Saturday, July 11, 2009

Obama, Africa, Its Obligation and Ours

Obama in Ghana. Photo, AFP
The big news today about President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, is that the family is in Africa. It's a historic visit because Obama is the first African-American POTUS. His father was a Kenyan, and his wife and children are the descendants of African Slaves. His visit is also only the third by a "sitting president," according to CNN and other sources.

The president is in the nation of Ghana and CNN's Anderson Cooper, with a slew of other reporters from other media outlets, are following him. Today the president gave a speech:
"Despite the progress that has been made -- and there has been considerable progress in parts of Africa -- we also know that much of that promise has yet to be fulfilled," Obama said in a speech to the parliament of Ghana, a West African nation seen as a model of democracy and growth for the rest of the continent.

Obama's visit ... highlighted the stability, political strides and painstaking economic progress that Ghana made in being the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence, in 1957. (CNN)
As on any other continent, the nations within Africa have problems that they must overcome, that people outside cannot correct because the roots go deep and rest in internal strife. So, the president is right when he says, "Africa's future is up to Africa." However, does Africa's obligation to itself mean we in the western world can afford to let Africa go it alone?

Should we apply to Africa the kind of philosophy some ultra conservatives in America apply to fellow Americans who struggle, that "your problems are your own and have nothing to do with us even if our actions are part of the reason you're in a ditch"?

As usual, Obama sees in gray, the bigger picture, not in black and white or through a narrow lens. He acknowledges that those outside Africa have plundered it, but also African's responsiblity to stand against corruption, genocide, and wars.
In many places, the hope of my father's generation gave way to cynicism, even despair. Now, it's easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many. (from Obama's Ghana speech)
Years ago, Voices of Africa, a poetry website, asked me to write a poem for Africa. I wrote two and let the site administrator select one. He chose Defining Moments, a poem about genocide, blood diamonds, and our complcity.

However, the other poem that I wrote, "Mother of Our Flesh," received commentary online as well. That was 2005, and when I wrote "Mother of Our Flesh," a good ole southern boy that I think of as an ornery poet, protested a thought in the poem. He felt the world throws good money after bad to help Africa because its corrupt leaders squander international aid:
I understand what, and why, you are saying this (sentiment expressed in the poem "Mother of Our Flesh"), Nordette, but in my opinion the world has not forsaken Africa. Far, far from it. Some [sic] much money has been poured into that continent, only to be stolen by despots and tryants, opening Swiss bank accounts as they allow their people to absolutely live worse that cattle in some area. Yes, of course, Africa needs help, always have, probabaly always will until they finally see the light of day and begin to give TO the population, instead of lining their pockets. This, is the true tragedy of that beleagured [sic] continent. (Jerry Bolton)
I had an answer from him, zeroing in on his statement, "This is the true tragedy of that beleagured [sic] continent." My answer was/is a spiritual one, that the world has a karmic debt to Africa. I know most people won't understand or accept this notion, and Jerry's comment reflects one of several western misconceptions of Africa, that Africa is "other" and separate, the sole creator of its problems as though its current condition sprang only from its deeds. Looking at history, the legacy of colonialism, I see Africa differently.

Related Link: Obama's in Africa, easy books to help you understand.

Here are two videos: 1.) Obama's arrival in Ghana. 2.) Obama's speech.


SjP said...

To deny the birth place of civilization is to deny that which makes us civilized.

Lisa Paul said...

Good post. Paul Theroux had some interesting observations about the aid dollars and their (by and large) failure in Africa in Dark Star Safari, his book about a journey he took traversing Africa 20 years after he'd spent a few years teaching in Uganda.

Among the many cases he cites, was a beautiful housing complex in Ethiopia built by German aid organizations. They were lovely two story condos that would be greatly in demand in San Francisco. The problem was, in Addis Ababa, jackals roam the streets and the people have to take all their livestock (which usually only amounts to a cow or a few goats) into their houses at night. They couldn't get them up the stairs of the condols. So they preferred their traditional adobe style large round huts.

See, no one had thought to ask the Africans what kind of houses would work for them. They just built what the West considers "a good house". Theroux's conclusion was, until Africans themselves, can be deeply involved in directing aid projects -- and free themselves of the graft that is rife -- nothing much is going to improve.

Now I usually take Theroux with a grain of salt. He tends to be a grumpy middle aged man, but he does have a point.

msladyDeborah said...

I believe that on this day-our ancestors and our mothers and fathers before us smiled and rejoiced!

Isn't it a beautiful sight to see the First Family setting foot on African soil! There is something very spiritual and right about this visit.

It is like a laying on of hands. It is also like the movement of coming full circle.