I saw the first white people in my life in 1969. That was in a refugee camp, during the Nigerian civil war. Two Catholic priests and a middle aged lady in a bluish gown. They brought us food, clothes and medicine. It took my little body time to recover from the ravages of hunger and malnutrition, from kwashiorkor. But I made it, thanks to the enormous responses from the peoples of the world.
Fast forward to 2012. I am alive; I teach at an American university. I, too, watched the video, Kony 2012. I’m aware of the many celebrity endorsements of the video and the backlash it has unleashed especially from some African intellectuals and some liberal groups. Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” stands out not only for its highly crafted, nuanced arguments, but also for putting together decades of hurt, oppression and paternalisms from the West on Africa. It is difficult to challenge the core arguments of the essay without appearing to be against Africa. The success of the essay lies in the fact that it is rooted in the time-tested model of African write-back ideology, the ideology that has Africa’s victimhood as its first, inevitable premise. But isn’t Africa a victim? Isn’t Africa easily taken advantage of by those who lack all diligence, by western and African dictators and scavenger NGOs?
Cole’s eternal wisdom, “let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy,” seems unimpeachable. It is another version of “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.” I resist the temptation to infer that Cole suggests that white people should take their hands off of African problems; he is, I think, only asking for due diligence. Which is not to ask too much. Yet the idea that “the White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage,” appears more tricky than its “You hypocrite,” version.
Back again to 1969, to the tragedy of Biafra, the one thing that made Steve Jobs to lose faith in God. I was a seven year old boy then. I was one of those who had been condemned by their fellow Nigerians to starve to death. You could count my ribs from a ten-meter distance. And then the Irish came; those two Catholic priests and a woman. They brought food. They brought medicine. God, they brought love. Just like the Germans did (Caritas) and the English (Oxfam). This is no fiction. This is no ideology. This is life. Raw as it gets. Now, I want to repeat Cole’s injunction: Hey! Begin your activism in Ireland! I can’t say that, can I? Or, rather if I happen to say it now, it is perhaps because I am a middle class man, a university professor, enjoying the comfort of a beautiful condo in Chicago North Side and an office at the Northeastern Illinois University. If I urge Westerners to first challenge their ugly governments before responding to human catastrophe elsewhere it is perhaps only because some ideology might have made me forget the intervention of Europeans who were moved to empathy by the horrid pictures of us Biafran kids. Were they releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage? But this is not to deny that there are many people out there scavenging among African spoils. But abuse never vitiates use.
I know it often sounds naïve to talk about international solidarity. We have all become dubious because we have seen lots of abuses. Yet I’m one of those who cling to the belief that people could still be moved by the pain of others, even those they do not know. When flood hit Pakistan in 2010 some of my students went from office to office collecting money, clothes, and food items for the people of Pakistan. These were Caucasians, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians. My students. Why did they do this? Were they releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage? I didn’t get that impression. I got the impression that they were genuinely smitten by people’s suffering. And that is beautiful.
The Irish gesture of empathy in 1969 which gave rise to “Concern Africa” didn’t mean that some African countries haven’t been doing much work on the ground to save starving Biafran kids. In fact the government of Gabon airlifted thousands of children to Gabon. The same could be said of Kony 2012. We know that people have been working in Uganda to liberate these abducted children, to rehabilitate the ones freed. And for such works Jolly Okot (herself a victim) was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. So, what is the fuss about Kony 2012? That it is flashy?
Shouldn’t we see it as just one of the many attempts to stop the gross acts of inhumanity playing itself out in Uganda and neighboring countries? It is an attempt that might not be as effective as the ones on the ground, but gosh, it is a response, and it has drawn global attention to a local problem. As the New York Times reports, the African Union has gotten involved in the hunt for Joseph Kony. Finally!
The emergence of Nigeria’s capitalist class, the new clubs of millionaires and billionaires, some of whom didn’t have up to one thousand dollars in their bank accounts five years ago, has taught me one more thing: the 1% everywhere, have one thing in common: self-enrichment (mostly) at the cost of the rest 99%. Progressives (should I say do-gooders?) everywhere should, I think, always start their solidarity by adopting the perspective of the one in pain: the kids abducted by Joseph Kony, the Biafran kids whose lives hung on a thread. They are the real victims. If all our theories are not aimed at saving these people in need, we might as well be making ideological noise.
I read “The White Savior Industrial Complex” and I hear “The African Victimhood Complex.” Whoever chooses to discuss Africa’s victimhood should do well to begin from the real victims of global greed and callousness, from the perspectives of the abducted children, of the victims of war, years of dictatorships; these real victims are eager to accept relief from any person, from anywhere. Kony 2012 provides an opportunity for Western and African human rights activists to work together to help real African victims.
But I understand the catch 22 situation African intellectuals have been forced into whenever it comes to altruistic gestures from the West. It wouldn’t be wise to take in everything that comes from the West. But it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss everything either, or to get stuck in the write-back ideology of the past four decades. Doing so, and making it our modus operandi, reduces us to the status of “fire brigade” intellectuals. We easily serve up the powers of our intellect just to quell the fire of Western assault, but quietly go back to our cells, even while greater fires eat up our homes.