“What would we plan to be doing in Rwanda?”
“Nothing, we wouldn’t plan to do anything”.
“Well, what is the purpose of the visit?”
“To listen and to learn. There is nothing that most of us could do that could not be done much better by local people. Africa has had a long history of people going to do things. Most times the things fall apart as soon as the people go because they have not been done by the local people”.
Talking about a visit which was about doing nothing seemed odd. Ireland has a great history of sending off countless groups of people to do things. The media hail as heroes those who have gone off and done things for Africans; there’s not much kudos in saying that you are going to talk to people, that you are going to listen to what they say, but that you are not going to do anything.
There is an expectation that to travel from this country to a poor country in Africa necessarily means that one is going to try one’s hand at being an amateur bricklayer or carpenter; that one is going to lend one’s physical strength to helping Africans. Yet, if one is hard-headed about it, it becomes quickly obvious that this is probably not the best approach. The Africans at the receiving end are usually physically stronger, mostly more adept at using local resources, certainly better able to cope in unEuropean climates, and definitely better versed in the language and the culture of the locality. It is very satisfying to go from here and feel that one has done something, though the benefit to local community may have been far greater if one had paid a group of local people to do things.
The approach of going not to do things was confirmed in a passage from Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. The book came as a birthday present this morning and fell open at page 340, in the middle of a chapter on AIDS in Africa. Sentences seemed to leap off the page,
Once again the message from Africa was clear and simple: you cannot achieve anything in Africa unless you work with Africans. To do that you need to understand Africa and how it works.
Richard Dowden’s words should be pasted up in some prominent place in Dublin.
Ireland has endured generations of condescending and patronising attitudes from some on a neighbouring island. (A friend once told me of a telephone call from a colleague in the London office of her organisation, “You know the way there is a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales, what do you have in Dublin?”) It would be a pity if the attitudes justifiably hated by Irish people were to be replicated in attitudes towards African nations.
Africa carries enough burdens without adding our good intentions to their load.