Last week I had a short but interesting conversation about Africa with a friend. Reflecting back on the conversation now, it occurs to me that the perspective expressed by my friend might be one of many Americans. My friend, perhaps finally voicing a suppressed angst and cynicism about our work in Africa, said this (my summary):
“The fact that so much of the African continent seems to be caught in an endless cycle of disease, poverty, illiteracy and civil war is Africa’s own fault. The rest of the world managed to move through history learning how to overcome these things, and African people have had the same opportunity as the rest of the world to create their history. It is not our responsibility to rescue Africa from self-made problems, and doing so keeps Africa stuck in the cycle.”
I don’t feel surprised about this position. My own knowledge of history and my American patriotism caused me to feel the same way for many years. But I realize now that either I wasn’t paying attention in World History classes (which is very possible) or we skipped right over any history that included the continent of Africa. The fact is that I knew nothing about the history of Africa over the past three or four hundred years. I left school thinking that history only happened in Europe and Asia and North America, and I think subconsciously assumed a similar history for the continent of Africa. But the past four years, working in Africa, I have learned a part of history that has shocked, saddened and shamed me.
My friend is completely wrong. African people HAVE NOT had the same opportunities as the rest of the world to create their own history. In fact, Africa was robbed of this opportunity by Europe and the West. I now see history very differently and admittedly, because my heart is now interpreting it for me, I’ve become a bit biased. As I understand it now, this is the REAL story of Africa that I missed in school . . .
We all know that during the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, Britain and the U.S. Colonies were wreaking havoc on the African continent, building their own empires though the scourge of slave trade and slavery. Then, near the end of the 19th century, when the rest of the world was enjoying growth and expansion brought about by the industrial revolution, European powers, in what has become known as the “Scramble for Africa,” staked claim to virtually the entire African continent. Boundaries were carved up arbitrarily (and inaccurately) and new territories were created, ignoring traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies. These new boundaries cut through more than 190 culture groups and in other cases, diverse, independent and sometimes adversarial groups with no common history, culture or language were grouped to live together. Land and people were little more than bargaining chips, some taken by treaty but most by military force, in spite of resistance in nearly every African territory. Eventually more than 10,000 different African polities and one fifth of the worlds total land area became forty European colonies and protectorates. Only Ethiopia and Liberia escaped Europe’s exploitation and oppression, though Liberia had been colonized by the United States fifty years earlier, an ill-fated attempt to create a state in which to “dump” freed slaves following the Civil War, the results of which have been disastrous.
This European exploitation was short lived – as history goes – lasting only until WW1. African countries began seeking independence about the time Europe had more important issues to deal with. Having depleted the continent of many physical resources and used its people to build economic empires, Europe started leaving the colonies back in the hands of nationals who were poor and uneducated, largely unable to self-govern in the modern world, and setting the stage for the Africa of today. *
It is so easy for we independent thinking American’s to believe that we’re successful as a nation, as organizations or individuals because we started with nothing, and with the grit and determination which is available to every human being, made ourselves into something great. But the reality is, we’ve NEVER had NOTHING to start with. Furthermore, what we do have in the way of opportunities and resources, we have, frankly, because of our own sinful past as much as our hard work. Furthermore, there are some contexts in which no amount of grit and determination can enable a person to achieve even the most limited measure of success.
This attitude triggers one of two common postures related to the problems in Africa, neither of which is appropriate or biblical. One is the cynicism that was expressed by my friend, which causes us to thumb our nose and leave Africa to solve her own problems. The other, which often disguises itself as compassion, is to march over to help with pre-conceived “American” solutions, asking few questions, taking little or no time to observe, explore or learn.
A better and biblical posture is one of student and learner before we wash our hands of the problem or run to help. It is a posture that recognizes the playing field is not, and never has been level. It is humble and grace filled. It respects and honors nationals. It is about coming under and along side as a servant, rather than over, as an expert, a benefactor, protector and problem solver. Yes, the problems are complicated and Africans are not exempt from personal responsibility, but understanding history correctly is required if we hope to address the problems assuming a biblical posture.
* Meredith, Martin; The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence; Perseus Books Group; 2005; USA