Sally Struthers go home
Been struggling with how to put into words something I’ve felt visiting the poorer areas of Ghana.
Like most Westerners my concept of poverty in Africa is heavily informed by aid campaign advertisements. (I blame Sally Struthers completely.) Pre-programmed, one just sort of expects to find misery and unhappiness: sobbing, curled children with distended bellies; emaciated frowns from doorways; a total lack of joy.
I have seen none of this. In fact, if there’s any emotion I see more frequently than others it is happiness.
Now, before you say that I have confined myself to upscale, urban areas, I’ll note that most of the first two weeks’ work was in the field in tiny villages without electricity, running water, or any infrastructure whatsoever.
Certainly there is much misery and want in Africa. Failed states, pestilence, warfare — take your pick. But the longer I am in Africa the more I realize that we’ve been conditioned to believe that Africans are not happy. Purely from a aid organization sales perspective this makes sense: if people are happy with their plight in Africa why send your support check in?
It comes down to this: standard of living is not the same thing as quality of life. Would Ghanaians love to have other amenities that first-world citizens enjoy? Perhaps. Are they in abject misery because they do not? No way.
In thinking that Ghanaians’ quality of life suffers because their standard of living is below ours we’re making a cliched blunder, guessing at the perspective of someone else through the filter of your own cultural sensibilities. It’s arrogant.
Africa could use help, there’s no doubt. But aid will never be effective if we provide it based on caricatures of behavior meant to tug at us emotionally. So, Sally, go home. I know children lack food and die of horrible illnesses in Africa. But images like that mask the real complexity of the needs and promise of African society. Let’s be more honest.