THE poverty and suffering of Africa has recently been making headlines. The reincarnation of 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Bob Geldof and Co, and British finance minister Gordon Brown's tour of Africa, recently highlighted the concern. The poverty pledges and platitudes concerning AIDS and hunger on our continent flowing from Bono, Bill Gates and others at the World Economic Forum at Davos are the response of the well-off to the relentless drumbeat of press reports about famine, misrule, civil war, poverty and disease in too many parts of Africa. Are the powers of the world finally about to devote serious attention to some of the problems Africans are wrestling with? Or is it, as in the past, merely a seasonal phenomenon that will soon dissipate? And what does this heightened attention mean to Africans themselves? I've posed these questions to friends and colleagues and received some interesting answers.
A, who is ambitious and upwardly mobile, cringes with shame each time there's yet another news report about the outrages of the Sudanese regime and its allies in Darfur, their continued use of mass murder, rape and starvation as instruments of political domination. He is angry that the media directs the attention of the world predominantly to Africa's tragedies and rarely to people like him, who, against great odds, are making a success of their lives. It is almost as if in concentrating on the horrors in our part of the world, the press, the politicians and even organizations genuinely committed to Africa are suggesting that people like A do not exist.
True, one can validly complain about the way the media feeds vulture-like on bad news from Africa. But there is too much bad news in Africa and even the upwardly mobile must ask - why is this so? What can be done about it? The killings in Darfur, the carnage in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the devastation of AIDS were not invented by the press or by opportunistic politicians. They are all too real. If there are people thousands of miles away campaigning very hard to redress the suffering of many of our fellow Africans, then it is pathetic that the only emotions this suffering evokes from some more fortunate Africans is shame and anger at the press for drawing attention to it.
M is a talented scholar, a very experienced university teacher, now grey well before his fiftieth birthday. A lot of his life has passed fighting governments with contempt for learning, who slash university budgets. Most of M's students have never even seen the critical journals they require in their areas of study. M feels used up and impotent, and thoroughly betrayed by the rulers of his country. After striving for years to train new generations of youth to feel confident about their African identity, he has himself turned his back on all that. Like the British historian Niall Ferguson and certain neocons around President Bush, he now believes that the granting of independence to African states was a mistake. He thinks that Gordon Brown and his like, instead of flying around Africa to have their photos taken with sick and hungry babies, should seriously consider recolonizing the continent. He doesn't see how anyone could do worse than our governments have done so far.
M's despair is understandable. What has happened to many of our universities and the other institutions that once embodied the hopes for an African renaissance is beyond belief. In such circumstances it is easy to clutch at fantasies. For the idea that more imperialism is the solution to Africa's problems is an absurd fantasy. The current American quagmire in Iraq demonstrates quite clearly what happens when foreign rule is imposed on a people. Africa's own extremely unhappy experience of colonialism, from Belgian King Leopold's bloodthirsty exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century to the savage responses of the colonial powers to the African independence struggles of the second half of the 20th century, recommend strongly against re-colonization.
Amongst those African activists directly engaged in dealing with the problems of our continent, amongst the fighters for participatory democracy, human and peoples' rights and sustainable development, for AIDS awareness and self-sufficient economic activity at the grassroots, one encounters a more balanced response to the external world. There is some pragmatism. Most activists are prepared to listen carefully to every potential source of support. Thus if Bill Gates is genuinely interested in supporting the fight against AIDS he will find many activists prepared to work with him. But there is also a lot of scepticism. There have been too many fine words over too many years. Grand declarations alone will draw little more than a yawn.
But above all, there is a large measure of self-belief. The women and men across Africa who wake up each day courageously to confront brutal regimes or savage diseases do so because they absolutely believe that through such struggles a better future will emerge. They are grateful for whatever help can be offered from outside, but they have no doubt whatsoever that these battles are primarily theirs to fight and win.
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