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trying to save Africa
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.
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
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.
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