A Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations:

Disclaimer: I sat down to write about Zanzibar, Rabies tragedies, Hippo run-ins and my activities in Bonga but this is what came instead. I felt motivated.  I wrote this quickly and didn’t read it. It came out fast, a stream of consciousness. It is unorganized and angry but hopefully meaningful. I think it works better this way because it is real. I did not have time to tone it down, make it less preachy or edit it, and therefore I apologize. I hope you find it to be genuine

I remember my first night in Ethiopia like it was yesterday. It might be one of the most memorable days of my life. I was so emotional and overwhelmed that every minute seemed extended, stretched across my memory like a canvas. I can go back and remember tiny details and broader generalizations, although I’m embarrassed by my own naïveté.

I think I said embarrassing things like, “So this is Africa!” (insert stupid face) I can’t even look back at my first blog because I would be too upset with myself. Everything seemed as I had daydreamed – the poverty, street sellers, slums etc. But not everything was as I had anticipated…

The skyscrapers I saw surprised me, and a restaurant called Denver Café. There were so many modern clothes, and seemingly wealthy people. I suppose part of me was expecting a Christian Children’s fund Commercial.

Isn’t it sad that, as westerners, that is our perception of Africa?

I read a great book recently, “When a Crocodile eats the sun” by journalist Peter Godwin who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, and such an honest and gripping portrait of a time and place, ignored by history.

He inspired me to write more about my experiences, and also wrote, in one sentence, what I have been trying to put into words for so many months…

I hated the way I used to perceive Africa. I hate the stigma associated with it. I hate my own generalization of it, the condescending acronym T.I.A (this is Africa).

I hate how foreign policy often ignores Africa, turns a blind eye to genocide here, yet throws money at certain countries to appease their own consciousness’s and win a potential trade ally. If some of the recent African tragedies (Famine in the horn, Genocide in Sudan, Civil wars in Central Africa etc) had occurred in Western Europe, much more would have been done. Political parties may have even drawn sides. But instead, I endured my entire childhood completely oblivious to these happenings.

The sentence that summarized the above rant came, in fact, after the book, in a question and answer add-on with the author.

Peter stated that the problem with the west’s perception of Africa is that, “they have a soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s a perfect description. We tend to think of Africa has our little brother, or worse, our scary uncle.

Here is the question posed, and an excerpt:

Africa has been a big talking point in the news the past year—from Mugabe’s term election and his treatment of his opposition to celebrity adoptions. What would you like strangers to Africa to know about your homeland?

That it’s not just a blank screen onto which to project Western fantasies and guilt. That we cannot be its saviors, nor are we its nemeses…I think that Africa’s peoples have been ill served by their leaders, and that we—in the West—have historically enabled that abuse. In the Cold War we supported tyrants like Mobutu of Zaire (now Congo) just because they professed to be “anticommunist,” and the Soviets behaved similarly. Africa became our proxy battle- ground. It’s only recently that we in the West have started talking of accountability and transparency and democracy. I think that there is, to some extent, a “soft bigotry of low expectations” about the way the West regards Africa, and that is racist.

We, (and by we I mean the rest of the world) have such low expectations for Africa. This prevents us from seeing the continent as part of our society. It is cast aside as a continent of poor nations incapable of playing on the world stage. As Godwin states, it became our proxy battleground. In the past, our concern for Africa was forged by selfishness rather than goodwill. Presently, our selfishness is guised under a veil of goodwill.

This can be seen in the previous fight for communist or capitalist allies in the North, The battle for religious conversion, or the attempt to gain trade allies through foreign aid. It can be seen in the sacrifice of a greater good for resource acquisition – (I believe violence in Sudan could have been greatly diminished during their civil war if the US had not been so interested in its oil potential).

The world has spectacularly low expectations for Africa, as if their attempts for democracy are cute, rather than real, their genocides more tribal than tragic.

Some areas deserve our pity, but it is not a helpless wasteland. What it needs is our support, without the bigotry.

The paradox is tragically ironic: a continent that gets such little support, yet so much sympathy. We all want to help the starving African children, yet we are to quick to assume starvation and poverty as an African inevitability. Why did I think Africa had no skyscrapers? We are hesitant to step in during a civil war, but will perhaps sponsor a child?

In the future I hope lessons can be learned from our collective treatment of Africa. We have ignored them when they most needed help. We have intervened when they least needed it.  Worse yet, we have clustered Africa as a cognitive schema accompanied by yellow visions of mud-huts, and fly-ridden children. Yet it is so much more.

Egypt, Ethiopia, Botswana and Sierra Leone are as similar to each other as the US is to Laos and Bolivia. Africa may be some of the things we imagine, but not all of them. It is also not inferior but different, consisting of cultures that value family and tradition more than wealth and personal ambition. Wealth is not immune to this continent, but it is certainly a lesser priority. I live in Ethiopia, not Africa. I am to be pitied as much as I can pity them. For what I have they lack. But what they have, I lack.

But if we are in the practice of generalizing Africa, then let me say that Africa does not need our pity or our sympathy. It does not require us to round up at the grocery store. More than anything it needs a model to strive for; a foundation to emulate, and  we are coming up far too short.


2 comments on “A Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations:

  1. Martha Grano says:

    Your experiences during the last few days have been unimaginable to me. I can’t quite imagine your ‘compound’. I wonder what made your dog go so hostile? Was it concern for her new born pups? Africa is so fantastically different from my experience that I can’t imagine what is going on in your life with any accuracy at all. I hope and pray that you are safe.
    Aunt Martha

  2. suitcasemood says:

    This was a great post. I’m leaving for Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic in May–someone in that group linked to your blog and I am really enjoying it.

    I spent a year in Tanzania working in prevention of blindness and walked into many thoughts about donor relationships, low expectations, benevolent bigotry. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a really insightful TED talk that touches on this. It’s called The Danger of the Single Story.

    During that year I spent a few days in Addis and went to the Red Terror Martyrs Memoiral near Meskal Square. There is a document exhibited there from Addis Ababa University in the 60s, cautioning foreign governments (read, US and Soviet Union) against intervention that threatened their sovereignty. We are not your puppets, the letter said. But that story so often gets lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s