A couple of weeks ago Alanna Shaikh suggested, in her blog about international development called “Blood and Milk,” that people “need narrative to make sense of their lives” since without “a story, your life is just a series of disconnected events.” A reader named Laura commented that she “would be interested to hear it fleshed out from an aid standpoint.”
Undoubtedly Shaikh, a professional in international development for a decade now while I retain my amateur status after only three years of doing this with Karimu, could do a better job than I can of fleshing out her thoughts about narrative from the aid standpoint. But we wouldn’t get much done if we only did things that other people couldn’t do better. Besides, most of my recent posts have touched on this subject, so here goes.
More than three decades ago Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist and Brown University professor best known for Things Fall Apart, published a famous essay criticizing Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella, Heart of Darkness. In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe personalizes his approach to Conrad, whom he accuses of racism, by reporting an encounter with a New England man surprised to learn that Achebe taught African literature because “he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff.” Achebe goes on to describe a letter he had received from a high school student in Yonkers, New York, who, having just read Things Fall Apart for class,was “happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.”
I don’t know whether I accept Achebe’s harsh verdict that “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization,” since first I would have to find time to return to a work I haven’t read in twenty or thirty years. I do admit, however, that Conrad’s critique of colonialist depravity and cruelty does not exclude the possibility of disparaging Africans. Certainly one can loathe the cruel treatment of people whom one considers backward and uncivilized people; one can pity their savagery and their inability to progress even while despising those who mistreat them.
That is of course one type of story we could tell “from an aid standpoint.” I say “one type” because telling the story of international development gets complicated by puzzles about what kind of relationship should obtain between poor people and development workers from rich countries. The development worker goes to a poor country to lend a hand, which seems innocent enough. Yet this simple metaphor suggests competing stories: does that hand give the final, necessary push over the top, setting the people who received the help on a smooth downhill course on which they can build their own momentum? Or does the development worker’s hand relieve the people who get the help of some of the exercise they need to strengthen their own hands, weakening them and making them dependent on the hands of outsiders?
But the story of international development efforts in Africa, where Karimu works, is further complicated by the “image of Africa” that Achebe sees in Heart of Darkness and that he also found shadowing his teaching of African literature. I say Karimu works “in Africa,” by the way, though we work only in one small corner of Tanzania, because the image of Africa affects our work, rather than the image of Tanzania, of which few Americans have any distinct image, even if they’ve heard the name. For me, the 2009 volunteer whose fears about running into child soldiers Marianne and I had to soothe—an intelligent, educated woman who ended up working hard and having a wonderful time on that summer’s trip to Tanzania—remains emblematic of the hard time that outsiders to Africa have in distinguishing among its fifty-plus nations, as well as of the easy time we have identifying the whole continent with the terrible things happening in certain parts of it and only some of the time.
The image of Africa as not only the world’s poorest place, but also its most backward and savagely violent, makes its people seem especially miserable, desperate, and helpless, a beggar people whom other people, out of the goodness of their hearts, must keep on life-support with whatever scraps we’ve grown tired of and are relieved to find an excuse to get rid of: outdated computers and other bits of technology whose safe disposal nobody has thought about, or out-of-fashion garments that make local clothing merchants superfluous and destroy their livelihoods as well as those of the workers they could employ. The Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda’s rhetorical question—“What man or nation has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?”—makes the point that filling a begging bowl with scraps only maintains beggary.
So we who want international development to succeed must tell the story of people who, despite their real needs, are neither universally miserable, desperate, and helpless, nor unable to do more than raise a begging bowl in hope that some passing stranger will cast a pitying glance. We have to tell the story of a resilient people, few of whom crave escape from Africa, who know how to educate the continent’s children, as the dedicated and intelligent teachers of Ufani Primary School do. We must tell the story of the nineteen nurses and midwives in the Dareda Kati Village area who know how to care for women in childbed, as does Veronika Mosha, the midwife to whom Dr. Susan Hughmanick, gynecologist and Karimu Board Member, saw she could teach nothing.
The better we become at getting across a story that depicts Africans as our determined partners in overcoming some truly arduous challenges, rather than as powerless supplicants whom only we can preserve from absolute despair, the better we will understand what types of projects we should pursue—since one does different things with a partner than one does for a beggar. And the better we understand precisely what kinds of work need doing, the more we will achieve together with the Africans.—Don Stoll