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Uganda Responds – and Doesn't – To “Stop Trying To Save Africa”

“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.

He continued:

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.

Pernille of I‘ve Left Copenhagen for Uganda had an especially angry reaction in her post titled, “Ha ha, I do look like as if I am trying to save Africa, don't I?!”:

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?

6 comments

  • Just wanted to point out that Rorty would NEVER say that your choice of a community and tradition to value was constrained by your ethnic heritage. He reveled in the idea that identity was infinitely revisable.

  • We should never stop trying to improve our world, and, since Africa is a vital part of our world, we should never stop aiming to make life better there.
    Who is offended by people who care?

    Angeline Bandon-Bibum
    http://sojournersdreamanovel.blogspot.com/

  • People are offended by people who “care.” The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I think it’s hard when Westerners come to Africa, idealistic and thinking they care and can make a difference, and they make mistakes, or even worse, end up making things worse than they were when they started. Of course, that doesn’t apply to everyone – but I think it’s more common than some of us would like to think.

  • Nathan Falck

    There are a lot of great arguments that Uzo could have made, but I was disappointed to see that he didn’t make them. Instead he relied on these ad-hominem attacks on blond, blue-eyed US co-eds. The truth is that most aid is disastrous, and that, not too far from what Comrade 27 says, I think Uganda would do a lot better (in the long run) if all the Westerners here packed up and went home. Not that all Westerners here have a negative impact–the ones doing business, especially, I think are beneficial. Most Western aid is a palliative, though, intended to ease our discomfort at the inequality of the world. Glossy celebrity causes and overly-simplistic “save Africa!” campaigns serve this purpose, and for this reason, they offend me: they do little good (and sometimes quite a bit of harm) while fooling us into thinking we’re being good Samaritans. That’s what allows us to go to the club after school or work without being bothered by those nagging truths: wouldn’t my money be better spent on something worthwhile? And those thoughts, it must be said, are a real downer.

  • Jared

    The article, I think has been misquoted and misread in a number of whats. Consider this quote from the article which has been ignored by many readers:

    “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.”

    For the record, he does not ever say that anyone should stop caring or stop trying to improve the world. He is merely questioning HOW we should try to help. If one understands the history behind the African situation, it becomes quite clear that the West has been instrumental in destroying many aspects of African society THROUGH humanitarianism (for example religious missions that helped co-opt converted Africans).

    The “nonprofit industrial complex” has truly become problematic for Africa. And anyone who does not understand it, is ignoring the linkages between so-called charities and the organizations and governments who continue to hold Africa back (through neocolonialism). The recent move by CARE to renounce US Food Aid is a case in point: they took a bold move in the right direction. But most large NGOs still continue their Food Aid distribution with considerable negative effects on local African farmers, traders and traditional communities.

    Of course we should try to help anyone in the word in need. But ‘doing good’ is not an easy thing. At every step of the way, one should scrutinize and challenge how we try to do good. We should always ask: Are we addressing the symptoms or trying to get to the root cause of the issue? What kind of dependency are we creating? Are we helping give an unjust society a human face rather than seeking to change it? What are the ulterior motives behind aid? How is aid imposing values? How is aid preventing recipients from thinking for themselves? So thank you Uzo for complicating the issue.

    *”If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…for fear that I should get some of his good done to me” (Thoreau)

  • […] the full thing on the Global Voices webpage here, but here’s a little little bit… “Maybe I just go where the weather is better,” […]

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