Author Speaks on Darfur: 'Don't Save Africa'

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In light of the global spotlight on the region of Darfur, Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian-American author, has a surprising message for America and the Western world: stop talking about "saving" Africa.


In light of all the attention that the world community has focused on Darfur, Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian-American author, has a surprising message for America and the West: stop talking about saving Africa.

Mr. UZODINMA IWEALA (Author, "Beast of No Nation: A Novel"): I ruffled a few feathers with my recent Washington Post commentary about representations of aid given to Africa. The main thrust of my editorial was that the messaging and terminology around the difficult economic, political and social situations in some African nations is overly simplistic and, in some cases, insulting.

There's no question that some African countries could use assistance, financial or other. But in many current pitches to the wider public for help, Africans are portrayed as helpless, and Africa as a continent of complete despair. Take, for example, one recent German UNICEF ad asking for assistance for education in Africa. It features a white German child in blackface with a caption that reads: In Africa, kids don't come to school late, but not at all. This kind of messaging needs to change. It's at best a cliche, and at worst a promotion of demeaning stereotypes to generate attention and sympathy.

Those of us who want to help must do a better job of empowering those we are helping to speak for themselves. We should ask why so many Western organizations dedicated to helping Africa fail to have considerable African representation on their boards or on their staffs. Are there no qualified Africans who can deepen understanding of complicated issues? Or is it that we're so used to easy solutions that we think that looking at celebrity ad campaigns, attending concerts and buying specially made clothes - whether to save Africa or the environment - are all we need to do?

These activities are important, but we must be careful not to substitute them for supporting the groundwork of often-unacknowledged people who deserve recognition and further assistance. Many people have been angry with me because they think I'm condemning aid. I have never done that. In fact, in my piece I say there's no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world. But giving money or help without fully acknowledging the humanity of those you are giving to doesn't foster conditions for positive or lasting change.

We who want to help need to be aware of this, and this doesn't just apply to aid in Africa. It's something that we confront every day when we encounter those less fortunate than ourselves. To be most effective, we have to realize that we won't always get it right at first go. Listening to the suggestions of others, including those being helped, can only lead to improvements in our methods.

If we are truly to operate in what the Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the spirit of Ubuntu - that profound sense that we are only human through the humanity of others - then we must acknowledge that as global citizens, we have an obligation to others regardless of race, class or nationality. But we must also remember that it is not of any help to belittle - even with the best of intentions - those we seek to assist.

CORLEY: Uzodinma Iweala is the author of "Beast of No Nation," a novel about child soldiers in Africa. His column entitled "Don't Save Africa" was published recently in the Washington Post.

Now we'd like to hear from you. Tell us what you think should be done to help countries in Africa - more humanitarian aid, maybe some programs to relieve debt, more peacekeeping forces, or maybe you believe a hands off approach is best. We'd like you to join the conversation. Go to our blog at And you can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that number is area code 202-842-3522.

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