August 30, 2010

For Africa, Sometimes a Little Less Is More

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With all the cries for aid that we see on television and in newspapers, it would seem that Africa is beyond rescue, that our efforts to help it have yielded little or no progress. And with the current media continuously portraying this continent as the interminably sick man of the world, we cannot help but think that the situation there is hopeless. The images of war-torn countries and famine-stricken villages encourage us to give up on this continent rather than inspire us to help. After all, it is difficult to turn on our televisions or open the newspaper without seeing another commercial urging us to sponsor a starving African child or an article reporting a mass genocide. And they are right: Africa is in need of help — great and urgent help. The first sights of Kenya can only invoke reactions of shock and disappointment: Shock from its backward conditions relative to the developed world and disappointment from, despite the billions of dollars of aid poured in from the IMF, mission trips, volunteers and NGOs, Africa is still decades, if not generations, behind. Indeed, it is still a world where electricity is a luxury and running water is privilege, where a working sewage system is still in the far distance and paved roads only exist in blueprint.Yet these reports are cynically one dimensional, failing to report the other side of Africa where children attend schools on a regular basis, where AIDS drugs are distributed free of charge to almost all who need them — extending patients’ lifespans sometimes by two decades — and where democracy is taking hold and violence has become obsolete. The absence of these accounts, unfortunately, has led to an unfair perception of the continent. I met with Moses Ndungu, the director of the Children’s Garden Home, an orphanage located in the slums near the outskirts of Nairobi. It is a home to 140 children and sponsors 300 more in the surrounding area. Daddy Moses, as the kids call him, has transformed what was once a decrepit one-bedroom daycare in 2001 into a 1.5 acre community with its own elementary, middle and high schools, farm and dormitories. If not for its lack of money, which it receives mostly from European donors, this small village would be entirely self-sustaining. It is truly a rare sight in the outskirts of Nairobi. But what gives me most hope about this continent is the younger generation. I asked several of the children as they crowded around us mzungu — or foreigners in Swahili — what they want to be when they grow up and their responses were comforting. Many of them told me they want to be teachers; others want to be nurses and doctors; about a dozen or so, mostly boys, want to become airplane pilots. But whatever their aspirations are, all of them want to attend college. In this little community started by one man, Daddy Moses has managed to expand into a youth haven for the parentless and the poorest of the poor with the help of his staff. So what can we learn from Daddy Moses and his initiative? First, it is time to recognize that foreign aid has helped tremendously despite the dismal accounts in the media. If not for the volunteers and the generosity of humanitarian groups, Africa may be even further behind than it is now. But simultaneously we must also recognize that our help can only do so much — that the key to Africa’s success can only be found from within its own people and culture. The truth is that we only know where Africa is headed — though even that is uncertain at times — but we do not know how it is going to get there. While we mzungu can offer economic aid and a lending hand, the path that Africa takes in order to catch up to the rest of the world must be carved slowly and diligently by itself. Richard Dowden, who is the current director of the Royal African Society and has lived in Africa almost continuously since 1971, puts it best in his book, Africa, when he writes that despite his decades of experience on the continent, he would give it all up to be in the mind of an African for single day. It is difficult, even sometimes impossible, to know what is required for a small village — let alone an entire continent — to develop when looking in from the outside. So let us take a step back and let Africa be Africa. Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang