Politicians fail, technologies prevail

There’s been plenty of talk in recent years about a ‘United States of Africa‘. Fantasy or reality, politically such an entity looks as far off as it ever was. But visions of a continent borderless economically and politically are gradually being replaced by another borderless phenomenon – the mobile phone network. While Europe argues about roaming tariffs and a lack of integration, East Africa silently blazes a trail.

Celtel, MTN and Vodacom are just three of a growing band of African operators tearing down national boundaries to allow their customers seamless mobility as they travel from country-to-country. “One SIM card. 6 countries” proclaims Celtel. “Travel with your Vodacom SIMcard and enjoy Vodacom tariff in Kenya and Uganda” boasts Vodacom. The speed of change in the mobile industry – more so in developing countries – continues unabated. I’d bet on Africa being the first continent to create a true ‘single network’. After all, it’s already happening.

Ironically, in the mobile industry at least, it’s Europe, and not Africa, looking more like a developing country…

Saving Africa from us

There are often times when things I feel particularly strong about are better put in words by other people. This article, by Uzodinma Iweala (author of Beasts of No Nation, a novel about child soldiers), is no exception. Originally published in The Washington Post a few weeks ago, it’s particularly poignant coming at a time when more and more celebrity attention and more and more glossy magazine centre-spreads are focussing on the ‘dark continent’. I regularly struggle with my own involvement on the continent, particularly when I’m out in the field (as I am now, helping with a Grameen project in Uganda).

Uzodinma believes that most Africans don’t want saving. Instead they’d rather just be given a fair chance. Since my first visit – to northern Zambia way back in 1993 – I’ve been intrigued by how you create an environment where ordinary, everyday Africans are able to make the most of that chance, assuming one ever comes their way. The more work I do, the more countries I visit and the more people I meet, the more I believe that creating this environment is morally and practically the right thing to do. It would be hard, if not impossible, to argue otherwise. Yet the Western model of development prevails, built on the view of Africa as a hopeless and impoverished place in desperate need of ‘our’ help. Help is delivered in the form of money and sympathy. Forty years of handouts has failed to change that view, just like it has largely failed to make a significant positive impact on the root cause of the problem.

Whatever we say or do, whatever message we choose to convey through the glossy innards of top-notch magazines or the clever visuals of a website, it will be Africans who will ‘save Africa’. Let’s stop pretending it will be anybody else.

“Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa”

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 take adopted stray dogs to the pound.

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 succour 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 continents corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child labourers, 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 G8 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.

Courtesy of The Washington Post