People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
Perhaps you are familiar with those seminars in Washington D.C. that address challenges typically associated with Africa—HIV/AIDS, inadequate healthcare, famine, poverty, war, dictatorship, poor infrastructure, low agricultural productivity, gender inequity, insecurity—the list is long though quite predictable. You may have noticed, too, that the "expert" orators at these gatherings are fairly consistent and essentially constitute a circle of recycled speakers that speak to an equally consistent bunch of recycled listeners.
It is unnerving enough that everyday conscientious Africans are hardly on hand to discuss issues that essentially affect everyday Africans the most; but worse still is the truth that the celebrities (non-Africans and Africans alike) who are ushered atop some high platform to proffer solutions to the continent’s problems are often individuals who know little about their subject. And they need not have in-depth knowledge since there are usually cohorts on hand to write their speeches for them. But, with or without pertinent knowledge, experience has shown that such big wheels rarely have any sincere concern for the problems they dissect with much pomp; after all, they do not truly endure the burden of these social problems and they tactfully maintain a sacred distance from those who do.
A generalization, you might point out, and I would probably agree with you in a different setting. But where power and money seem to take precedence over everything else, I stand by my assertion. And so, with status —office and designation, rather than substance— being the prime determinant of who has the solution to Africa’s problems, and with the everyday —but by no means inconsequential— Africans, the unsung builder of the continent, being excluded from vital discourse, is it a surprise that the majority of the continent seems to wallow in an unending cycle of penury, confusion, and stagnation? This is in spite of lofty pronouncements about aid to Africa.
Africa is endowed with some of the most industrious, determined, hardworking, and resilient people anywhere in the world. It is a place where an uneducated widow somehow manages to send her six children to a university by selling oranges and roasted corn by the roadside. It is a place where a 13-year old boy mechanic can inject renewed life into a car that would be readily discarded as junk in the Western world. In a place endowed with so much resolve and ingenuity, why is progress so slow and, in some instances, completely absent? Part of the answer requires an examination of the real motives of those self-styled "experts," and "Africanists" on both ends of the U.S.-Africa spectrum.
Rest assured that the Africa fever engendered by Clinton and reinforced by the Bush administration has not lost its fervor under the present administration. If anything, it is likely to gain momentum as there is an even greater call for a more passionate, even frenzied, focus on Africa. And why not? After all, this president’s father was from Kenya. This notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that another wave of aid and philanthropic initiatives on behalf of Africa will not result in the hazy outcomes for which previous initiatives are known. The problem is not with the level of aid, for millions of dollars in the past decade alone have been sunk into all kinds of programs, from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But how have these funds and resources translated into the improvement of the quality of life for most Africans, particularly those who are genuinely in need of assistance?
Until we hear from Africans who represent the "silenced" majority, a lot of facts about aid to Africa and the effectiveness of its distribution and utilization will never be told. Instead, the truth will be repeatedly skewed by self-absorbed "pundits" who wield significant authority. Anyone who has a sincere interest in Africa, and has made efforts to cull information from outside of the usually doctored and sometimes outright deceptive rhetoric of politicians and their influential collaborators, will realize that the average hardworking African has little faith in foreign aid and will swear that most of what Africa receives does not reach its targeted populace or serve its earmarked objectives.
With Africa grabbing much attention and subsequently generating millions of dollars, there is no doubt that many counterfeit "experts" will be all too happy to assume the label "Africanist" as long as this will afford them a strategic position from which they will successfully get their hands on their share of the pie. These "Africanists" are quite easy to identify though they are also well equipped to fool the unsuspecting chump. Their affiliation with Africa has occurred by appointments that come with lavish benefits too difficult to resist. They embark on several well-orchestrated trips to the continent marked by luxurious flights and interactions with top African officials. In an African city plagued by power failure, their special government lodges or five-star hotel rooms will not suffer such blackouts. While many people are starving in the nation, they will be guaranteed their three or more square meals a day. They are chauffeured to their destinations in places where basic transportation may be inaccessible to most of the indigenous people. The bottom line is, like their VIP African hosts, they make no real contact with the people during their short stay in Africa—and it is usually a very short stay—and return to the U.S. without gaining any real knowledge of fundamental issues. Still, they become prominent guests at those theatrical D.C. conferences where they speak eloquently about how to resolve Africa’s array of problems.
We must be wary, therefore, of the conspicuous advocates of Africa whose affiliation with the continent has been forged by high-paying jobs and generous benefits. A lot of these "experts" need to be looked upon with a measure of suspicion, since there is a massive difference between having a sincere interest in Africa and seeking to advance one’s career as well as enjoy the perks emanating from a job.
By contrast, there are some who are genuine and caring friends of the continent, and constantly demonstrate a selfless yearning to work and interact with the people, to learn from the people, and to collaborate on initiatives that stimulate growth from the grassroots. These advocates are not usually byproducts of grandiose political appointments. In school they develop a fascination for the continent and take courses that enhance their understanding of its peoples and their lifestyles. They attend African cultural and artistic events, not as special guests but as interactive observers and participants. Their friendship with Africans is not defined by class, office, or status, but by a real desire to develop intimacy with people for whom they have respect. Their eventual travel to Africa is often a personal arrangement or the result of an educational program that is anything but lavish. Some have taken advantage of programs like the Peace Corps. Others have accepted positions with non-governmental organizations that rely extensively on information and guidance from the local people with whom they work.
Such sincerity has nothing to do with race; after all, some of the greatest books on Africa were written by non-Africans like Basil Davidson and Robert Farris Thompson. Sadly, these genuine experts and passionate exponents of Africa will rarely be invited to share their knowledge at staged D.C. seminars, and neither will they be called upon to serve as delegates in creating strategies for supporting socioeconomic development in Africa.
The trustworthy Africanist and true supporter of Africa (whether African or American) needs to be sought from settings other than politically and economically-defined arenas. They need to be sought outside of initiatives scripted on the pages of business proposals that are veiled as acts of charity. They are to be found in the midst of ordinary Africans who have practically been relegated to a position of insignificance, while it is on their shoulders that the future of the continent rests. These ordinary Africans do not only reside on the African continent, for some of them have found new homes abroad, yet they are still powerfully swayed by the struggles and sufferings that they once endured, and are still closely connected to the friends and family members that they left behind.
We-Africans and our genuine friends—must open our eyes to certain facts. No one, regardless of background, can effectively do anything for Africa if he or she has no real, sincere contact with everyday African people. We must open our eyes and take a decisive stand against mediocre and two-faced sermons given in the "interest" of Africa, even if they are masked in lofty rhetoric, high-flown titles, and glitzy garments. We must carve out a medium through which to disseminate and amplify the voice of a largely silenced but crucial majority. Until this is done, most of us will continue to be delineated as irrelevant while our future will be steadily shaped by international business men and women.
Philip Effiong is a Professor of drama and literature at the University of Maryland University College, and also works as a consultant, writer, and researcher. He has written a novel, Monty, a book on African American drama, and several articles on African American and African literature and culture.