or start making sacrifices for the good of the whole? If I had a family in Africa and I was African, I'm sorry to say from the little I know of the area I would choose to act for myself and my family. Sadly, this is the "human" choice everyone in the area must make otherwise see their children, wives, etc... Suffer. If every individual contributed themselves unselfishly for the benefit of the nation, then Africa could become a great country. So many things would need to happen before this could become a reality. First of which would be to give birth to a leader (of pure heart and compassion) to empower the people. I think one day the country will give birth to such a man (or woman) but until that day comes, I'm sorry to say the country will remain in it's unbreakable paradox.

me said...

True, even though Gandhi was a racist.

Adriana Hlz said...

afterfx s but...but... Africa is not a country!