Rich white bringer of good things

Aug 27th, 2009 | By | Category: International

A friend working for an Irish mission agency based in Belfast phoned: our paths had crossed briefly in Rwanda when we had shared our unease at some of our experiences.  The small group of Europeans was being feted in the district as the bringers of all good things.  At every village there was something to be opened or dedicated and there were speeches and food.  Africans would stand back until the white people had been served; they would never be at the table first, never be the first in the queue.

We had recoiled at some of the sentiments expressed, depicting us as great benefactors.  Appeals that they should turn to the Bible and see that we were doing no more than our duty seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“You must read Richard Dowden”, I said, “Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”; he is one of the few people who understands”.

“I bought the Dowden book”, he said this morning, “as soon as I opened it I recognized my experiences.  The opening chapter on Uganda captures exactly what I went through when I was there”.

Richard Dowden could have described the experiences that so troubled us in June without even being there.  He recounts his early years in Uganda and the wisdom of the headmaster under whom he taught, Mr Lule.

I found myself loved for the very reasons I despised. I was loved because I was white and rich, and from the rich world. I had come to bring its benefits to Africa, had I not? ‘So please Sir, Mista Richad, Masta, Teacha, My Lord, Your Majesty, help me for school fees, help me for medicine, give me clothez.’

‘No, that is not why I am here,’ my heart screamed. ‘I have come to protect innocent Africa from Europe’s greed and arrogance and make amends for slavery and imperialism. I want to preserve African values, stand in solidarity against Western materialism.’

But this was a point of view not easily understood by the children of African peasants. To them I was someone who had come to help kill off old Africa and replace it with European ways and Western goods. They despised the old Africa and wanted to be Western and ‘put on smart’. I had an image of two people running towards each other with arms outstretched, each thinking they were about to fall into the other’s arms, but instead looking beyond each other at a mirage and missing each other completely. ‘All they seem to have kept from the past is beer and drums,’ I wrote in my diary. ‘Africa is fleeing from itself as fast as it can go. If this is the revolution of rising expectations, I don’t want a part in it. But I am part of it. I am paid to feed it, to help it along its way.’

Africa wanted the trappings of Western wealth without understanding anything of the culture and values that created it or could sustain it. Instead of building on what they had and developing their assets and talents, they seemed to snatch at Western goods, turning themselves into beggars in a mad scramble to acquire symbols of Western wealth. ‘Masster help me for shart,’ they cried. ‘Aid me with medisin,’ ‘Give me clothez. Give me moneys.’ It makes you, as Paul Theroux has it, ‘a wallet on legs’. It is also a paradise for aid agencies and donors. They ask; you give. But Mr Lule was tough and told me not to give anything for nothing. ‘Whatever you do, do not let it be known you are giving out money. It will cause problems.’

A world with more Mr  Lules and less agencies with plush headquarters and shiny jeeps might have been a very different place.

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  1. Africans would stand back until the white people had been served

    Not that I’m planning any philanthropic trip to Africa in the near future but this would give me the shits. I would be so politically incorrect and upset my host by insisting that they were served first, or at least along side. Then easy to say from the comfort of my middle class existence. Why is this still tolerated? Why don’t you all muck in? Have a barbie . . build a barn . .Why is a visit by a sweet and compassionate Vicar considered a formal event? I don’t know but it all sounds very formal and Empire vs the black dude.

  2. That is Dowden’s point. The European ideals of egalitarianism and democracy espoused by tired old liberals like myself have not found root in African culture – wealth, status and the influence of spiritual powers are things held dearly. If imperialism is imposing oneself and one’s way of doing things upon others, then to have insisted on doing things our way would have been the imperialist attitude, albeit a cultural imperialism.

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