“Maybe I just go where the weather is better,” says Josh of In an African Minute.
He's referring to why he chooses to work in Africa rather than where his family is from in Eastern Europe, but also to the current ruckus that’s been unleashed by the essay “Stop Trying to Save Africa,” in the Washington Post by Uzodinma Iweala. The American raised and Harvard educated Nigerian novelist wrote a compelling essay, one which the Expats in the Ugandan blogosphere have almost all felt necessary to formulate a response to. The Ugandans, however, have linked to the essay, and even commented on Expat blogs, but remained quiet on their own pages.
The full essay is online, but I'll quote just a bit here…
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.
When a name like Uzo, a popular novelist, writes something as bold as this, people react. There are 160 links to this essay, according to Technorati, and that's just the people who ping regularly.
The responses are immediate and visceral from people who live in Uganda. While some people just linked to the essay or posted a bit here or there, others wrote longer accounts.
Here's some more of what Josh had to say:
On closer examination, however, we see that this critique holds no water. America's foreign policy history clearly shows that America will do nothing about a humanitarian problem unless its own citizens raise hell. Would as many college kids be involved if Africa wasn't fashionable? Of course not, but I'm still glad they are doing it.
After spending a year in Uganda, this is point I continue to seriously grapple with. In many ways I felt that there were things about Uganda that I would never be able to understand. When I got back to the US, I stumbled upon (the recently departed) Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, who pointed that in a post-modern world, the only real value we can find is choosing to value our own tradition and community, even if we see the irony in the choice itself.
Following Rorty and Uzo, I should learn Lithuanian and start working on EU-Baltic integration because this is where my family came from four generations ago. Of course, culture is never static, and I may be doing much more to honor my own culture by working on African issues than on Baltic issues. Then again, maybe I just go where the weather is better.
But come on! – Iweala's argumentation is threadbare and his arrogance makes him speak on behalf of all Africans. Categorising them all in one go, as well as he does with the whole group of ex-pats trying to save Africa. No doubt that a change of the Western way of saving Africa is necessary. No doubt that a lot of ex-pats, whatever reason they are in Africa for, can be a pain in the ass (I know some). But I also know a few Ugandans who would never put their feet in West Nile and Kampala youth who would never date a ‘Northener’ because of tradition and the history – and the image! The stereotypes and lack of information thrive within Uganda, Africa and among Africans. It is only the Africans who are well off who can afford rejecting support to Africa. They cannot speak for the rest.
Glenna of Uganda Scarlett Lion (okay, full disclosure, that's me) also chimed in:
I wish I could say [national superiority] wasn't affirmed through aid. But until bags of rice don't say USAID on their side, and benefits aren't planned just because a donation is made, it will.
Unsurprisingly, (or perhaps surprisingly?) the Ugandan national blog community chose not to comment much about the essay, though some people did link to it. The 27th Comrade left some harsh comments on people's blogs, but not all of them can be reproduced for various reasons. Here's one, and I'll leave you to some searching…
It is always refreshing to see that we are of a fair number, those of us who are tired of seeing Africa used as a way to clear the conscience.
We don't need the West. Truth be told, we'd be better off if the West didn't exist. (via In an African Minute)
Here's another good comment on the same blog:
Of course the best thing would be if all of those enthusiastic about saving the world would first seek education before spearheading any initiatives. But that just means more interns, which Iweala doesn't sound crazy about, or else maybe it means more people who get the zeal sucked out of them through 4 years of development theory.
Is this a simple digital divide or does it reflect a more insidious divide in the blogosphere among foreigners and nationals? How the debate plays out in the blogosphere, who writes what and where, however, is the newest manifestation of a problem that goes back to missionaries and explores and now exists incarnated in development workers, journalists and experts.
What do you think?