I chose to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa for the fall semester of my Junior year. I must confess that part of the reason I wanted to spend those formative months of my college experience in Africa was because I felt like I could go there and “help” people. Soon after my journey started, I realized that they didn’t want my assistance. They didn’t need an American coming to “save” them. Though crisis runs rampant all over the continent of Africa, this is largely because the White man (in the form of European colonialism) tore apart the continent on social, economic, and political levels. Ideals and morals on their own are not going to be able to fix it.
I took a sociology course at the University of Cape Town on social justice and inequality in South Africa. I was the only American in the class. The other students couldn’t understand what I thought I, or any other American, could do to help. On a practical level we did nothing to help them, and moreover don’t know enough about their culture to make impactful, sustainable change. And on a political level they thought it was important for them, as citizens of independent nation, to figure out solutions. Furthermore, they wanted me to see what I could learn from Africa – a question we often forget to address when thinking about the “Dark Continent.”
The following excerpt is from a paper my TA read us in the course:
It is important to note that we must craft solutions that are relevant to our Southern African context, which has of course been shaped by the rest of the world. Mbigi (2007) describes four world-view paradigms and their applicability to our work. The European North, characterised by the scientific, rational “I am because I think I am” Cartesian world view, which helps plan ahead and vision the future. The Eastern Asian, characterised by the “I am because I improve” towards spiritual perfection, which pushes every individual towards consistently innovating better solutions.The Western American, characterised by “I am because I, the individual hero, dream and do”, which turns personal vision, dreams and courage into enterprise. The African, characterised by ubuntu - “I am because we are; I can only be a person through others”, which contributes a completely different way of doing business. Ubuntu philosophy and practice is about listening to, empathising with and persuading the other, all to serve the needs of the community. Individual goals become automatically achieved. In an age of interconnectedness, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ubuntu will be “the gift that Africa is going to give the world” (Mbigi, 2007: 297).
The notion of ubuntu is one that I’ve carried with me since returning from South Africa almost a year ago. If we choose to look at the world through the African lens “I am because we are,” we can understand that in order to create a more perfect world, it is necessary to work together, to strive to create a model in which we all bring our individual strengths for the collective good. The notion of the good life is different for all of us. I’m not sure that I agree with my peers from the University of Cape Town that there is nothing we can do to help, but I do think we must recognize that it is critical for us to release the hold of the White Man’s Burden and celebrate Africa, and the rest of the world, for each nation’s unique and distinct issues and strengths. We should keep these channels open, not that we can help Africa, but that we may learn from them as well. After all, African nations aren’t the only nations that have problems that could use solving.
Is Talia the only writer that truly “gets” the post-colonial insight that people in all countries are fundamentally equal? It’s hard to imagine a louder signal that you’ve internalized respect for another than the realization that they should be teaching you, not vice versa. While the naïve communitarianism that ubuntu points to is probably not the way to go (20th century deviations from liberal individualism didn’t work out so well), there’s something heartening about the idea of seeking wisdom in other areas of the world. Perhaps this is a response to Taylor’s assertion that we should analyze global capitalism before spreading it.Talia’s piece reminds us that opening the channels between Africa and America does not have to imply one-way relations, even if we can somehow clean these relations of problems of power and domination. Maybe it’s the simple mutual exposure that will bring the greatest benefits of 21st century American students going to Africa.
There are two more things we should notice from this discussion. The first is that, if you put three Columbians together to talk about sub-Saharan Africa, it’s not a guarantee that they will start talking about Jeffrey Sachs. Is this a deficiency in our thinking? Is it a strength?
The second is that the primary motivation for both Talia and Eric is simple curiosity, a desire to learn and to experience. We can talk about such curiosity as the privilege of those wealthy enough to travel or as being the first step back to the adventurism we saw before. But the combination of curiosity and potential benefit is what all academia is about, and it’s nice to see that reflected in our student body.
Written in response to Taylor Thompson, “We Need a Better Context for Critique”
Columbians Going to Africa: We Need a Better Context for Critique
Eric was uneasy about his own story, which smacked a little of the type of thinking that drove 19th century imperialistic adventurism (and drove me to finally sit down and watch the Wild Thornberrys). But below, Taylor Thompson asks whether Eric was asking the right questions. Do our personal stories matter? Is the larger question what white Americans are bringing to Africa, rather than who is doing the bringing? To what extent does the discussion of what we as Columbians can and should do to help require another conversation first: what is the morality of the global system we would be helping to spread?
Of all the misunderstood tropes of Western civilization, none has more power to mislead than the White Man’s Burden. A cursory reading of Kipling (to say nothing of a critical assessment of the history of empire) makes it clear that from the vantage point of Britain at the apogee of its power, material privilege was not an inducement to “fix everything”—that would be to put the cart in front of the horse. Instead, it was the very struggle to uplift the world that the West claimed as its privilege. Such an idea strikes the modern reader as hopelessly outdated at best, and at worst as a contrivance that existed solely to justify the domination of most of the world’s population, a sham which demands unending contrition from the West.
Instead of imposing the bourgeois values of the present age onto the nineteenth century, we should be willing, as students of history, to take historical figures at their word—not uncritically, but in good faith nevertheless. And in that light, what do we discover about the Western age of empire and its attendant worldview? We find much that repulses us now—scientific racism, material exploitation, and wars of conquest. We find paternalism, with all the problems it poses for a civilization that prizes the individual. And are we so sure that the social relations of modern capitalism (harsh, transactional, and inescapably materialistic) are an unqualified improvement over a system that induced a sense of mutual obligation (coerced and conditional, yes, but organic nevertheless) between ruler and ruled?
I think the question we should really be asking is not whether the imperial legacy is worthy of praise or shame—or both. We should be asking whether the institutions and technologies of the modern world are accountable to the people whose lives they now regularly upend. We should be asking whether “uniform Western standards” is even a meaningful category when it has become unfashionable to apply traditional Western values to Westerners. For those who believe that the present iteration of global capitalism is the best we can hope for, I suppose that it is enough to say that we should just follow our imagination to wherever it leads us and learn our lessons along the way. As I do not share that belief, I am skeptical of the idea that an open mind and a bit of moxie are enough to lead people to the right path. To truly live well, I think we require a sense of duty that our sacrifice-averse society is generally unwilling (or unable?) to impart.
Written in response to: “How the Wild Thornberrys Sent me to Africa by Eric Kutscher”
How the Wild Thornberrys Sent Me To Africa
Columbians are often torn between pride in our achievements and discomfort at our own privileges. Nowhere does this tension show more strongly than when we discuss how we relate to the third world—specifically, how we relate to sub-Saharan Africa. The distinct subset of us that study the region or travel there are subject to mixed feelings: on the one hand we know that helping those in need is unambiguously moral. On the other hand, we’re all aware of the disastrous legacy of European imperialism in much of the world. Deconstructive criticism has seeped into our consciousness enough to make us question our own motives in helping others. But does the issue of 21stcentury Columbians and international study and service really have that much to do with the elites of generations ago? Or has nothing really changed? -ed.
On a late fall day of my sophomore year, I walked into John Jay dining hall for dinner with my friends. As I sat down at the table, I decided I would break the news: next year, I was going to study abroad in Kenya.
My friends’ reactions were quite similar to my parents’. Why? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you going to do there? Wouldn’t you prefer to go to Europe? How did this white, Jewish boy from Westchester become interested in African studies? The answers to those questions were not clear. I just knew I had to go. Ever since early childhood, I had wanted to travel to Africa.
Growing up, certain stereotypical aspects of Africa had always intrigued me. In 2001, the Wild Thornberrys movie “The Origin of Donnie” aired on primetime Nickelodeon television. I was intrigued by the animated version of Africa on the screen. The jungles were enormous, and everything seemed overgrown and wild. It was an exotic world, almost unimaginable from New York City suburbs. It inspired me to want to live like the “tribal people” the film portrayed, opening acorns and collecting berries with friends in my backyard. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to admit the lack of knowledge and inappropriate stereotypes that I had about a continent so rich in culture and history. Most amazing was my geographical ignorance: Wild Thornberrys did not take place in Africa—it was Borneo.
Perhaps it was this naïve fascination that got me interested in being president of the Student World Awareness Program in high school. I organized t-shirt sales for Save Darfur, ran a “malaria bites” campaign to buy mosquito nets for children in Uganda, and collected school supplies for students in Rwanda. Despite being Jewish, a certain missionary quality seemed to call me to “help the African people.” It was almost like I had been endowed with the White Man’s Burden—coming from privilege, I had the obligation to fix things. Without even knowing what problems “they” had “over there,” I thought I had the answers. I didn’t realize then that my position as an outsider should instead learn about and help individual communities face unique challenges, not impose uniform Western solutions on diverse peoples.
During my first semester of college, my academic coursework in Africa started to develop. I also had discovered my love for public health, and knew it would be well paired with a semester in Africa. I discovered that the School of International Training in Kenya had a Community Health and Development program—a perfect match for me. Though I only lived there for four months, I’ve come a long way in terms of my understanding of Kenya. My fascinations are still alive and well, but my appreciation for the complexities of Kenyan society have been greatly developed. But it was only after I followed my misguided childhood imagination that I was on the right path.