A few years ago, I picked up a book called Dark Star Safari. It is the writer Paul Theroux's account of traveling by land from the northernmost tip of Africa to the southernmost — from Egypt to South Africa. As nothing else had before, this book gave me a sense of the vastly differentiated reality of ancient cultures in modern borders that is Africa: over 50 countries, of which many only have been distinct independent nations since the 1960s and 1970s.
And there was a bit of a sub-plot to this book, developed gradually and disturbingly, of the ambiguous ethical footprint of the masses of foreign helpers who also populate these diverse lands, helpers who at once shape these lands yet exist at an inevitable remove. Coming back to Uganda, for example, where he had worked for a time in the 1970s, he found everything on the wane despite, as he writes, "the new hospital donated by the Swedes or the Japanese, a new school funded by the Canadians, the Baptist clinic, the flour mill that was signposted 'A Gift of the American People.' These were like inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die or that break and aren't fixed. The projects would become wrecks, every one of them, because they carried with them the seeds of their destruction."
Why do these projects carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction? I carried this question around with me for several months, and found that I was seeing and hearing Western despair about Africa, and Western zeal to help Africa, with new eyes and ears. Obviously this is an enormous topic, which demands many angles and points of view, and my producers and I decided to make this a topic of ongoing, long-term investigation. We began with the uncomfortable, unsettling, but also ultimately hopeful voice of Binyavanga Wainaina.
This conversation with him is not a diatribe against aid and development efforts and the best of intentions that drive them. It is, rather, an effort to ask the right questions about the images of Africa that galvanize so much Western guilt, compassion, and action — to ask the right questions about how to help, not just whether to help. There is very little in this conversation about religion per se, but Wainaina's observations about the sometimes debilitating effect of donor aid and development illuminates the spiritual effect of what we do — often in the name of our own ethics and spiritual ideals — when we don't seek hard enough to see, to know, to attend to the essential dignity of the other, even when that other is in need.
The problem precisely, as Binyavanga Wainaina brings home, is that on the receiving end of the dynamic Paul Theroux observed, Africans themselves feel themselves reduced to a collection of needs. In an essay titled "How to Write About Africa," a mock tip sheet for Western journalists that has been widely reprinted and discussed across the African continent, Wainaina described the message from the West that aid too often communicates: "We can save you from yourselves. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. … We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. … No one can empower you except us."
The power to help, Binyavanga Wainaina insists, can be as dangerous as "hard power." The zeal of Westerners in Africa can have the unintended consequence of riding roughshod over Africans' own real and potential best efforts. And his confidence in his own best efforts and those of his compatriots in Kenya and beyond — his challenge for us to see Africa's promise alongside its problems and to participate attentively in that — is precisely what makes this conversation emboldening.