AFRICA: Thoughts on “Humanitarian” Work.

I want to talk about Africa as an African. I’ve heard so much about the continent since I was a small child and now Africa figures prominently in debates as I pursue my studies in the United States. As you all know, Africa and its people have been used and exploited for centuries. Historians often say that history repeats itself. I agree that this is true when we look at how Africa has been treated for the past 200 years. Foreign interest in Africa started with explorations to discover Africa. Now, there is another way of using Africa to get better opportunities which serve the self rather than the developing country of interest. The work becomes trendy, something to flaunt to get internships and acclaim stateside.  Many privileged young people come with the  mentality that they want to “initiate” something, or “do something” to help Africa or change Africa. 

Many people publish books about Africa, as if they have the fortunate position of articulating the continent from a Western perspective, something  the locals don’t have the affluence or space to do.  They have good luck, and these books make them rich.  These people are thus helping themselves in the name of helping Africa, feeding their own fantasies rather than the reality of the country. Some people even go so far as to collect money giving talks about Africa. After publishing their articles, and still making more money, these foreigners are invited into schools and colleges to give talks. If schools and colleges need someone to talk about Africa, I would encourage them to invite an African to talk about his/her experience in Africa. There is no way someone who visited Africa for less than a month will be able to start giving complex and accurate talks about Africa. Furthermore, Africa is not a country as many people think. There are many countries in Africa. Let the Africans speak about Africa, the many African experiences, as Africa is the most diverse continent in the world.

Africa for Africans is what I’d like to advocate, a phrase used by Marcus Garvey, a man who died fighting for the liberty of African people.  African problems will never be solved as long as many advantaged young people from the western world think that they can save the world through starting organizations or volunteering in Africa without a deep engagement or understanding of the community they seek to improve. Without understanding, volunteers take advantage of community and community takes advantage of volunteers for a quick fix, a tiny drop of money. This is not challenging the community to engage, and this is not challenging volunteers. Money alone does nothing, and volunteering alone the same. I always want to cry when these short-sighted organizers talk about Africa, and how they are going to solve our problems.

The answer is that most of those people are using Africa, they don’t want to help Africa. They come to Africa thinking that they can save the world but instead, Africa is changing them. They come back to the Western world, get good jobs and use their African experience for their greedy purposes. While they are getting better jobs and positions the poor needy Africans keep on suffering.  The reality is, no single one of us, especially an outsider is going to be responsible for solving the deep problems of a country.

I’ll say again, they don’t have answer for the Africa’s problems.  Africans can and must solve their own problems. These solutions can be arrived at if Africans are given access to partnerships and the resources that were taken long time ago and are still being taken from Africa. Africans also want the same media attention that the rich young westerns enjoy when they come back to their home country while the locals are not mentioned. I’m tired of seeing young privileged youth from the top universities given attention while the small people in the heart of Africa who are doing great change on the ground are not mentioned.

I speak from my own experiences. I worked in Kibera slums for more than ten years. I was used by people from outside, who didn’t want me to see anything good from Kibera. They wanted to continue exotifying poverty but real sense they didn’t care. They came with their own ideas of how they could save Kibera and I turned a blind eye to them. I know, money cannot solve Kibera’s problems. I know a few organizations working in Kibera but based in America. They waste their resources by paying outsiders to come and run their organizations in the slums. They have good network that help them to exploit the people on the ground who never read their glossy brochures.   This kind of organization will never help indigenous organizations. They are threatened by the indigenous organizations, the people moving mountains without piles of money behind them. The rich western organizations only help by organizing sports tournament for those in the slum.  This perpetuates the idea that slum people are only capable of kicking around a soccer ball, but are incapable and undeserving of a serious education.  Instead of spending thousands on “community building exercises” like soccer tournaments or discussions build schools.  Build hospitals that are actually accessible (unlike the ones that pretend to be open to everyone, but secretly raise the prices when the foreign donors get back on their planes).   

I’m writing from my own pain as a slum boy. We all know education is the only way out but they denied us education. They don’t want to engage the community, they don’t want the communities share their thoughts with them. I know they build hospitals in the slums but all are expensive. Their health centers are more expensive than the local unqualified health centers in Kibera. I felt that I was being used because I was poor. I founded a community organization in Kibera and some existing western organizations in Kibera refused to cooperate with my organization. Even though many were not willing to work with, but there are few organization that believed in partnersing with the communities to achieve their goals for example AFK that exposed me internationally. If other organizations can be like that, then a lot can be done in Africa. There is no change without involving the community. How can you help Kiberans and yet you don’t want to work with them?  I say this because some organizations make ideas in Western world and pretend that those are Kibera people’s ideas. The fact is that some western organizations working in Africa always pretend that the organization is run by the locals as a way to entice donors, when this is rarely the case! But in real sense these kinds of projects will not last for long. You can fool the locals for a moment, but you can’t fool them forever and one day they will stand up for their rights. They will stand with good friends of humanity all over the world who want to spear head the change from the ground level. I still emphasize that as a say goes; ” no man is an iland.” We need each other but in a positive and in a partnering manner with the locals.

No one can save Africa without working with Africans. They can’t save them if they keep seeing Africans as primitive. Any privileged person who wants to work for the poor must first respect them and treat them as equal partners. And they must know that poor people know their problem better than any outsiders. I’ve been helped by great friends from America and Europe, they supported me because they belived in me. They help me to develop my own ideas and I’m still working with my woderful people especially in America who always made my dream come true.

I would urge people to try and restain from word “changing the world” as no one can change the world, the world is such a big place. But I know we can all do something together that brings a positive impact to the society piece by piece.

When I say partnership, I mean real partnership. I’ve seen many organizations using Africans who are less educated as their partners to sing songs and stand as symbols of suffering.  These same Africans are denied agency of power in that organization. They are just being used in name in order for the organizations to get some grants. We want real partnership—50-50 power sharing.

I founded Shining Hope For the Communities with my partner Jessica Posner.  We are both equal, both bring different insights and experiences to our work.  Our partnership in life and in our organization brings something new to our work.  I bring my experience living in Kibera for twenty-three years while Jessica brings her detail oriented, managerial skills… Our projects are also being prepared from the ground, where I grew up, and our work in America is to find the resources to help implement the projects that the community has decided on. Our work is also not possible without the guidance, advice and support from our board members and partners who bring positive aptitude to the organization.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mary Costa on December 27, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Teach Me

    Reply

    • Posted by Daphne on December 30, 2009 at 4:15 am

      This is so true, and very beautifully written Kennedy! You are the perfect example of what you write, as daily you prove your great intelligence and power to create change despite your humble background. I feel so lucky to know you and Jess as you really are the ‘ultimate partnership.’ Hopefully SHOFCO can set the example for future organizations and the necessity to trust, believe in, and work alongside the African people.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Jess on December 28, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Yes!

    Reply

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