So many things I don’t know about Africa

My parents did not ascribe to the clear-your-plate mentality. They encouraged us to take only as much as we could eat, to err on the low side, and to go back for as many “seconds” as we needed. Their emphasis was on not wasting food because food was valuable. So whenever I ventured outside of our home for meals it was always a bit jarring to hear many an adults seemingly favorite phrase: “clear your plate, there are children starving in Africa.” Around this same time I also remember the commercials which implored us to send even $1 — or in the satirical words of Bo Burnam:

For 15 cents a day you can feed an African; they eat pennies.

Through this rhetoric of charity and poverty my young brain started to form a picture. A picture of Africa only as a large continent, that was probably also a desert, with a lot of hungry people, and that it was where slaves had come from. I “knew” also that there was a lot of fighting, a lack of clothing, and exploitation/conspiracy in the diamond mines. Not nearly a true representation of a complex continent.

For many reasons this lack of knowledge bothers me. I do take personal responsibility for much of it, but there is a lot to be said for how the media and education systems portray Africa that deserves thinking about as well. In fact, there is a phenomenal talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called The danger of a single story which addresses this problem of representation.

After seeing Adichie’s talk I became intent on filling in the gap in my brain where knowledge of Africa should have been. By reading her books I started to glean a little more understanding of the larger challenges of race in America and the experience of living in Nigeria. And when I came across Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo I picked it up right away. Instead of paraphrasing I want to share just one story:

Moyo goes on to discus alternatives to direct aid and points out how differently things could have gone if instead of bringing in outside nets the well meaning celebrity had purchased from the manufacturers in the country and distributed the nets in the country for free. These subtle shifts can support and develop the local economy instead of snuffing it out.

What I really like about this whole train of thought is that I had originally set out to learn something about Africa, and I have, but in the course of doing so I came away with many other benefits. A much needed perspective on race in America and new appreciation for micro-macro systems dynamics to name two. There is a lesson here, or at least something that has held true for me over the past year: when I seek out diverse topics, areas that represent those gaps in my brain, I always learn way more than I bargained for.