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Mistaking Africa: Problem Defined
On a recent trip to South Africa, I experienced some of the misunderstanding that Curtis Keim explains in his book, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. As I was giving a walking tour of Zonkizizwe, South Africa (the township I had been living in for three months working at a children’s center) to a visiting group of Michigan State University students, several girls began to take pictures of children standing by the side of the road. The children were obviously poor, and were watching, bewilderedly, as a group of strange abemulungu (white people) passed. I had to ask them not to do that, because it was disrespectful to the children. They didn’t understand why it was rude, because they were simply capturing how “cute” they were. They didn’t realize that they were treating like these children like animals in the zoo, viewing them as “exotic,” or different enough to capture on film. I though to myself, would these girls have taken pictures of random children in the United States? Why were these children, despite their impoverished condition, any different? This theme of Americans depicting African people as “others” is the primary concern of Keim. Throughout the book he presents several stereotypes and misconceptions ‘we,’ the West tend to have about the African continent and its people. Africa appears in the public eye quite frequently, Keim argues, though it might not show up in the news it “shows up in advertising, movies, amusement parks, cartoons, and many other corners of our society” (Keim 3). Usually, through these interpretations, Africa is seen as distant, exotic, filled with famine, disease, civil war, cannibals, and primitive people, cultures, and languages. Africa is portrayed as backward and needing help from outside countries to deal with the great many ills of society and the economy. African people are often portrayed as ignorant and child like, depending on aid and gifts from these outside countries in order to survive. These images are caused by leftover and current racism, a history of Western exploitation of Africa, and through the self-definition of Western culture and identity. One way in which Americans in general misunderstand the interaction with Africa is through the savior complex of “We Should Help Them,” described more fully in chapter 6 of the text.
Should We Help Them?
After showing his class a video about a village named Wassetake in northern Senegal, Keim was approached by several of his students who wanted to help the people living there. They saw the everyday life of the people living there to be a struggle to survive, while Keim saw strong people dealing learning to handle tough situations in their lives. While he recognized that the students wanted to help purely out of good will, Keim questions the notion of “helping” African countries all together. He asks the reader to keep three questions in mind in this situation: Do they really need our help? What is wrong with life as they live it? What kind of help would be truly useful to them? (83).
For the last 150 years, Keim says, Americans and Europeans have made it a tradition to “help” the continent of Africa. In fact, much of the colonization done by the West was justified by using this excuse. Colonialism was considered the “white man’s burden” to take care of Africa, not exploit it. Missionaries were also sent to African countries to “spread the good news,” while the Cold War attempted to save Africa from communism. The West frequently comes into Africa during time of war to help refugees, or during times of famine. More recently, ‘we’ assist in “developing” African countries by reforming their governments, regulating their economies, and influencing the lives of the people living there in other ways (Keim 83-4). Keim argues that there are five different ways in which this “assistance” to Africa has been administered by the West: authoritarianism, through the market economy, gift giving, conversion, and participation (84). He also critiques each mode of assistance, attempting to analyze its effectiveness in truly helping Africa and its people.
Authoritarianism – the “Top Down” Plan
Authoritarianism, according to Keim, came in the form of the new African leaders that took power when African countries began to achieve their independence in the 1950s and 60s. These new leaders, with their western educations, took power and implemented “top-down” policies that greatly affected their countries. They believed that the poor were unable to make rational, informed decisions about the economy, so they took steps to invest in their countries by borrowing money from other to invest in education, health care, roads, and state run factories (85). By the 1970s, many of these countries were deeply in debt and could not afford to pay back the money they had borrowed. Here enters the second form of “aid” to Africa—loans made to boost market economies.
The Market Economy and Help
In order to stop the economic decline of African countries in the 1980s, two large financial agencies called the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) created new plans to help develop African countries—with a price. Countries would now have to abandon their goals of industrialization and turn instead to the production of raw materials. In order to receive money, countries had to agree to certain structural adjustment plans (SAP) that would “reduce the government’s rode and shift economic growth into private hands” (Keim 87). These programs created significant changes in the way the countries ran. Taxes and tariffs were lowered, education and health care budgets were cut, many government owned businesses had to be sold, currencies were devalued, and urban food subsidies cut (Keim 87). How the SAPs have affected Africa is still under much controversy today. Some SAPs have seemed to produce economic growth and income equity, others have not. Some have proved to disrupt the social and economic aspects of countries by taking away jobs from people, raising inflation to the point where local currencies were destroyed, or education and health care systems completely gutted. Either way, the question becomes: were the goals of the SAPs to help the African people, or to help the West, as the west “reaps the rewards of African raw materials, investments, and interest on bad loans, while Africans struggle to survive” (87).
Conversion—Cultural Relativism Gone Wrong
Another way in which the West has attempted to aid Africa is through the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and rituals (or in the opinion of some, the forcing of these ideas). The main idea behind such exchanges is that African countries are inferior and their goal should be to become more like the West. This can be done through religion, education, and commercial advertising among other mediums (Keim 89). Conversion can be harmful to Africans because often times it influences them to step away from traditional cultures, villages, and countries. The educated people then leave Africa to work in Europe or America as a part of what is known as the “brain drain” (Keim 90). Though Keim believes there is nothing wrong with two different cultures coming in contact with one another, he does believe the interaction between the two should be constructive and that a sort of cultural harmony should be reached. One culture should not take priority over the other, and people should never be made to feel that their culture is inferior. When this happens, people are more likely to become dependent on the culture that claims to dominate.
Gift Giving, or Creating Dependents?
Gift giving can happen in the form of individual donors, or through foreign aid. Critics of such aid point to the fact that it is often given in amounts too large, too little, in ways too useless, or too inefficient. Many aid attempts in the past have failed miserably, creating a wide variety of social problems. It has helped widen the gender gap between men and women in African societies, benefitted urban elites at the expense of the poorer villagers, and has taken away pride, work, and initiative from local people. Keim goes on to say that gift giving, if not properly moderated, can “foster dependence, weaken local initiative, and empower people who do not care about all members of the community. It can advance ideas and tastes that are not good for Africa. It can promote superior-inferior relationships between the West and Africa” (92). Creating such relationships goes against the meaningful ways in which human being and cultures can most constructively learn from one another.
Participatory Help—the “Bottom Up” Plan
Help through participation assumes that no country needs to do something for another country, but that both countries work together to “identify problems and needs, mobilize resources, and assume responsibility themselves to plan, manage, control, and assess the individuals and collective actions they decide upon” (Keim 94). This kind of interaction also assumes that local people are educated, have resources, self-confidence, organization, and self-discipline—not rely on gifts or other people’s skills to get the job done. In these situations, if outside money, knowledge, or equipment is provided, they come in small, appropriate amounts (Keim 94). Such partnership makes it possible to help people of African countries without turning to large lending agencies such as the IMF or the World Bank.
Though military help does not offer help to African countries such as the more direct form of aid previously mentioned, it greatly represents the way in which Americans and other Westerners view Africa. These forms of help have come in the form of military presence in Africa, much of which has been oppressive rather than liberating. Two examples of this are the United State’s military advice and aid during the time of the Cold War, and the newly created AFRICOM military operation—with a headquarters that is to be permanently based somewhere in Africa (Keim 95-6). Military help is often justified by the United States as being a way to promote African security from such ills as “communism,” or the influence of countries like China. When threats like these arise, US military presence in Africa goes up. It is still in question whether or not this kind of help is truly being administered for African security, or to help the United States secure their economic interests African countries.
Rethinking Our Notion of Help
In this chapter Keim makes it quite clear that there are indeed problems on the continent of Africa, and that it is perfectly ok to “want to help them [African people]” develop their countries, but that it must be done in such a way that preserves the humanity of those helping, and those being helped. Throwing large amounts money at the problem isn’t going to fix anything. It can create dependence on aid, and leave room for individuals to make a profit off of resources that were supposed to go to the greater good. Other forms of assistance can often be exploitative, or suggest that certain aspects of different African cultures are inferior. Assistance can be helpful and beneficial to both sides, if done correctly. If we are to help countries develop, we should keep this in mind, along with a few other suggestions from Keim. He reminds us that all cultures, including our own, have room for development. Development does include economic growth and material comfort, but personal wealth should not be a primary goal—equal resources should be guaranteed for all in order to live a happy, healthy life. Development should help empower communities and ordinary people to organize for themselves. This means that the ideas about what is to be done in the community should come from those living there, along with the primary energy and resources.
What must be remembered however, above all things, are that all parties involved are indeed human, and should be treated as such. African people are not so different from Americans, though cultures, customs, languages, and histories may vary. No human being is so low as to require the assistance of someone who thinks they are better than everyone else. The same goes for countries. I think back to my days in Zonkizizwe, watching the children get treated like pets, and sometimes babies because they were “different” or “poor.” I know I could have easily been born into any one of their situations. Because of that, and the simple fact that I have respect for all of humanity, I refrained from any treatment that would have made them seem like the “other” from myself. If more people could think that way, I am confident that more plans to help aid African countries would succeed.
Keim, Curtis. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. Boulder: Westview Press, 2009.