Some Combative Comments On ‘Those Who Would Steal African Humanity’ Post

I thought that some of the comments made about my last post, Live8 and Those Who Would Steal African Humanity, were provocative and fun. It proved to be quite unpopular with some readers, which is all good but I am anxious to hear what Africa means to you.

It seems to me that Africa is more an idea than a place for Africans and non-Africans alike. It has never really been a place as much as it has been a type of darkness, a nightmare, a project and a cause. Of course there are many in Africa who are poor or starving or are the victims of horrific political violence, but these afflictions only confirm what has been thought of Africa since the period of slavery and colonialism. When King Leopold II of Belgium murdered over 10 million Congolese between 1880 and 1920, effectively halving the population, he claimed to be saving them from their wretchedness and poverty. I mention this not to claim that this is the goal today, but rather to emphasize that Africa as a hell has been an old idea that was used enthusiastically to dominate and exploit its occupants. Now it is an idea being trotted out in the very countries that just a few decades ago ruled it: this time to save us.

See I did not grow up in Africa. I grew up in very specific places: Ngummo Estate, Mombasa, Lenana School, Kibera and Westlands. I became African only at specific moments, most very rhetorical and sentimentalised. The Nairobi I consider my home town is full of poverty, but that is only one aspect of it. In the worst slums are flexible, assertive and innovative people. The demands of life are too urgent for anyone to seat around and wait for Geldof’s consciousness raising. Nairobi, outside of its growing NGO aid junkies, is not waiting for Geldof’s or the West’s attentions. Everyone is trading, making use of every shred of skill and effort that they possess. Trading, dealing, morphing into whatever ethnic, religious, sexual, national being that will confer the most advantage at particular moments. Nairobi, I find despite its crime and poverty, is innately a hopeful place. So many of my relatives have migrated there with nothing but an address and are now working and producing wealth for themselves. They would appear to be poor, and believe themselves to be so, but they are building lives and their hopes rest on their own abilities and not the government or the donors. If anything, the government is their constant roadblock: they encounter it at every turn with its corruptions, red tapes and oppressions.

Anonymous said…
While we wait for the revolution to be televised, what harm is there in getting a few dollars that we would never have seen anyway?

MMK said…
Ah yes, why not indeed get the aid cash and run? Because there is nothing for free. An entire generation of Africans has grown up begging and I think this has killed much greatness and potential. Aid is pennies on the dollar when compared to the money that a people with a sense of ownership over their lives would make. Just look at the flow of remittances by Africans outside the continent and those sending money from the cities to the rural areas for instance, it dwarfs aid flows by several factors.

Anonymous said…
An interesting perspective. Would it be better if the west just left Africa to its own devices? I thought part of the G8 aims is to enable fair trade by lifting the west’s imposed restrictions and opening the markets for African produce.

Not Glossy said…
Insightful commentary, thank you. It would appear though that celebrities have all the answers for us (everyone)… and thus we have no need for thought or even true debate.

Fred said…
MMK, I’ve read some of your stuff and watched your BBC debate today with the other Martin of Save the Children. Yes, you have a point. Of course we have to live with the fact of life, that there is no such thing as free lunch. Yes, it’s about music, exhibitionism and megalomania – but it is also about harnessing non-official Western resources and tapping on what they love best (e.g. music) for a good cause. They might as well do the same for gay rights, gender parity, and climate change so if they choose to do it for Africa, why is it a problem? It may be a simplistic approach, but it is welcome. It should be part of a concerted effort. It would be foolish to consider this as a panacea. Africans should also put pressure locally on their politicians like Biwott and Uhuru to give up part of their ill-gotten and unfairly acquired wealth, including cash stashed abroad in banks and investments not to mentions the thousands of acres owned by the Kenyatta family and generations of white settlers like the Delamares. OFM, Lecturer, CU.

andy said…
This is wonderful writing. It reminds me of the people who I met when I went to Africa in 1989. They were (and are) people of wisdom and immense capability that we in the west should learn from. They were they kind of people who could face and solve problems. At the time they were standing up against apartheid (and for a new future). Now they are leaders in the new South Africa. I just wish I could get on a plane and go spend more time with them. I think I visited your blog once before and didn’t make it back. This time I’ll mark the spot and be sure to return again.

el pupo said…
just a note to say I *love* your blogging.

owukori said…
The West has appropriated everything African for the past 500 years – now as you say even Africa’s problems. Excellent post and look forward to more

Anonymous said…
Am I missing something here? Pennies on the dollar are better than no pennies at all?
Arguably it would be better if Africans took control of their own affairs and created great potential. Newsflash – they have failed to do so for the past 30-40 years! So while we wait for the revolution, we will gladly accept the few pennies that your revolution has failed to supply. Who has chosen to get the fish instead of learning to fish?

Anonymous said…
Africans do not hold the exclusive rights and monopoly suffering and exploitation. It is interesting to see Africans argue for their place in this category given the fact that they have failed spectacularly to address their economic, social and political status in the past 30-40 years.

andy said…
Interesting anonymous comments…
1. The “failure” that you speak of really involves a relatively short period of time, considering that it took the Western world centuries to develop the political economies that you see today.
2. The “failure” dates back to just after the end of the colonial period. Are you thinking, “Look what a great and wonderful boost that colonialism gave to Africa? Why didn’t you make more of it?” Perhaps you don’t understand African history, or you just think African history is a subset of Western history (sort of a poor, handicapped version that is embarrassing the rest)?
3. You say Africans have failed to take control of their own affairs but ignore the point: that the West has never released control to Africans. That’s the point here (the control is tightening further).
4. You speak of spectacular failures, but in fact there are many spectacular successes in Africa. Those should be brought to light, though people who wallow in ignorance seldom learn anything that is uncomfortable or truly new.

dt said…
Great article!
Reading the comments thus far, perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the continent both from within and without is the tendency to lump all the countries together rather than address each country in its individuality. Even when Africans themselves speak, they speak as though they are a whole. You don’t hear such grouping coming from other continents. Singaporeans refer to themselves as Singaporeans not as Asians or South East Asians. Same goes for a British. He/she refers to him/herself as a Brit not as a European, or an indigene of the European continent. Last I checked not ALL African nations are poverty stricken with children dropping dead from the commonest causes. People talk of the ‘African problem’ the solution seekers in turn mouth its corollary the ‘African solution’. Africans themselves commit the same error in judgement; Africa is not one country for crying out loud! Perhaps what we really need is a great lesson on the axiom ‘every man to himself/every country to herself’ Perhaps if each man was left to his demise, he would think up the best means for his survival. With regards to your insightful piece, may I add that no one has stolen Africa’s humanity. It is us who handed it to them on a silver platter by the vice of not understanding the why’s of our very own existence. After all, like the old saying goes, “When you fail to think, someone else will do it for you”

MMK said…
It was a lot of fun going on the BBC and I offered up a much harder position that I usually adopt because I felt that a sceptical African voice was needed on the day. When I arrived at the studio, I met with Wangari Maathai – the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate – who is a wonderful person but who sadly was mouthing the same old begging sounds that every prominent African seems to make automatically.

DT – You could not be more correct. Africa is not a single country. But it is taken to be a blank slate on which anyone can write whatever they wish. The aid mongers, the West and our governments have mostly preferred to treat Africa as a space of unceasing suffering and helplessness. This is what keeps the monies flowing.

Andy – Ah, yes, the historical perspective is crucial. Just reading history, of whatever region, it becomes clear that war and corruption have been the rule rather than the exception and that the development of prosperity and peace has been a lengthy road.

Anonymous said…
Let get real, spheres of control are multifaceted; those spheres were most African governments have the ability to affect the have failed in a spectacular manner. You know the classic comparison case, the one between Ghana and Malaysia; you know the one about them being practically identical in all economic/health indicators in 1958 when they acquired independence from the same British government. The same economic/health indicators are not remotely comparable now 40 years later. One country has made huge economic gains while the other is still wallowing in abject poverty and is considered a success case when compared with its neighbours. I will let you guess which country is which. Maybe while you’re at it you can explain how the English never let go of the reigns of power and that is why Mugabe is busy laying millions of his fellow country men destitute by flattening their homes, the Zimbabwean form of ethic cleansing, perhaps those evil colonialists have been running round the country side in Darfur killing and raping. The Belgians are the ones that run amok in Rwanda and murder close to a million folks. Hey, it was those evil westerners that emptied the state coffers of most countries in Africa in the tune of billions of dollars. Those animals, they just gave Museveni the right to go over the Ugandan constitution and give himself one more term as president. These animals they are relentless, they made Mswati of Swaziland want to spend money on a presidential plane that was more than the countries budget on education. See, you understand that these Africans are innocent hapless children who despite their best efforts can not make any positive decisions, the west has robbed and beaten them into murderous, thieving but well meaning people. Like Children who have no understating of consequences of their actions these Africans can not be held responsible for failing to make any positive change in those little things they could change.

lex said…
Your argument is nothing but a string of eloquent self pity. Whilst it is obvious that Live8 or a decision to abolish debt will not make Africa’s plight disappear, the Western attempt should not go unwelcomed. Yes, there is no such thing as a free meal, but this constant banter about the thievery of ‘African humanity’ clearly reeks of a wounded pride. Whatever the West may have done in the past, its current attempts with Live8 can only be seen as a positive. Allowance for support nurtures the path to recovery – your desperate grip on all the suffering and struggle that has happened only adds to its suffocation. And all for what? To fulfil some arrogant self indulgent fantasy about overcoming the apparent ‘inverse inferiority’?

MMK said…
Lex – Methinks you misunderstand what I am trying to say. If anything, I am railing against the self pity of those in Africa who come to the West cap in hand attempting to parlay African poverty into an opportunity to gain Western charity. Their efforts are mirrored by a self serving aid industry and the appetite to turn the African into a cause and nothing more by a growing stable of rock stars and politicians. I am not about wounded pride, but I also know that pride is an absolute requirement if Africans are to triumph over their problems. I see this pride everytime I am home and I see it compromised and attacked daily by the beggary of our leaders. Surely Lex, you can join me in recognising that at the end of the day Africa’s march to wealth and stability will come from African effort. Live8 and similar efforts are an attempt to get around this fact. What recovery is this that you speak of? Aid has been in the card for decades, always with new strategies for “accountability, transparency and results” but this has never worked. The only wealth that has been built by aid has been among aid workers and local political elites. The poor, if anything have grown in number. So should I be grateful for this latest effort?

Critical Mass Vancouver said…
I think “Make Poverty History” is a pretty arrogant catchphrase. But there is so free lunch, and idealism is not stupid. All energy is of the sun, literally, and it never stops. I don’t think that honour is really such a wonderful thing. I don’t think that we do much useful by speaking of people in anti-democratic situations as a ‘nation’. I don’t know much about Africa except imperial history and genocide history. My part of the world, in Vancouver unceded Coast Salish Territory, the Aboriginal people were very rich because it is very green and rains a lot. I don’t think that Africa is really such a poor place. So much wealth flows from there and many believe it is the cradle of humankind. But it is a truism from the TV that there are starving babies in Africa which everybody already knows about OR nobody can do anything about it anyway. I wish your criticism was less about a media personality of this single unified/disunified entity called Africa whose honour and ownership of the problems have been besmirched. I think it should say that this is another straightforward attack under the deception of aid. It is about disempowering billions of people. Or it should be more positive and say that we should not be so simplistic and not assume the stupid things the Rock Stars say for the cameras, but every bit counts and lets make work what we have. Get specific and get less media spectacle more community. Anyway I just worry that while you are speaking truth to power you are not contradicting the worst part: that nothing can change. They kill optimism by overusing it and invoking it in a way that, beyond the shallowest sense, will evaporate under the weight of reality. You kill optimism by mostly being critical of their naive idealism. Let’s focus more on the Fair/Free Trade issues rather than the charity. Debt cancellation is not Charity but legally required in the case of onerous debt [that debt, which is in many cases the type of debt in Africa, where a dictator or other unaccountable ran up the bill and now the majority are expected to pay for what wasn't their will]. I think it would be great to be more critical of specific western colonial nations and get them to change their policy. Like American Drug companies or European Manufacturers that suck out raw materials and keep the value added activity in Europe. But I know almost nothing about this stuff, solidarity is a good thing but a locals need to lead. I think that the rock stars can perhaps be reformed to see this. There are no limits to their ignorance because of how they are sheltered on a pedestal. But mostly they are just trying to help and if someone with a more thoughtful program asked them they would prefer to help with that. It seems that the Live 8 is somewhat ‘better’ than the 1980s version which was only about aid, not the debt and fair trade. Those are facts that are already known in the television sphere. Why not pin that tail. Is it really such ‘progress’? Or is the assumption still about a kind of charity superiority racism as you contend. Anyway, good to see a thoughtful blog, keep it up!

Z said…
How can you condemn people for trying to create a fairer world? This isn’t about charity, it isn’t about ‘saving Africa’ it’s about extending a hand of friendship, not laying claim to Africans problems but recognising them and saying you’re not alone. People are tired of giving aid, seeing that it makes no permanent change, Live 8 is about changing trade laws to help, instead of hindering African economic growth, not just aid and debt relief. From where I was standing, I thought the point was to tell the world the truth, educating people, showing them just how complicated the whole situation is, am I wrong? There are people who want to give money for their own sense of moral self-righteousness, that’s true. There are also people who just want to help, people who’ve done their share of soul searching, triumphed over their own demons, and in the end just want the people of, not just Africa, but anyone else who’s ever suffered for whatever reason, to know that whatever you think of the rest of the world, some people in it actually give a shit. Stop being so damn cynical and realise that some people just want to help, even if they can’t or don’t know how, when something like this happens they go along with it and they do whatever they can to support it, just because it can be interpreted as ‘an exercise in white, Western megalomania’ doesn’t mean every person in that crowd is there for their own self gratification, like I said, some might just happen to give a crap as well.

Anonymous said…
A quick reminder for our Anglo-Saxon musicians and politicians: HISTORY MAKES POVERTY, union jackasses-

http://www.philosophyfootball.com/view_item.php?pid=262

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

3 Responses to Some Combative Comments On ‘Those Who Would Steal African Humanity’ Post

  1. Anonymous says:

    Without a doutbt this is one of the finest posts i have ever read on socio-political analysis of world affairs

    Get Real: Global Politics 101 & Live Aid

    I think it illustrates well many of the things you’re trying to say

  2. Anonymous says:

    To many in Europe, Africa means whatever the media tells them it does. We are blinded by our own guilt, the thought that there are people in the world dying, while we sit around getting fat is unbearable, so what does the media do? Paint a picture of Africa as a single, helpless entity that must be ‘saved’. And oh goody, we can give our pennies and help them, hence making ourselves feel better. We aren’t all so naive; I have no doubt that countries in Africa would be just fine in time if the west stopped interfering. Truth is, the west would rather try to fix Africa than face its own issues. Debt cancellation and changes in trade laws I can deal with, that’s not so much ‘helping’ as creating a level playing field, endless aid however, it’s not needed or helpful.

  3. To just about everybody in Europe, Africa means what it always did. MMK is right: In the European view, the subject is always European, and the morally inert object is the guy with the darker complexion.

    I guess it’s nice if these Live8 folks want to help, but I don’t believe they really do. What they want to do, is to put on a benefit concert for somebody. If that helps, fine; if not, who cares? Clowns like Geldof don’t spend a lot of time studying history and economics. Life’s too short for that. They might miss a photo op.

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