If you want to help Africa, challenge your assumptions
Issac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” If it is not your desire to live in darkness then please scrub away.
It is simple really. Assumptions are constant. The world is not. Most of my assumptions of Africa are falling apart while I stay in Kenya. I feel safe, very safe in fact. There are hardly any beggars. I have hot showers (almost) every day. The internet is arguably better here than in the UK – I have had 3G everywhere. Mobile phones are not just common; they are everywhere. The list goes on. Perhaps my reaction is not surprising when it sometimes seems the only image that comes out of Africa is a negative one. A continent of war, poverty, crime and general hopelessness. One full of victims just “waiting to be saved”. Certainly not a continent that contains most of the fastest growing economies in the world. A lot has changed in Africa and that may be hard for some in the West to understand.
After all, some seem to think we can save Africa with a song. People dying of famine in Ethiopia 30 years ago, however, is not the same as people afflicted with Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia today. Much as re-releasing World Trade Center to cinemas around the world is not the correct response to the recent terrorist attacks in France. The 15 West African countries not suffering from Ebola probably disagreed with the line “There is no peace and joy in West Africa this Christmas”. The Band Aid 30 single might have made a few million dollars, but Africa loses at least one trillion US dollars every year to dodgy western phantom firms. If the West really wanted to help, we would just let Africa keep their wealth.
So much has been achieved in the last few decades. The number of people living in extreme poverty (those living on less than the equivalent of $1.25 in America, for 2005 prices) has been cut by half in 20 years and could be virtually eliminated by 2030. In fact, it should be! Less people are dying needless deaths, from diseases as easily treatable as diarrhea. Life expectancy outside of war-torn areas is on the rise. Technology is starting to solve problems like water supplies – see the Gates Foundations poop water. In Kenya – where previously most people have poor access to formal banking – M-PESA has ensured that as long as you have a phone you can deposit, withdraw and transfer money to anyone who has a passport or a national ID card. Very little bureaucracy. Very little interference. Available to all.
One of the main problems seems to be the need to simplify everything. Not everyone in Africa is poor. Far from it. The world is not divided into ‘obese Americans’ and ‘famished Africans’. There are many famished Americans and many fat Africans. The truth is the world is incredibly complex.
Of my incorrect assumptions, one of the most surprising to me is that Kenyans seem not to view Britain with any real disdain. A head of a local SACCO (a savings and credit cooperative) even called me a “brother” of all Kenyans. Despite the many heinous crimes that my ancestors committed on his, and how the West continually views Africa as a whole. As a problem. To be fixed by the West. If we can be bothered. If we can spare the money.
Much of the media discourse surrounding Kenya in the UK is one of sympathy. After all, I suppose a part of me expected to see “the poor African child crying in the street” visual. Instead, I regularly see children playing and laughing in the street, and there are a staggering number of schools around. The small number of children in Kenya I have met seem genuinely excited to learn, far more than I was at their age. Kenya is not a ‘broken society’. Granted, it has a number of obstacles to clear over the next few decades, for example, about a third of Kenyans live in extreme poverty. Nevertheless, what is very clear is that the country, and likewise the continent, is more than capable of challenging these problems.
I expected to feel obliged to leave big tips everywhere I went. After all what little money I have in the UK can buy a hell of a lot more in Kenya. However, these are working businesses in the real world. They make real money. The have real customers, who themselves earn real money. Randomly giving out money arguably has more psychological good for the white western giver than it does for the receiving business. Giving out food means the restaurant industry will suffer. Giving out clothes means the clothing industry will suffer. It does little but encouraging dependence. Far better would be to help those in need to find employment, and hence the empowerment that comes from it. As a Matatu (minibus) driver recently told me, “I like my job because it helps me survive”.
In my short time in Kenya so far, the same topics come up repeatedly, travel, unemployment, corruption and energy. Sure, if you ask people prompting questions like, “is tackling poverty and healthcare important to you?” you will likely get the answer you both expected and desired. Although what have you achieved? If you lived in poverty, would it really matter if a few Westerners came along and helped you reach a different stage of poverty? How about daring to dream?
Kenya is certainly not a third world country. There is far too much joy, passion and dedication here to accept that I am two grades higher a human being. Indeed, does any such country exist? In Africa or not.
We assume we have nothing to learn from Africa. However, when you look beyond the media portrayal, there is. About a third have higher female representation in their parliament than the UK. More than 20 people from Africa have been awarded a Nobel prize. I dare say Africa could teach us how to live life. Kenya certainly could. Much of the developed world from New York to London is incredibly serious. I cannot remember a place where people smile so freely.
It is incredibly important to avoid sweeping generalisations of Africa. Yet there is one assumption you can definitely take away with you. Africa – and in particular Kenya – does not and never will need your pity. It more than deserves your respect.
Written by Oliver Templeman, Balloon Fellow 2015