“Africa is to be pitied, worshipped, or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your help… Africa is doomed.” – Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa.
The so-called “plight” of Africa still rings strongly for many in the developed world. The image of Africa put down by colonial-minded Europeans and Americans of the past still manages to affect our whole view of the continent. With the help of the media, Africa manages to hold the collective imagination of those more altruistic-minded then others. Many donate to charities, others volunteer either at home or “in Africa.” It doesn’t matter what country they go to, each one is desperately in need of their help. Missionary work is a big pull, as are charities or NGOs for those less religiously inclined. They go over for a few days, maybe a bit more or less, and head back home filled to the brim with stories and good vibes. No more serious thought is devoted, and herein lies the problem. Many never give another thought to what the long-term affects of their visit were.
For example, let’s use cows. Many charities revolve around raising enough money to buy one “needy” family a cow. This is a quite popular image: the poor African family raised to prosperity by the gift of a cow, all thanks to YOUR contribution! Doesn’t that just make you feel so good? So when the cow is finally given, no more thought is really given to the family. Talking to an American expat in Nyamata, she gives a cynical, but seemly accurate portrait of this practice. It’s nice and good, she says, but no one really bothers to check on that family in five years, to see the results. A cow is a big creature, and expensive to keep. Giving, say, a goat to a family would be much more helpful, due to their relatively small size, their cheapness to buy and feed, and thus the easier ability to keep alive. Goats, however, are not as glamorous as a cow. While I am not against donating to projects like this generally, be smart about your donation. Research the place you are donating to, and think about the long-term effects of what things you donate to. Naivety is not an excuse, especially if you classify it under “Good Intentions.”