Tuesday, July 17, 2007

STOP TRYING TO 'SAVE' AFRICA

This article from the Washington Post is just one of many these days decrying the media's (and the Western world's) portrayal of Africa. The Live Earth concert 2 Saturdays ago was full of messages regarding global warming but somehow the topic of saving Africa managed to come up, as it's been deemed the sexiest topic these days, next to being green (if not ranked higher by the press).

Uzodinma Iweala questions the motives of these self-proclaimed saviours of Africa. We tend to ask, "when will Africans start helping themselves?", but in reality, they never stopped, the rest of us just need to get on board. An argument that comes up regularly is that regarding celebrities' motives behind their sudden "dying need to help Africa"? The Angelinas and Oprahs are no doubt doing some great humanitarian work but would we (Africans) be better off if they just gave the money to NGOs and called it a day without the media circus? Or are these characters more instrumental in that they are putting the African "pandemic" on the ever-busy world map?
(thanks for the article Rukky!!)


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Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa - by Uzodinma Iweala
Sunday, July 15, 2007

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.

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

7 comments:

Abosede said...

this is a difficult situation because as possible as it might be that it is now the fashionable thing for the West to start campaigns to 'Save Africa', we must be sure to realize that saying that goes "there is no such thing as bad publicity". Yes it maybe uncomfortable and cringe worthy every time someone mentions the desolation of Africa or how the West has been the salvation of the Africans, however it is many steps ahead of the blind eye they turned to the turmoil brewing (mostly as a result of their actions in the past). Let's suppose that the newfound concern for Africa stems from the West's perception of superiority, does that nullify the acts of those individuals who do care and want to make a difference? If the end is a peaceful, self-sufficient Africa, I think the means (even if it causes us discomfort) justifies the end.

Let's also be honest, perhaps the Africans who are doing so much should be receiving recognition. What I'd like to point out is this: if you are doing something that you believe is right, recognition no matter how good it feels is not needed for you to continue to do what you do.

Africans do not need enlightenment about what is going on in their own backyard; we know what is going on. The Western populace on the other hand, has many who live in a bubble and until this "Save Africa" trend came about, there was hardly anyone who cared to talk about Africa or even knew much about it.

So maybe the Western celebrities and diplomats can't save us, but they can increase awareness and that in itself is a step in the right direction. The West taking accountability with their role in the oppression of Africa, like they did with the American civil rights movement would be another milestone that would be beneficial for them to reach. Until then, we Africans need to stop crying victim. No one understands our plight more than us, we don't need the West to make it clear or fashionable. They might need it to steer themselves in the right path. We need something else.... We need to start demanding more of our governments, strengthening our relationships amongst countries, and coming up with our own plans and solutions. The West and us can meet somewhere along the way, and perhaps work together towards the same goal.

Fashionably Unknown said...

I agree Bose. I know that some of the campaigns seem a bit cringe worthy with celebrities driving the band wagon, but I think that's mainly to do with the fact that social consciousness (either political or trivial frivolity) in the west is very much driven by popular culture(i.e what the celebrities are doing with their lives etc...) and charities or aid organisations fronting celebrities is the best way to get to the masses. And whether celebrities see this as publicity stunt or are genuinely helping, who knows. I have a suspect feeling that perhaps some of them might be for real.

However, on africans helping africans, the west should make a point of mentioning the few that do do something. The only fair I have is that, with countries like Nigeria or other countries in africa that are politically unstable, how many african activist are brave enough to come out and confront a corrupt government with out the fear of having some gross injustice done towards them or the people they care about.

Saying that though, we should all, african and westerners, celebrity or not should work together to get africa out of the state it is in at the moment. And fellow africans should not be afraid to stand up to the corrupt governments that be or even to the G8; Africans need to start getting out there and get their voices heard. This is why I'm so proud that my friends have created this website. This is a way forward.

Fashionably Unknown said...

I agree Bose. I know that some of the campaigns seem a bit cringe worthy with celebrities driving the band wagon, but I think that's mainly to do with the fact that social consciousness (either political or trivial frivolity) in the west is very much driven by popular culture(i.e what the celebrities are doing with their lives etc...) and charities or aid organisations fronting celebrities is the best way to get to the masses. And whether celebrities see this as publicity stunt or are genuinely helping, who knows. I have a suspect feeling that perhaps some of them might be for real.

However, on africans helping africans, the west should make a point of mentioning the few that do do something. The only fair I have is that, with countries like Nigeria or other countries in africa that are politically unstable, how many african activist are brave enough to come out and confront a corrupt government with out the fear of having some gross injustice done towards them or the people they care about.

Saying that though, we should all, african and westerners, celebrity or not should work together to get africa out of the state it is in at the moment. And fellow africans should not be afraid to stand up to the corrupt governments that be or even to the G8; Africans need to start getting out there and get their voices heard. This is why I'm so proud that my friends have created this website. This is a way forward.

Misan said...

Yaay, welcome fashinably unknown ;) so glad to have you onboard, and like i said in my msg to you on fbook, we look forward to your contributions.

I battle with myself over this issue so often...does the end always justify the means? Should we the ever-grateful Africans constantly accept western aid without questioning the motives behind it? blindly (not really the word i mean to use but can't think...oh...unquestioningly) accepting their terms without putting ours forward for fear that we'll lose their support? I agree we need to vamp up on helping ourselves first, but when it comes to our interaction with the West, we need to be in a position to have our voices heard. In the States, campaign One Vote has been launched (check it out at http://www.one.org/) but I was a bit disappointed that the one time I watched their campaign launch on C-Span, they only had 1 african lady (Zambian) out of about 6 speakers (who were all white Americans) speak about what's going on on-ground. But, it's a start right?

So should we leave the West to keep doing their thing when it comes to helping Africa, while we do ours, or should we make sure we have at least a say, in how (and why) they "stop the dying"?

SOLOMONSYDELLE said...

Misan - we MUST question the motives of those interested in 'helping' us. Why? Because Africa is big business. Think about all the companies and organizations that make money off of our problems? It is incredible and crunching the numbers would be overwhelming.

It is good business to 'help' Africa and Africans but we are usually not given a voice to participate in the process and dialog. We must begin our own discourse, early, so that those involved in the Africa business are forced to talk to us.

We must also get our act together. I am glad to note that 4 former governors are now in jail in Nigeria on charges of money laundering, conversion and straight up theft. It is a start. All elected officials must be held accountable to the people. That is the only way we can ensure that politicians will actually honor their promises and use their positions to improve the collective lot. Anyway, forgive my ranting. I have had a long day.

Nawahala said...

I think that the fact that Africans are finally responding indignantly to this treatment by the West, and in numbers,is heartwarming enough. The rest of it- the lies behind Western superstar posturing with pro- Africa campaign is being taken to a far higher moral high ground than it really should be.

The adoption of Africa, symbolised in the babyloving antics of Madonna and Angelina is being viewed in the same vein as a personal insult, an actual attempt to prove inferiority of Africans, to disprove our worthiness. The truth is that when the cameras are rolling, the West, both its ethnic minorities and its ethnic majorities, will pose whatever the issue be. Whether it be Native American reinstatement, Hurricane Kathy or Green peace, the West will jump on that bandwagon and scream through the bullhorns to satisfy what dying embers are left of their ego- stoked consciences.

They don't seek to portray Africans as "downtrodden" for spite-sake. They do it because they can shine as saintly help- bringers. So let us be happy that they are at least doing something to help, whatever the motive, and concentrate on the important thing- that we take umbrage at their pontification and now let's get angry enough to take the opportunity to pose away from them, by making sure we lead Africa to greatness. The problem is internal. The solution is Positive Action.

Beverly said...

I couldn't agree with Nawahala more.

http://afropolitans.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/12/what-is-an-afri.html