Poor, Poor Africa
By Joel Hoffman
April 14, 2008
Africa. It’s such a buzz word today, dominating our headlines as a trigger evoking the emotions of the human heart. Just one mention of the word and the mind wanders to recollections of commercials showing little children with bloated bellies and fly-covered faces, hoping to catch the random affluent American offguard as they sit on their couches watching the latest sitcom. Or maybe we are reminded of the latest blockbuster movie that everyone is talking about depicting horrendous atrocities on brown African soil. We walked out of the theatre praising the movie to our friends for being such a great and important film. Africa is even marketed in our stores in hopes that the next time we buy an iPod maybe we will sacrifice and buy the red one and that will turn each track on our playlist into a song of hope.
The fact is Africa sells. We buy into it just enough to feel a little guilty but not so much that a new iPod shuffle can’t assuage our conscience. It is this fragile balance that the world hangs on, just enough to care but not enough for real commitment and it leaves a romanticized view of this place that few have gone, even fewer understand, but that we all feel sorry for. But if nothing else, at least Bono cares right? And he seems to have things under control.
Our sympathetic yet indifferent attitudes have been carefully cultivated by such an oversaturation of an oversimplification of just why Africa seems to be in so much trouble. Africa is embodied in that fly-covered child as a helpless, ignorant continent incapable of anything except waiting for rescue. Poor Africa, and the answer to poverty is money, which is exactly what the West has. Therefore it’s simply a strategy of funnelling money from the West through the iPods, or hand made “support a child” bracelets into the hands of that child on TV to give them food, shelter, education and thus a future.
Every once in a while a Westerner is prompted to do something about this situation. After all, it is mostly our fault, through colonialization, arms supplies, and exploitation of cheap labor. Therefore this is our problem to fix, our demon to exorcise. The only solution must be for us to go over there ourselves, and start a new ministry or organization to change the world. The problem is that once we get there we find ourselves in a large group of white westerners, each doing their own thing, and each one hoping the no one else notices that they don’t have a clue. Africa and aid are two words that have become best friends and it would probably be fair to say that it is receiving more aid than anywhere else in the world and the amount of non-governmental organizations over there seems to have increased exponentially in the last few years. But as poverty, corruption and oppression continue there comes a point where we too have to throw up our hands in exasperation as the question to the real “solution” in Africa eludes us.
There is no simple answer but maybe a place we can start is to destroy the paternal instinct in the West painting Africa as an innocent, ignorant child. Poverty has eradicated any moral perspective in our eyes to turn them into people who are only a subject of their circumstances. If any kind of moral shortcoming actually does occur it is written off as we write off the disobedience of a child, or someone who just doesn’t know any better. Africa is only that orphan on tv and it is our duty as Americans to take the higher path to adopt them as our children. In fact you can do this very thing for a mere thirty dollars a month.
Well, if this approach works why is Africa still in the state that it’s in? If aid was the answer wouldn’t we be seeing some change about now? It seems to be time for something different. Maybe we should treat them as people; as men and women, capable at that, who are and can be the conduits of change. We know the West has played its role in perpetuating the poverty that we see in Africa today. But perhaps the time has come for African’s to pull themselves up by their bootstraps take responsibility for their own tribes and people, and reclaim their heritage as a beacon of strength and light to the rest of the world.
This is not to say that there aren’t millions there who are victims of horrendous circumstances. However it seems like the answer will not ultimately be found in the West; the solution must be found among African’s themselves. It’s true, we may be supplying them with arms, but who are fighting the wars? We may be sending them money but it’s their own government officials that are stealing and pilfering their money from their own people. We may have our part to blame, but in the end these are their countries, their continent, their people. If change is really going to happen in Africa through we may play a part, ultimately it will be up to the African people.
Here is just one example related in a conversation with an Ethiopian economics teacher. In Ethiopia the country is separated into territories called woredas. There were five of these woredas in this certain area where this teacher lived. Out of that five, two were involved in as US funded Food for Work program. That means that if the people of these particular communities worked they would get an allowance of food each week, thus giving them incentive to work and improve there situations. After some time, a status report was taken of these five communities. Interestingly enough, the three that were not involved in the US aid program were thriving, while the other two in the program were just getting by. It turned out that those living in these two areas, were just doing enough work to get their food allowance each week, thus the community was seeing no improvement. However, in the other three areas the communities were slowly improving and becoming more and more sustainable, partly because of necessity and partly because of hard work and the incentive of their own people to make their community a better place.
As Westerners we obviously have our own responsibilities in this world, such as living simply and equitably with the rest of the world, as well as pursuing justice and human rights in every facet of our lives. Whether it’s buying a cup of coffee, voting for the next president or actually leaving our country to lend a hand to someone that needs it, we have moral obligations that the kingdom of God requires of us. No doubt these changes will need to be more radical than choosing the color of our ipod.
As for poor Africa, maybe we should stop speaking such a hopeless name over them. Our sympathy has become a condescension that does not help the situation. Maybe we should have humility and actually believe in Africans, because in many ways, it seems that no one else does. Let us lend a hand in empowering them, and watch as they raise themselves up as a phoenix from the ashes of war, poverty and oppression, to help them find the strength within them that nobody knew they had. Then, maybe someday down the road, the day will come when we won’t have to choose between a red or black ipod. Maybe we will all realize that it’s going to take a little more than that. Afterall, Bono is not going to be around forever.