Iweala's WaPo Piece

Much has been said of Uzodinma Iweala's piece "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa" in yesterday's WaPo. Those in the Afro-blogosphere have heard these points many times, though they seem to stick more when they come from a provocative headline penned by a much acclaimed young novelist whose classmates (he graduated from Harvard in 2005) are the 'perky young blondes' working on Save Darfur and other post-9/11 youth led grassroots movements. I want to address one particular subtle point that Uzo makes.

The article starts with criticism of kids who like "jumping into fashionable causes." There is certainly something disconcerting about a bunch of young, white activists lobbying for people they have never seen, especially when it is the celebrity of the moment tell them it is the right thing to do. This awkwardness has been a theme since Dickens, whose character Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House has "eyes with a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if they could see nothing closer than Africa."

On closer examination, however, we see that this critique holds no water. America's foreign policy history clearly shows that America will do nothing about a humanitarian problem unless its own citizens raise hell. Would as many college kids be involved if Africa wasn't fashionable? Of course not, but I'm still glad they are doing it.

Then something interesting happens. He goes from critiquing American kids "who drop into Africa for an internship" to talking about his own experience volunteering in a Nigerian IDP camp. It doesn't concern me whether or not he considers himself American or Nigerian (he grew up in Potomac, MD and is the son of Nigeria's Finance Minister). What Uzo seems to imply is that it is more legitimate to care about your own culture or the culture that you descend from than about any other culture.

After spending a year in Uganda, this is point I continue to seriously grapple with. In many ways I felt that there were things about Uganda that I would never be able to understand. When I got back to the US, I stumbled upon (the recently departed) Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, who pointed that in a post-modern world, the only real value we can find is choosing to value our own tradition and community, even if we see the irony in the choice itself.

Following Rorty and Uzo, I should learn Lithuanian and start working on EU-Baltic integration because this is where my family came from four generations ago. Of course, culture is never static, and I may be doing much more to honor my own culture by working on African issues than on Baltic issues. Then again, maybe I just go where the weather is better.

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14 Comments:

  • Ah. Thanks for the link, comrade. Thanks again.

    It is always refreshing to see that we are of a fair number, those of us who are tired of seeing Africa used as a way to clear the conscience.

    We don't need the West. Truth be told, we'd be better off if the West didn't exist.

    `America's foreign policy history clearly shows that America will do nothing about a humanitarian problem unless its own citizens raise hell.'
    Why, for example, is America's foreign policy important here? It is the problem, in fact.
    :o)

    By Blogger The 27th Comrade, at 12:02 AM  

  • Beautiful, Bro.

    Send this one to the Post - or even better, I'll try & drop off a copy at Iweala's posh Arlington house on my way down South.

    By Blogger Patrick Danger Wu, at 7:11 PM  

  • There certainly are some loud voices recently singing this sort of tune. I actually liked his piece a lot better than most stuff that I've read that has a similar theme. I thought he stayed balanced and made his point with out going completely off on an "America get out of here!" thing, but I still take issue with some of what he wrote.

    The thing about people like Brad and Angelina is that magazines were reporting on their every move long before the humanitarian involvement started, so of course what they're doing now gets more attention than, say, Nwankwo Kanu (I only know who he is because I became an Arsenal fan a few years ago).

    If the biggest trend in the West these days is being a Bono-ite, then a close runner-up is participating in Bono smear campaigns. If it's hip for an undergrad to wear a one.org wristband, it's equally trendy for a grad student to get all pompous about why Bono is wrong/vain/a jackass. I hear so much of it lately, and it frustrates me. I think he's well-intentioned, and from what I've seen he usually makes an effort to shift the spotlight away from himself, even while the media wants to make him Christ.

    Yes, activism seems fashionable these days, but would we prefer the alternative? More kids are into it, sure, but by the same token, more people give a damn, and more people are willing to be educated.

    I've seen studies that demonstrate how the priorities and values that a person adopts during young adulthood usually end up being permanent. I think it's great that kids on campuses are finding something other than just the nihilism of their friends. Do they feel good about it? Sure. But there's at least a bit of a hedonist in each of us and we really shouldn't fault them for that.

    Of course the best thing would be if all of those enthusiastic about saving the world would first seek education before spearheading any initiatives. But that just means more interns, which Iweala doesn't sound crazy about, or else maybe it means more people who get the zeal sucked out of them through 4 years of development theory.

    By Blogger dave, at 10:25 PM  

  • He complains about the indelable negative image of Africa held by whitefolks, yet he is the author of a novel about child soldiers -the sucess of which depends on and indeed may reinforce the same negative images.
    He says he doesn't like well intentioned college kids, yet he comes from a wealthy expatriate Nigerian family. Nigeria needs those people more than ever to bring back not only their capital, but their skills.

    By Blogger Oyibo!, at 2:17 PM  

  • He complains about the indelable negative image of Africa held by whitefolks, yet he is the author of a novel about child soldiers -the sucess of which depends on and indeed may reinforce the same negative images.
    He says he doesn't like well intentioned college kids, yet he comes from a wealthy expatriate Nigerian family. Nigeria needs those people more than ever to bring back not only their capital, but their skills.

    By Blogger Oyibo!, at 2:18 PM  

  • Africa unfortunately will and remains a bottomless pit. With infighting between blacks on a constant basis nothing will ever be achieved. If we do not have infighting we have people like Robert Mugabe with blatant racist’s policies that resulted in the death of his country. If Africa was not colonized the west would have looked down on the most uncivilized, technological backward continent on earth. When South Africa was colonized the local black tribes had not even invented the wheel yet.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:17 AM  

  • Africa unfortunately will and remains a bottomless pit. With infighting between blacks on a constant basis nothing will ever be achieved. If we do not have infighting we have people like Robert Mugabe with blatant racist’s policies that resulted in the death of his country. If Africa was not colonized the west would have looked down on the most uncivilized, technological backward continent on earth. When South Africa was colonized the local black tribes had not even invented the wheel yet.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:19 AM  

  • I can't begin to tell you how I felt when I saw Iweala this past Friday at a Young African Professionals event in Washington DC. He read from his book in such a disconcerting way after making odd jokes, and the irony was that he looked very much the part of a pampered rich kid who's trying to save the world (did you know he's now trying to go to medical school? Because he thinks he can combine literature and medical practice to help kids in Africa? When in another article he noted that his parents wanted him to become a doctor?).

    No joke, the guy was dressed to impress (he picked up a couple of numbers/cards from some women on the scene), introduced himself as a graduate of St. Albans (a prestigious prep school in DC) and Harvard, and went on to somewhat mock Jeffrey Sach's initiative that he worked on while in Nigeria (hell, even Nigerian-American gotta go "Native" when in front of other Africans).

    This American kid was really naive and childlike with his jokes and fake accent-. He acted like he really was Nigerian when he grew up in the upper class neighborhood of Potomac, MD.

    In my opinion, Iweala lacks authentcity and he his "African-ness "song and dance didn't jibe with his background (His mom being a VP at the World Bank and ex-Nigerian foreign minister).

    I would rather those perky white girls with big hearts go out to help the poor and needy rather than have this kid tell them to stay home.


    Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West's fantasy of itself.

    An African speaks out at the dishonesty of self congradulatory liberal campaigns. (Its probably worth pointing out that the speaker, while presenting himself as a voice of Africa, was born in Washington DC and attended Harvard. Its not that I think he is wrong. Its that I think he is also assuming someone else's identity.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:18 AM  

  • Yes damn troubling to hear that we are only viewed as opportunities for some folks in western countries when they want to satisfy selfish needs.Some day people can change the view of things.who says the west is a parmanet friend its full of hypocrites

    By Blogger Mawanda, at 6:29 AM  

  • I can't believe Uzodinma Iweala and the crap he spews out.

    He stopped by in DC and I had a chance to listen to his "Stop trying to save Africa" spiel. I had no idea he was the 23 y.o. son of Nigeria's ex-Finance minister and World Bank VP. He introduced himself as a St. Albans and Harvard grad who originally came from Potomac and that- get this- he's now going to medical school to save Africans.

    It was disconcerting seeing him joke about marrying the event's host (she works tirelessly to get African speakers into DC, and he unintentional took her a notch down by stating he'd love to marry her- in a very unprofessional manner) and take potshots at Jeffrey Sach's Earth Institute (who he worked for), all the while not talking about solution other than grassroots efforts. Seemed to be quite a naive kid.

    If you have Facebook, search for the groups he belongs to- one of them is St. Alban's class of 2000 (?)- get this- he created the group.

    I'm not taking shots at St. Albans students or Africans trying to find reasonable solutions to aid/development. I'm taking shots at pretentious pricks like Iwealea who talk down on people and have nothing to contribute!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:00 AM  

  • Well,i think you guys are misinterpreting this guys.Try to understand where he is coming from..I mean his perspective,that might help

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:34 PM  

  • Some of the comments on here are absolutely asinine,if I may say so myself. Iweala's piece is absolutely brilliant because it reflects the feelings and frustrations that so many Africans (and I am not generalizing)feel when it comes to the way we, Africa, are portrayed in the west. He, like many Aficans I know and even those I don't know, is resisiting this insipid, stereotypical image of Africa as the "Dark continent"
    Furthermore, him being born in Washington and attending Harvard has nothing to do with anything. This guy clearly feels the same frustration us Africans feel when we watch TV programmes on Africa or read articles written by westerners on Africa. So what if he is rich? SO what if he is the son of some important Nigerian chap. What is wrong with that? Such somments,infact, only serve as a buttress to his argument. Clearly, even Africans themselves equate Africa with corruption and although this is somewhat understandable it is wrong to try to find something "wrong" with Iweala (in this case that he is a rich harvard kid) just because he has, through his article, attempted to be the voice for Africans who feel the same way. It is insipid and absolutely asinine, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves. His article is an excellent piece and all Africans should be proud of it!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:05 AM  

  • Americans do not know the Baltics have been in the EU for five years?... Small scale person to person aid seems best; Africans might visit towns in Europe to teach whites about looking after the old lovingly for example.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:44 AM  

  • Again, many are missing the point. An individual of African descent is making a statement about his observations and what he is doing to solve certain problems on the continent. So what if he went to St. Albans or Harvard? Africans can't go to these institutions? Would it make those who doubt his credibility better if his story was that he grew up poor and struggled throughout his life? (Because of course, God forbid that any African exude privilege, wealth or prestige). You will never see the point until you stop putting Africa and Africans in a box.

    And those who make comments about him "trying to sound like a Nigerian when he really grew up in Potomac, MD" Wow. You have no clue about the Nigerian culture in America obviously.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:59 AM  

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