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.