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What Are You Really Saying When You Claim You Want to ‘Help’ Africa?

Pius Adesanmi

Pius Adesanmi

This Business Called Africa…

… Can be so exasperating!

Often, I receive solicitations:

“Professor, I have applied to volunteer in Africa next semester or next year. I took some of your courses in the past and I really enjoyed them. They were an eye-opener. Studying the literatures and cultures of Africa with you has motivated me to want to go to Africa to spend some time. I have started applying to NGOs, foundations and international charity organizations that sponsor the internships and aid work in Africa. Are you able to write a reference letter in support of my application?”

“Ah, yes, that is wonderful. Sure, I’ll write a reference. But, pray, if indeed you took any of my classes, how come you are still going to Africa?”

“Ouch. I’m sorry, Professor. I want to go to Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya or Malawi in no particular order of preference. Those are the countries I filled in my forms. You did warn us against just saying ‘Africa’ like it is one small basket.”

“Exactly. So, why exactly are you going to the continent?”

“I am going there because I want to help Africa. There is so much to do out there and I want to help.”

“Didn’t you just say you were going to Burundi or Rwanda or Tanzania or Kenya or Malawi?”

“Sorry, again, Professor. I am going to help just one country in Africa.”

“Better. But here is the deal. Your 19- or 20-year-old self is not going to help Africa or any country in Africa. You are too young and too small to be making such grandiose claims about a continent. I have been pouring my intellection and modest gifts into the universities of Canada and the United States since 1998. Yet, it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I came here to help these two countries out – or to help the American continent. You are going to Africa to be helped by Africa. You are going there to be increased.

“Your person will be increased. Your self will be expanded. Your horizon will be broadened and expanded. You will be introduced to new ways of seeing and being. You will encounter alternative narratives of personhood and society. You will encounter and engage different modernities. These are priceless riches you are going to gain from that encounter. Of course, the Burundians and Kenyans of your age bracket you encounter are also going to learn stuff from you. You will enrich them just as they will enrich you. You are going there for a process of exchange. You are not going to help Africa, OK?”

“OK, Professor.”

“Alright. You may come over to the office during my office hours, and I will fill and sign your reference form.”

Part Two

I help international funding agencies evaluate the dossiers of African scholars based in Euro-America who want to go back to the continent and spend some time “giving back.” With the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on many African countries by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s, the continent’s best brains moved to European and North American universities. That exodus was labeled “brain drain.” Now, many funding initiatives encourage these scholars to go back to the continent and spend time helping universities with capacity building. “Brain gain” is the buzz word.

I’ve been down that brain gain road myself because an international funding agency sent me to go and spend the 2013-14 academic year at the University of Ghana, helping out with graduate course development and proposal-writing workshops for junior and mid-career faculty. But Ghana also helped me a lot, gave me a lot, developed and enriched me. I came back to Canada a better scholar because of what Ghana taught me.

Now you are evaluating dossiers. And you encounter something like:

“My motivation for going back is because I want to help ameliorate the deplorable condition of Africans all over the world.”

The deplorable condition of Africans all over the world?

This would include my deplorable condition as an African in Canada, no?

And I have only just scolded a Canadian undergraduate for nursing the ambition to go and help Africa. Now an African scholar wants to carry the weight of the deplorable condition of Africans all over the world? I better go and apologize to the student, seeing that African scholars are also going back to help one uniformly deplorable Africa.

I better stop evaluating applications for international agencies before the sons and daughters of Africa damage my health with the reasons they sometimes offer for wanting to brain gain themselves back to the continent!

This business called Africa can be
So exasperating!

Pius Adesanmi is a Professor of English & African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. His book, “You’re Not a Country, Africa,” won the Penguin Prize for African Writing in the non-fiction category in 2010.

What people are saying

4 thoughts on “What Are You Really Saying When You Claim You Want to ‘Help’ Africa?

  1. Well said, Prof. We, first and foremost, should have self-worth and self-respect before we expect others to accord us with respect and regard. It pains me a lot how so many people see Africans are 'sub-humans', or something more deplorable. Thanks for this short and precise piece. It marks an auspicious beginning, in sha Allah.

  2. Prof., I understand your honest admonition to THE INDIVIDUAL to shelve the messianic attitude towards Mother Africa. But there is a reason why that burden (self-imposed or predestined) has remained with the enlightened and/or the compassionate (including, I'm sure your noble self).

    I do believe that 'the black Atlantic' must retain a grand vision about Africa that is not arrogant but COLLECTIVIST. Indeed, the problem is our failure to more better organize ourselves for optimal effect.

  3. Changes, at mental level, is the onerous task before us. We have all the needed capacities, but, for now, we lack the needed mental mindset to rediscover ourselves. To say someone or group caused it is to admit personal lack of self-worth. Thank you Prof.

  4. Andre Young says:

    I left B'ham with my parents and siblings in 1955. Prior to that time, I was refusing to permit my elders, who had been working as domestics standing on their feet all night stand up on the early morning bus ride to their respective home,. I was headed to grade school, and late at that. As I removed the placards, that separated Blacks and Whites; some elders would extrapolate to me, 'son they own the buses; you can not move those signs.' I shot back; you pay taxes for these buses too. I sometimes threw the segregation signs off the buses. Hon. Rosa Parks had the NAACP behind her, me and my peers only had each other, and at the time; that was enough. We/Blacks can help Africa by becoming duel citizens, and by doing so; we help ourselves.

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