I’m not the only one

An article in the Washington Post about this whole “We shall save Africa” hysteria.


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. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

very much worth reading

and from Sokari, more illustration of well meaning but insulting and paternalistic activism.


This campaign is „blackfacing“ white children with mud to pose as “uneducated africans“.

The headline translates “This Ad-campaign developped pro bono by the agency Jung von Matt/Alster shows four german kids who appeal for solidarity with their contemporaries in Afrika”

The first kid says:

“I’m waiting for my last day in school, the children in africa still for their first one.”

second kid:

“in africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school”

third kid:

“in africa, kids don’t come to school late, but not at all” (!)

fourth kid:

“some teachers suck. no teachers sucks even more.”


8 Comments on “I’m not the only one”

  1. Nasra says:

    This really make sense to me as Im an african born in Africa but lived outside africa…I have been to Pemba where Im born but last year I went to mainland. We have been working on charity project that we ourselves thought its high time to help each other Tanzanian help other Tanzanian but it has picked up till now, I did aproach orgniazation in Tanzania but did not get response

    I share with you the thought but I think its not the role of goverment to reachout for the people and help also private association or establsihments can do the same …I hope we african can help eachother …

  2. Nasra says:

    I went through the article it had touched me deeply ..thank you for allowing us to read all about it

  3. Nell says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for some time, since I think you make a critically important point. And how does one counter or change this behavior and move forward? It is very difficult to talk about without throwing around generalizations and stereotypes that are more distracting than informative, well intentioned or otherwise. Well meaning ignorance usually compounds the problem. And when our friends are well meaning but obliviously insulting, how do we talk to them?

    It is difficult and dangerous to talk about because there is so much more chance of giving offense than of adding to understanding. Differences like age, gender, race and culture, make it even more dangerous. I suspect you struck a chord with a lot of people with this post. The polycultural nature of your audience makes commenting here risky, due to reduced chances of shared perceptions. Having jumped into deep waters plenty of times in my life, I’ll try jumping in here. I can be just as obliviously condescending as the next person. At home I have a personal antidote, my husband skewers my pretentions and makes me laugh. He is gifted in that style of ruthlessly funny ad hoc humor that seems to figure in Akan discourse. Pretensions rarely have a chance in the face of it. (But pretensions can sneak back if they think no one is looking, and mine are no exception.)

    There is some interesting new research on altruism and the brain from NIH showing, among other things: the “joy of giving” has an anatomical basis in the brain – surprisingly, one that is shared with selfish longings and rewards.
    I don’t find it surprising both feelings occupy the same brain space, it is sometimes very hard to tell them apart.

    And not exactly addressing your post, but I think highly relevant to it, is this article by Mahmood Mamdani in the London Review of Books: The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency. (There is also a cached copy if the link doesn’t work.) This does not touch on celebrity condescension, but it does talk about American attitudes toward Darfur and Iraq, the reasons behind the words used to describe them, and the wider implications of that language.

    Aside from gratuitous insults, what worries me is the macro aspect of the celebrity condescension and “humanitarian” ad campaigns. By painting Africans as people unable to help themselves, the celebrity humanitarian narrative, and the media attention it gets, make it much easier for nations, these days especially the US, to engage in imperial acquisition in the name of humanitarian aid and development.

    Although some think this is old history, it looks like a new and potentially lethal round is beginning. That is the essence of the new US Africa Command, and BushCo are pushing ahead hard with it (AFRICOM – just another aid agency, with really big guns.) The techniques planned include heavy use of the US Navy (good old gunboat diplomacy) and employing African military, or mercenaries/private contractors, on the ground (see World Defense Review, or Theresa Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, remarks to contractors in this Guardian article.)

    As well as harmful to Africa, this is corrosive and corrupting to what is left of democratic institutions in the US (even when we didn’t practice democracy, it WAS our goal, until recently.) As one writer put it, the US is rattling its empty oil can at Africa. The Heritage Foundation is responsible for the “thinking” behind the Africa Command, which involves controlling African oil, and using African land as biofuel plantations for the US market, documented here, from the Heritage Foundation: U. S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution, and Africa’s Oil and Gas Sector: Implications for U.S. Policy. I doubt most celebrity humanitarians think they are supporting or enabling this militarized acquisition, if they even know about it. Nevertheless, their narrative allows us in the US, and other rich countries, to pat ourselves on the back for being so helpful and generous, while we make out like bandits, with the traditional techniques of banditry. So far there has been some significant and effective push back from Africans, witness Dr. Okumu’s testimony before the US House of Representatives as just one instance. He provides a good summary.

  4. kwasi says:

    That’s a pretty comprehensive post Nell, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.

    The problem with misguided well-meaning people is the fact that they genuinely feel like they are doing the right thing. Its hard having to be the one to make them take a look at their underlying assumptions and realize that they aren’t being quite as helpful as they would like to believe they are. Sadly, as the second part of your comments show, their misguided assumptions can be dangerous. I’m not sure if there’s a good answer for this, I just like to make them keep in mind that the people they deem to speak for have voices of their own, and maybe they should be listening to those voices and helping them be heard rather than assuming they have nothing of importance to say.

    As for AFRICOM, Ghana has found more oil and we’re apparently one of the potential sites for a US military base. This scares the hell out of me honestly. We have a chance at a better country than we’ve had at any point in its history but we could end up staying in the position of poor supplier of the world’s raw materials unless we make some good choices about this stuff.

    I don’t know if that helped at all. If it didn’t, let me know.
    Thanks for the questions

  5. Nell says:

    Kwasi, It was gracious of you to respond. I worried I might have caused annoyance with such a lengthy comment, especially considering that there may not be any good answers to the questions I asked. It was all things I have been thinking about over some time , and your comments caused me to review and ponder a bit more.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. I admire both the way you think and the way you write. It is a rare treat to come across someone who can do both. I also enjoyed your piece of speculative fiction, and recommended it to a few other people.

    I too am very worried about the Ghana oil discovery and about the Africa Command. I know Ghana is seen as a desirable HQ. I am pleased and encouraged that nothing has been announced on that so far. I was most heartened back in June, when the US made a big push, and got close to no African support. The push back from both South Africa and North Africa has been strong. And I think that has made it more difficult in West Africa and East Africa, where there are a few leaders who might be inclined to host Africom, or who may be susceptible to flattery or incentives. The African press that I have read has been overwhelmingly against Africom. That said, the US Navy seems to be the lead for Africom in West Africa, and may not need a land based HQ.

    My husband and I hope to retire in Ghana, or at least spend most of our time there eventually. He is happiest when he is in Ghana. I love Ghana too and am happy when he is happy. So we have a personal stake in how things develop. The kind of gated communities, and disparities between rich and poor that exist in many oil producing countries are anathema to both of us. We like to be friends with our neighbors. Plus, we have been developing some small farms and business, and want them to continue and prosper. We don’t want to see local agriculture and business wiped out by oil money. Even with the great dangers looming, I still think Ghana has a good chance to grow and prosper. It is more cohesive as a country than many, and has some good working institutions in place. Ghana may also benefit from the recent transparency initiatives relative to oil money. And I’m hoping a change in government here in the US will make us veer back to our constitutional principles, and become less malign, though the oil greed is unlikely to change.

    My husband and I watched the militarization of US foreign policy during the 80s, and the proxy wars of the cold war. We used to joke with each other about applying to Reagan and Bush1 for military assistance to help us settle our little domestic arguments with each other. It would have made about as much sense as the military assistance the US did provide. It is disturbing to see this starting up again. Once the Africa Command was announced, and I did a bit of reading on it, I decided I would follow it and write about what I read and observe. Some of what I write is my own, some is quoting other people, and some the result of discussions, joint opinions and observations with my husband. I don’t care one way or the other about anonymity, but he highly values his privacy.

    There is not a lot one can do about people’s behavior. I have watched this and thought about it for many decades. And I have put my own foot wrong many times. The golden rule is the only suggestion I can make to anyone, but people rarely think about it much. Even applying the golden rule, one can still goof badly due to ignorance. As much as possible it is important to summon the social courage and skill to make some counter statement when there are truly egregious offenses. And the reason is not to change the offender, but to alter the perceptions of anyone in earshot, or so anyone who may read the offending comments will have counter comments to read as well. Bystanders and observers are much less likely to accept the offending statements as truth or the norm if they hear a counter argument. I think that is one of the things you accomplished with your original post. And, as you say, you are not the only one. Even without the mass media podium and audience, each voice that articulates some truth, and counters the condescension in a public way, helps to change public perception.

    Since I truly enjoy your writing, chances are you’ll be seeing me back in the comments from time to time.

    Wishing you much success in your coming studies, and in all else!

  6. Harrison says:

    Unfortunately with everything we get to see in the west all I see is the African equivalents of Vikings. It must be really great to have cameras and say oh those Africans can’t govern themselves. Look at me I am going to adopt this child because Africa is so in need. Oh yes and my favorite, we poured tons of money into and the African problem but still it ain’t fixed, because Africa is unfixable.

    Yes it great to see all that excellent propaganda. Maybe we should all do ads including European history compared to modern day life. Like church ruining you life hey don’t worry just steal some land from other people. Hey, can’t do the work by yourself, slavery that is the answer for you my friend. Don’t like this group of people, extermination problem solved. Yes, it is great to have one’s history hidden in one hand and then examplified by the other, thank those great foward thinking people in Hollywood. Not to mention those excellent history text books filled with so much useful facts.

    Meanwhile, back in hollywood few if any lead Asian actors get the woman. Typecast of course not. Black women always have to angry and cheated on, because you know there aren’t any honest black couples. Arabs either terrorist or cab drivers. I see it all now we are enlighten.

    Thing is I use to work for an advertising company and you know how people are always saying racism is dead well not with the people I use to work for. You just wouldn’t believe the request that people ask for in their magazines.

    Meanwhile I’ll re-watch my copy of Alexander and think how those Persians, and Indians must have asked to be conquered. Or maybe I’ll just get my copy of the 300.

    Now I am not saying that history has proven a certain about of giving Native American promises then breaking it. Taking land from Mexico, going to war with Canada. Promising freedom to slaves but backing out at the last minute. Nor do I say that Jefferson seem to love him some black woman, or that the racial mix of african american seems highly littered with european genes. Nor do I talk about seperating people into sub species, that wouldn’t be me saying anything. After all we are all enlightened now, as when we all jumped in to save Rowanda, wait maybe that was Kosovo. No maybe it is helping the world stay safe from Weapons of Mass Destruction with shock and awe. Wait maybe that was in our glorious past. Hum, torture and abuse of prisoners, couldn’t possibly happen in the good old west.

    Gee it must be good to propagate. I wish I had the skill for it but at last I don’t. I’ll keep working on it.

  7. jls chris says:

    thoughtful posts. I did a post on this same topic too! I am african and i have the same thoughts that you have. It is just so hard these days to convince foreigners that we don’t sleep with dogs and lions. The western media even worsens the situation,just like Akon said in ‘mama africa’ You won’t see it on your tv. Anyway, pls check my post and tell me what you think of it.
    keep up the good work.

  8. kwasi says:

    Thanks Chris, I’ll take a look

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