I write from my subject location as a Ghanaian traditional chief and Elder, community worker, and researcher teaching in a Canadian university on issues of African Indigenous philosophies, international development, decolonization and anti-colonial thought. Like everyone else I am concerned about Ebola which is making rounds on the daily news circuit. The threat of Ebola must be addressed. So, why would someone question Western assistance in fighting the scourge of Ebola in West Africa? After all, Ebola is deadly and the entire global community is at risk. Judging by what we are told, everyone in West Africa can easily get Ebola. We are a high risk zone. So the world is panicking. After all, didn’t some major airlines cancel flights to selected West African countries? Even in Africa there has been a troubling discussion about cancelling the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament slated for Morocco in 2015 because of Ebola. Interestingly, a commercial plane lands in the US and a passenger on board shows symptoms of Ebola and the entire plane is quarantined. We need to check and be sure. But then Ghana has no reported cases of Ebola and yet we know there have been discussions about some Western tourists cancelling trips to the country. Curiously, we have reports of Ebola in New York. At least one medical personnel who served in the West African region had contacted the disease. In case we missed it, no one is talking about boycotting New York, and nor are commercial airlines cancelling flights to the city. Such is our world, our global village today – perhaps not so global after all. Hypocrisy is everywhere and unsurprisingly we have also learned to be cynical. Out of a genuine sense of ‘helping’ or ‘saving’ Africa, the West troops to the continent to carry out their humanitarian accord. The West assigns itself a sense of global humanitarianism, seeped in the mindset of what it means to be a universal, altruistic human. We risk abandonment for even raising voices of critique or dissent. As Weheliye (2014) notes in another context, those who take up the questioning of the Western universal ‘human’ from a situated position are often dismissed as anti-intellectual and/or are marginalized as speaking to localized, specific situations and, therefore, not sufficiently ‘theoretical’ or transposable (McDermott, 2014).
We are continually bombarded with the knowledge that responding to Ebola as a menace is an act of humanity and, therefore, rather than castigate those who offer support for Africa we must be thankful. I do not want to sound like a heartless intellectual. I congratulate and appreciate all who work hard to rid our communities of the scourge of Ebola. But, I want us to complicate matters a bit to challenge or even to upend our commonsense understandings of ‘humanitarian’ aid as something which is always good and without blemish or concerns. When Western aid agencies do good in Africa it is not without some problematics. Usually, the understanding that shapes such interventions is about a hapless continent at the mercy of an epidemic on one hand, and the savior West on the other: indeed this narrative has been with us since the earliest colonial invasions. The conventional narratives are about Africa and Africans as victims, hapless souls who require the blessings of the imperial savior to survive. In other words, Africa deserves to be rescued from its predicament. In the current climate, the debate is shaped by how we contain Ebola in Africa rather than how we eradicate it globally. It is more about the immediate quarantine of human bodies and not the extinction of the disease.
The point I want to put on the table for discussion is that the West does not have all the answers nor solutions. The way we frame or make our interventions can constitute a big part of the problem. Perhaps reframing some questions may get us to the correct footing: How do we begin to look into Africa for solutions and not merely see Africa as a hub of problems or a basket case? How do we start conversations about Africa from a position that Africa is about hope, agency, resistance, creativity and resourcefulness? How do we follow Africa’s steps and initiatives in the search for answers or solutions? How do we initiate debates about African solutions to African problems? We must continually trouble this Western humanist thought and subjectivity as part of project of decolonization. Why is it that Africa’s current medical system is incapable of addressing mounting health problems and challenges? How does global resource distribution implicate and complicate this emergence?
In this essay, I take up my African voice as an articulation of agency, experience, local knowledge and cultural memory. I am taking up my African voice to challenge the insulting idea that others know us better [as Africans] than we know ourselves (see also Prah, 1997). My voice is one of many African voices. But it is also part of the collective voice which is often silent and silenced in global debates. I am challenging the Kipling’s Victorian colonial tutelage of Africa as ‘the Whiteman’s burden’, an ideological construct and thought process that still exist in the minds of our colonizers. Under the guise of helping Africa we are still infantilized and perceived as needing salvation and saving from our woes and by our colonial masters. Not many of us stop to think of our complicities in the making of the “woes” and “crises” in the first place. What are we saving ourselves from? The menace is still there. The big elephant is still in the room – and indeed he is still tearing the room apart. We cannot run away and we cannot hide. The imperial savior mentality gives the West a sense of comfort as contributing to solve a human problem when, in fact, the structural and systemic dimensions of the problem remains intact only to resurface time and again. “Help” as we know it through the imperial savior image is about mal-development . Certainly, “help” cannot be imposed and neither can African peoples’ be acted upon. African communities and peoples have shown remarkable degree of resiliency and agency that speaks to the capacity of the people to resuscitate ourselves and our communities from the doomsayers’ notion of terminal collapse.
This conversation is part of a larger debate about ‘development’. In a recent publication (see Dei 2014) I have highlighted some observations of critical development theorists. For example, in his critique of the “myth of development” Tucker (1999) long ago enthused that “the model of development now widely pursued is part of the problem rather than the solution”…..and that this Western ideology of development….. “distorts our imagination, limits our vision, [obscuring] us to the alternatives that human ingenuity is capable of imagining and implementing” (p.1). Similarly, the famed Sachs (1992:5) also noted how many so-called development studies and practice have been caught “in a Western perception of reality”. In truth, much of on-going intellectual discussions on arresting the Ebola disease in West Africa are caught in the dominant paradigms of Western thinking. For example, Ebola is perceived as of African making and not a global disease. Ebola is an African outbreak that must be contained in Africa itself. We must isolate Africa rather than isolate the disease. We must build global hysteria to make our own peoples become fully aware of the dangers of Ebola and thus understand the severity of the situation and thereby justify why we need to shun any contact with [West] Africa for the time being. This thinking reinforces the ways in which the West is able to extend its disciplinary and normalizing mechanisms to dominate Africa and shape the debate about global disease (see also Escobar, 1991 in another context). Lauer (2007) has observed that degrading stereotypes about African governments persists even to this day. There is the persisting idea that Africa needs foreign direction to manage her own affairs! The Ebola outbreak and the castigation of Africa and African governments is a case in point. To reiterate, the West approach to the outbreak is framed in the whole discourse of the ‘imperial saviour’ and Africa as a ‘basket case’. Through this discourse Africa is rendered impure and satanic in the white gaze and imagination. In such discussions ‘Whiteness’ and purity as racial identities and racial codes contribute to ‘valid’ knowledge production about what is proper, human and ‘development’ .
Clearly, social identities significantly implicate how experts and practitioners come to produce, validate and use ‘knowledge’ about marginalized communities. Nearly two decades ago, Chabal (1996) has lamented on the ‘Politics of the Mirror’ where Africa is held up to be what it is NOT. Sadly, many of us as Africans have also learned the language of development. By hammering on our precarious situation we hope to engender foreign sympathy and aid. Thus, we tell ‘our saviours’ what they want to hear about our impoverishment to elicit more aid and assistance! Africa and the West are caught in the perception of the ‘traditional/modern’ split. And, as Lauer (2007) remarked this is an “attractive allegory”, offered up as a “ridiculous imagery” for Western consumption. Such dualism, it is rightly argued, serves to “disassociate the social realities of Africa from social reality in general” (Appiah, 1992; p. 136). In fact, there is an over-simplification of African realities and sadly the colonized and oppressed mind is still a factor in African imaginings and the imagination of Africa . We welcome West assistance in fighting Ebola. But we do so not out of pity for Africa but a realization that Africa is us, we are complicit in the making of Africa and our responsibility is to redefine our terms of engagement to work with African resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.
Appiah, K. A. (1992). In My father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chabal, P. (1996). “The African Crisis: Context and Interpretation”. In. R. Werbner and T. Ranger (eds.). Postcolonial Identities in Africa. London: Zed Books., pp. 29-54.
Dei, G. J. S. (2014). “Reflections on African Development: Situating Indigeneity and Indigenous Knowledges ”. In. E. Shizha and A. Abdi (eds.). Indigenous Discourses on Knowledge and Development in Africa. New York: Routledge, pp. 15-30.
Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Lauer, H. (2007). “Depreciating African Political Culture”. Journal of Black Studies 38(2): 288-307.
McDermott, M. (2014). “A Teacher’s Story of Autoethnography and Student Voice Pedagogies.” PhD dissertation (draft). Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto.
Prah, K. (1997_. “Accusing the Victims – In my Father’s House” A Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah,s In My Father’s House. CODESRIA Bulletin 1:14-22.
Sachs, W. (1992) (ed.). The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge and Power. London: Zed Books.
Tucker, V. (1999). “The Myth of Development: A Critique of Eurocentric Discourse”. In. R. Munck and D. O’Hearn (eds.). Critical Development Theory: Contributions to the New Paradigm. London: Zed Books .pp. 1-26.
Weheliye, A. G. (2014). Habeas viscus: Racializing assemblages, biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the human. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press.