We are at a conference about environmental challenges. A group of participants from all over the world, really. Each of us is expected to give a presentation about their work.
It is the turn of my colleague from India. They are talking about sanitation. We have a problem with open defecation in India, they tell us. Then they get to the statistics. Using figures collated from all kinds of global institutions they endeavour to demonstrate to us that this “problem” is really serious, because it is even worse than in A-F-R-I-C-A! Shock and horror. Several African countries are paraded on the slide….the only one I can recall was Cameroon. The point is – We are doing really badly! We are the bottom. Africa is doing better than us. WE should be better than Africa! Because, Africa should be at the very bottom of human hierarchy in EVERYTHING.
I am stunned. I am seated next to my Uganda colleague. I look at him. He shakes his head. I am embarrassed , incensed….The presentation goes on. I do not hear anything the presenter says after that. They finish the presentation. We all clap! I am asking myself what I am clapping for.
Any questions? the moderator asks. Some hands shoot up. All this time I am saying to myself: Surely, you must say something about this. You cannot just sit here and say nothing as the whole continent is dragged through raw sewage.
I raise my hand. It is my turn. I stand up. I say something nice , and then get to the meat of the matter. Why do you find it necessary to compare India with Africa? Is it not enough to just illustrate that you have a problem without dragging others people into it? I turn to the rest of the colleagues and continue – why do we all think that Africa has to be lowest common denominator for everything? That, if you are doing worse than Africa in anything you are doing really badly? Everybody stares at me. Nobody says a word. Some people smile and chuckle. I am pissed!…(not at the smiles and the chuckles.)
The presenter cobbles up a response. It does not answer the question.
I now turn to my Ugandan colleague and he tells me: I have heard people making comparisons to Africa on many subjects but NEVER to open defecation. This is a first!
After we get through all the presentations I continue the conversation with the presenter. He now gives me a more candid answer to the question I had asked him. Without batting an eyelid he tells me “we do that because this kind of messaging works for our people.” If you tell an Indian that Africans are not pooping out in the open, they are likely to get ashamed and reform? How does this work? They also tells me to not be “too sensitive.” Yes, I am supposed to just sit there and take it because this is normal. This is not normal. It is abusive. Can’t people learn to resolve their problems without using other people who might have different struggles and be in very different contexts?
No, we are talking about Africa. Everybody’s punching bag.
All of this reminds me of a story that a Ghanian friend told me.
He went to church one day. This is in Canada. There were many Africans in the church. The visiting white pastor is delivering the sermon. At some point during the sermon the pastor tells them ” I know you are all refugees….”. I ask my friend – did any of you say something to him about that? No, he says. How can you speak in church.? You cannot raise your hand. How about walking out in protest? How about writing a letter saying that while there are refugees in the congregation not all of us are refugees? At the end nobody said anything- never mind that at least 95% of them were not refugees. The majority are in fact, hardworking international students – most of them graduate students. But nobody says a word?!
Are Africans not bothered by these insults, the vilification, the humiliation? Or am I being “too sensitive”?
Africans must stand up and say something. Do not just sit there while people who have no understanding of the continent whatsoever poop all over it. Say something. Otherwise, your silence is an endorsement of the humiliation. Say s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g!