Huganda, reflection after Africa - brnd.ws
‘There is a lot of stuff we don’t know. That does not make it nonexistent, it just makes us ignorant.’ My father used to tell me this, I guess rephrasing Socrates’ motto ‘all I know is that I know nothing’.
After four weeks in Uganda and Tanzania that is how I feel: there is a lot of stuff that I don’t know. That would not be a big concern if I were the only ignorant, but it is a massive problem when most of the Western world knows so little about Africa.
While I was in Mbarara, for two weeks I was flooded with the war on Gaza. For two weeks, CNN, Al Jazeera, and BBC would dedicate most of their airtime to the war. The war ended conveniently on time for Obama’s inauguration. The war’s toll, which is obviously horrible, was 1000+ victims. Meanwhile, 80 people were murdered by LRA in northern Uganda, a few hundreds were being killed by the rebels in Northeast Congo, and drought in Uganda and Sudan was causing an unknown number victims. CNN, Al Jazeera, or BBC were mute about these casualties.
Other than the AIDS calamity, a rebellion here and there, or a large tragedy, Africa is invisible to us, the Western world, the first world. People die and suffer in silence, they do not call reporters, they do not expose their tragedy. And we pretend they do not exist.
Not everyone of course, there is foreign aid, people who throw copious amounts of money to finance aid programs in Africa. There are probably programs for every single aspect of life in Africa: education, healthcare, food, infrastructure, elections. Any excuse is a good excuse for an NGO to exist. Half of the foreign aid money will probably end up in the pocket of a corrupt government official but no one seems to care. Foreign aid reminds me the old Chinese proverb ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Foreign aid in Africa gives the fish but it does not teach how to fish. I still don’t know if this happens because people are ignorant, which though sad is forgivable, or because NGOs have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which is inadmissible.
Subsidy dependence is something that a lot of people talk about in Portugal and I never fully understood until now. If you get everything for free without effort, why would you work? I can also point out similarities between this and spoiled kids. If you are used to get everything easily and if at some point the source dries up, you don’t know how to do things by yourself. And since you are used to get everything effortlessly, you will blame someone else for your problems and expect someone other than you to solve them.
I am not inventing a new theory or discovering new problems, I am just repeating what more than one local told me about the situation in their country (Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, where I spent my time). Foreign aid feeds first a lot of bureaucrats in the Western world, then a lot of corrupt government officials in Africa, thirdly another bunch of aid workers who do not prescind from brand new Land Cruisers, a herd of helpers and other luxuries that most Africans will never have access to, and finally, with the leftovers, they buy people food, books, clothes and medicines. Who decides where and how to invest? The first world. Locals are not involved.
I talked to a lot of ambitious people with plans and dreams. However, most of the time those have two options: they have to do everything on their own because no one else is interested in working, or they flee their homeland and fulfill their dreams somewhere else. The fault? They say NGOs are feeding people, giving what they should farm and grow, and making sure that every basic need is covered. As someone told me in Uganda, ‘if you are used to have food, clothes and shelter by begging, why would you want to work?’
This economy leads to subsistence agriculture, no industry, and very few services, eliminating currency circulation, which means no revenue for the government, which means no money for public spending, which means more help from NGOs. The only currency that NGOs bring to the countries is what they spend in expensive hotels, fancy restaurants and new cars, but that is not enough to reactivate local economies and it just creates more subsidy dependence.
The little boys I spoke to have dreams, huge dreams for their age, but how many of those will survive the apparent curse? As one friend in Uganda told me, ‘If just you people left us alone we would then decide what to do with our country. If we want to make money we will farm our land and sell our crops in the market. If we want to study we will build schools and hire teachers. If we do not want any of this, we will just peel bananas and eat matooke everyday.’
Of course, problems in Africa can hardly be explained by pointing the finger to philanthropy. You have corruption, civil wars, tribalism, colonialism heritage, fight for natural resources, dictatorship, you name it. But it is obvious that foreign aid, as it has been happening until now, is not the solution. So why insist? Why do we keep on trying to make them happy the way we think they will be happy? Why insisting on sending money to feed corrupt ministers?
The most positive aspect I take from my time in Eastern Africa is the optimism of people. Maybe it is a coincidence but I saw more optimistic and less whining people in Uganda, where NGOs presence is not as strong. Or maybe it is just cultural. But in general people are optimistic, ‘things are getting better’. Slowly, because no one is in a hurry and rushing is rude, despite the angry westerners who keep complaining of Africa’s slow pace. ‘Haraka haraka haina baraka’ is a Bantu proverb that means hurrying brings bad luck. And slowly Africa is moving forward, at least according to the optimistic Africans I had the opportunity to talk to.