Oh you want to save Africa? That’s cute
There I was, in the queue for the ATM at one of the local markets in Cape Town, when I had one of those conversations; the kind of conversations which validate stereotypes with a giant tick.
“Oh my gosh, this is taking forever.” A young lady stood in front of me in denim shorts, a T-shirt and a top knot. I’m convinced she had an Africa necklace on, but that might have been my imagination. “Are we for real?”
I am partly to blame for what followed. I could have stayed silent. I could have counted the pebbles in-between my summer sandals. I didn’t.
“Hey, where are you from?” (I already knew).
“Southern California, The United States. You?” She stood on her toes to try see the front of the queue.
“I live here, in Cape Town.”
“Oh. So you were, like, born in Africa?”
“That’s awesome. Then you must speak African?”
“Well, technically there are 11 national languages in our country… I’m not sure how many in the continent of Africa. I think you mean Afrikaans?”
It got worse.
She turned to face me, “you know, I always wanted to help Africa. Coming here, it’s made me realise a lot.”
“We went on a Safari for 4 days. Then we went on this program through my school, it’s called Reach A Need. I’m studying Social Work back in the States. So, anyway, we went out into the poverty and played soccer with some kids. I think their parents were, like alcoholics, or something. Anyway, it’s so crazy with all the wars going on here.”
“Wars in Cape Town?” I knew there were gangs, but wars in Cape Town?
"Anyway, I might go to Kenya next I come volunteer. I’m kinda into women’s rights.”
Fact: 1 million Americans volunteer overseas every year. African countries are the most popular destinations for these trips.
Eye roll. How would the giant continent of Africa survive without your 1 week mission trip and your knowledge on social change? I can script these conversations like my ABCs: simplistic view of Africa, volunteer experience and Western hero. For some reason I’m not sure of, the West feels like they need to "save" Africa.
Who branded Africa as barbaric and hopeless? It certainly wasn’t us.
In the documentary Framed (you can find the trailer here), a lecturer in a University asks a group of students what words come to mind when they hear the word Africa: “poverty, rape, AIDs, war, Ebola, and malnutrition,” are the answers.
Wow. Africa is home to over 900 million people. Tragedy is part of our story, but it’s part of a much wider and more complex story. Why is nobody telling stories of vibrancy, community and business?
Skinny Jeans, A bible verse tattoo and Toms shoes.
When I was at Bible College in Sydney, Australia there were three requirements for becoming a youth pastor: Skinny Jeans, bible verse tattoos and Toms shoes.
Toms? Hello, One for one? Every time you buy a pair of Toms, another pair is given to someone in need. It’s fashion compassion. It’s GENIUS. I’ve got to give it to them, even I want to buy TOMS when I see a skinny black child kicking the dust outside their hut in trendy kicks. Those marketing guys at TOMS, seriously, they are selling shoes and the do good high. #value
I'm not saying TOMS is the devil and responsible for slavery, I'm saying think about the impact 1000’s of free TOMs shoes on industry where they are distributed? What if you were a shoemaker in that village?
This business model, and the many stories of well-meaning foreigners, have a simplistic view of poverty and are insensitive to cultural and economic complexities.
If you give a kid shoes, they wear them out or they grow out of them, and then what do they have? Nothing. A better approach is to invest in business, give the parents a job, dignity, skills and the whole family will always have shoes.
It comes back to the issue, “look at what I can do for YOUR problem.”
African’s don’t need handouts
Every year, like the truckloads of TOMS shoes, trillions of dollars is given from Western Countries to Africa (and other areas) in the form of Foreign Aid. And it seems like a noble thing to do, but this aid creates a dependency of Africans on Western Nations. Year after year, despite huge donations, the aid appears to do little to change development trajectories. (Watch this take on poverty: Poverty Inc Trailer)
There are lots of arguments for and against foreign aid. I don’t know all the answers. A main critique is that giving away stuff for free blocks the incentives and opportunities of poor people to make things better for themselves, their neighbours and their own country. (I found a whole argument on this here)
Africa doesn’t need handouts. We need the world to shake off the idea that we are without agency. We need empowerment and we need assistance as an equal.
Bring your church group to Africa
Never make a donation or visit Africa, is that what you are saying? No, No, Not at all. Relax. Humanity carries a greater responsibility to care for each other and help those in need. Compassion is beautiful and we need people who care about world hunger. We need people who care about world peace. We need people who care about gender inequality.
Come and visit us, but don’t bring programs, pity and agendas. Rather, visit us and meet the people. Let an African woman wrap her arms around you and teach you about warmth and tenacity. Come, but don’t post photos of snotty children on your social media to make you look cool, instead, talk to the man who watches your car while you shop. Talk to him for long enough to find out that he’s a refugee, a qualified doctor, makes 50c an hour and sends half of it back to his family in Zimbabwe. Come and learn about local business.
I've found a strange thing happens to those who come to “save Africa”. A strange thing happens when they hear the stories of the people who call this place home. It ends up that it is not them who saves Africa, but Africa who saves them.