Cavities and broken records: Africa’s lack of self-confidence

I quit my job this week (not the one with the peanut butter life saver — no worries, my life is still in good hands). I left for several reasons, but the last straw was a conversation that went something like this:

Me: You can’t rely solely on international volunteers to make this work. You need to recruit Ugandan volunteers as well, or even more heavily.

Director: But Ugandan volunteers are not as good as international volunteers.

Me: Why not? None of the international volunteers here right now have teaching degrees, but you’ve turned down three Ugandans who wanted to work here who all have teaching experience.

Director: But Ugandan volunteers are not as good as international volunteers.
His monomaniacal, unsubstantiated claim that the qualified Ugandans who have been clamoring to work for the organization are “not as good” as inexperienced college students from the U.S. was, shall we say, mildly unsettling. Earlier this month, Angelo Izama wrote on the sub-Saharan African roundtable about what he calls modern shamba boys. He laments what he considers to be the prevailing attitude among Africans, and especially African leaders, that they are inferior to the West:

“The shamba boy mentality is built on a conspiracy of history and circumstances that make it acceptable for our leaders to play second fiddle to their white masters and others whiter than them including Asians and Chinese nowadays. This complacency replaces their responsibility to become their own masters….”
Wendy Glauser also claims that “many Africans embrace a collective inferiority complex. Their governments are backward, corrupt and care only about power. Their people are tribalist, selfish, war-loving. This perception, like Canada’s public perception of itself, is one-sided and simple-minded, devoid of the complex current and historical international forces that determine the behaviour of a society and its government.”

Vividly illustrating the claims of these two authors is Dennis Matanda, who states that “Africans are not inferior to whites” but also writes that “Africa is not a cursed continent and neither is it ravaged by disease and poverty. The poverty you have is at the top [in the heads of the leaders so to speak] and the only rampant diseases are dental ones where the leaders have large holes in the back of their teeth.” He goes on to say that all African leaders are “mad” and that Africans are, as a whole, “lazy.”

Izama argues that the only way out of this attitude is for Africans to take charge of their own problems — “to find that desire to stop serving others and begin serving ourselves.” Glauser seconds this opinion, suggesting more indigenous lobbies and better African investigative journalism. Matanda offers no solution.

My two cents? The impending failure of the organization I just left is directly proportional to its leader’s reliance upon Western volunteers to swoop down and save it. I would argue that the persistence of many “African problems” is related to a belief that, eventually, donor money or foreign troops will come. This belief in the supremacy of Western aid, I think, makes many Africans less likely to take the steps needed to pull themselves out of poverty, disease and war. It’s an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of dependency: I want the West to save me, so I do nothing. I do nothing, so the West sends help. The West sends help, so I believe I am incapable of solving my own problems. I believe I am incapable of solving my own problems, so I want the West to save me.

Breaking out of this cycle is possibly the single most difficult challenge Africa faces today. Unfortunately for those of us who work in the realm of “humanitarian aid,” there’s not much we can do to help (kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?) except stand by and encourage those we meet to take charge of their own futures.

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