Whither Africa?

Over at Austin Bay, there’s an interesting piece on the idea of electing an African pope. His thesis is that there is a huge lack of interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and the horrendous occurrences going on there are simply shrugged off by the rest of the world. By electing a Pope from that area, he hopes it might trigger attention and a move towards freedom and reform much like electing Pope John Paul II did for Poland — and, by extension, all of Eastern Europe.

But he also asks why there is so little sustained interest in the doings of sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve been giving it some thought, and I think I have a few answers.

(First, a couple of notes. One, I’m going to be tossing around quite a few heavy arguments. If you’re of the type to toss around the term “racist” and “racism,” get them ready. Just please back them up with some counterarguments, if you will — if I felt like being randomly insulted, there are a lot better places than here I could do it. Second, I’m going to dump the clumsy, euphemistical term “sub-Saharan Africa” for “Black Africa.” It means much the same in this case, and addresses the issues I’m going to raise — the people, not the location of a hunk of sand — far more directly and honestly. Also, it’s easier to type.)

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Austin raises an interesting question: just why don’t we have any sustained interests in Black Africa? The answer is far too complex to address thoroughly here, but I think I can bring up a few factors.

1) Lack of relevancy. Our interest tends to follow our interests. We have a great deal of our economy invested in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, so we pay more attention to them. Black Africa simply doesn’t play a very big role in our economy or day-to-day concerns. As brutal as it is to admit, the last time Black Africa had a big impact on the West’s economy was during the slave trade. Since then, nothing has come forward to take its place in connecting Black Africa to the West.

2) Guilt. Guilt is a lousy motivator to get someone to do something. (Unless, of course, you’re someone’s mother, but even then it’s notoriously unreliable.) The West has, over the centuries, treated Black Africa horrendously. First, with colonization, we shattered existing tribal structures and sociogeographical lines and imposed artificial divisions and unities that suited European interests and whims. Nearly every single Black African country exists because it was imposed on the people living there, in utter disregard for their pre-existing mores, groupings, alliances, and emnities. Then, with the slave trade, we exploited, aggravated, and instigated tribal rivalries and animosities to benefit ourselves, and to hell with the costs to the people we were exploiting.

3) Lack of connection. This one also ties in to the slave trade. We have millions of people who can claim Black African ancestry, but they feel no link to their ancestral home. To many of them, they are “African.” They don’t feel a particular tie to any tribe, any region, any nation because they simply don’t know to which they belong. And the reason is because the slave trade literally made them racial orphans, and tossed them into the great orphanage that is the United States. Compare that to two groups that dominate Boston, just for example — the Irish and the Italians. They’re still fiercely American, but they can tell you exactly what part of the Old Country their ancestors came from, why they left, and in many cases what old feuds they’re still carrying on. The events going on back in the Old Country are a bit distant to them, but they still keep its memory alive.

So, what do we do about it? The current strategy of simply shrugging and looking away will quite likely continue — it has for some time, and we seem to be no worse off for it. And preying on our guilt hasn’t done any good. Even when you bring up the fact that Africa is the “cradle of humanity,” where the human race first began, doesn’t do any good. Nobody really wants to go back to their cradle and clean it up. They’re looking for the future, not the past.

Austin thinks that electing a Black African as Pope could be a good first step. After all, look what electing a Pole as Pope during the height of the Cold War did. It’s a good idea, and might do some good.

I don’t think it’ll do as much good as a lot of people think, though. It’s been speculated that one of the reasons Pope John Paul II condemned the War in Iraq was to defuse the argument that this was another “Crusade” by Christians against Islam, and I think there might be some truth to that. Right now, some of the nastiest situations in Black Africa are Muslims against Animists, and Animists against Animists. Eastern Europe had literally centuries of Christian heritage, to the exclusion of nearly all other faiths (Judaism excluded), but in Black Africa Christianity is the newcomer — and the other faiths have a lot more history.

But I think there’s another way.

The West (and by this, I mean the United States) didn’t really get involved in the Middle East until 9/11, when suddenly the problems and horrors of the situation over there came here and killed thousands. At that point, we started seriously intervening out of simple self-preservation — let’s face the problem head-on, at its source, instead of waiting for it to come here. Let’s fight them at a time and place of our choosing, not theirs. I think a similar approach to Black Africa might help, but it just needs a catalyst.

And we already have one.

Disease.

Africa isn’t just the cradle of humanity. It’s the cradle of diseases. Terrifying, horrendous diseases. Diseases that, if left unchecked, can potentially wipe out whole countries. Diseases that make the Black Death look like Swine Flu.

Need an example? I’ll give you two. Ebola and AIDS. Both came out of Africa. One’s been largely contained, but the other has reshaped the world.

Need proof? I’ll tell you a joke. Anyone over 30 should get it immediately.

A man walks up to the counter of a pharmacy. He says loudly, “I’d like a box of condoms..” and then his voice drops to a whisper “…and a pack of cigarettes.”

That, people, is the legacy of AIDS. That is the legacy of looking guiltily away from Black Africa and hoping it quietly will fix itself or go away. And that is merely the slightest taste of the future, because I think we’d have to turn to science fiction to get a good description of what disease could come out of Black Africa next.

And we’re not gonna be able to do squat about that next disease unless we somehow “fix” Black Africa. Unless we find a way to get past the current mess the continent is in.

The only semi-workable solution I’ve heard of so far is one I don’t particularly care for — simply “wall off” Black Africa for a few decades and let the place fall apart, then rebuild itself along new, indigenous lines. Let them toss off the vestiges of colonialism and colonial identities and develop their own nations, states, tribes, provinces, and governments without our interference. I don’t like that because it smacks of washing our hands of the situation, but I haven’t heard any reasonable counterproposals.

But we need to find something. The days when we can simply ignore, forget about, shrug off Black Africa are winding down. They may already be gone.

One final note: I’m sure I made a few mistakes here when discussing particulars about Black Africa. I grew up not really knowing much or caring about it, and I still find it hard to overcome that conditioning. As an example, I have a pretty good grasp of geography — I can tell you, at least vaguely, where any given country is in the world. Except Africa. If I can’t place a country immediately, I default and guess “Africa,” and I’m pretty safe. And that ignorance of mine is yet one more argument — as fascinated as I am by so many things, I simply have never cared enough or had reason to learn very much.

I believe I am hardly unique in that respect, and it is that level of benign neglect that has led to the situation as it is today.

J.

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