An African traveling abroad would be surprised by how his or her continent is seen by others, a “scar on the conscience of the world” as Tony Blair once famously put it. We do not smile much here, apparently. No: we are too busy razing villages to the ground, putting guns into the hands of children with big innocent eyes and bigger bellies around which swarm flies of the 'house' and 'tsetse' varieties. We spend our nights singing and dancing against colorfully sunlit backdrops, spreading disease through sweaty, primal sex, or with help from mosquitoes, who swarm around the swamps and safaris where our rich wildlife is to be found. Did I miss anything? Oh, of course: we are waiting. Africa is waiting for enlightened and well-intentioned Western talk show hosts, musicians, actresses, NGO workers, retiring statesmen, and philanthropists to come and save us.
Mostly from ourselves.
Obviously this is not the entire picture. There has come to be such a thing as a middle-class African. The 'middle African' is underrepresented in literature and commentary on Africa though. Perhaps he or she is an embarrassment. Having relative wealth on a continent where most people are poor is perhaps not a thing to be celebrated. Never mind the fact that most middle Africans started out poor and worked their way up: the 'African Dream,' if you will. Instead Africa is depicted as a basket case into which aid is poured and largely lost. Africa needs saving... and we are apparently not the ones to do it.
Last weekend, I attended a memorial where the deceased's family announced that they would construct new Class One and Two blocks for pupils at the primary school that the deceased attended as a child. It was a simple, beautiful gesture in that it went beyond the usual donation to extended family members that represents most social philanthropy here in Ghana. The extended family system is probably the closest thing we have to a welfare state here: an institution with wide responsibilities towards the poor. Some churches also make important charitable contributions but many are less interested in solving the suffering in their surroundings than they are about keeping congregation members who drive from far away content. I think it is distasteful that churches can be erected in residential areas and show no concern for people who live in those areas, but that is another topic for another day. Going back to the extended family, people often complain about ebusuasem but it would be worth keeping in mind parts of the Horn of Africa where the system is so dominant that family members have strict obligations to contribute money as soon as it is needed and to house any extended family member who shows up on their doorstep, even while abroad. We have it good here.
Money sent home by family members abroad outstrips into insignificance the amount of aid sent year by year by foreign donors. However, putting remittances aside, what about acts of philanthropy from wealthier Ghanaians living right here in Ghana?
When floods recently hit the North, it was interesting to see television spots asking for money from ordinary Ghanaians. I wondered who would heed the call. The vast mass of people here are indeed very poor. Everyday I find myself in awe of African entrepreneurship and resourcefulness: the things that ordinary people do to get by. How people live on the little that they earn. I can only imagine an expansive system of credit where people fluctuate between being poor and less poor: whoever finds him or herself less poor at any moment in time lends money to someone poorer until their situations reverse; a system bolstered by gifts or loans from wealthier extended family members. Perhaps taking an overdue cue from the mobile phone industry, banks that were once exclusively obsessed with chasing the wealthy have woken up to the fact that there is money to be made from the poor, and are now falling over themselves to learn how to talk that sweet microfinancing talk. I'm not sure if it's a good or bad thing, but the credit industry is about to explode here, and Unique Trust is only the beginning.
Fast becoming an adage as wise as any ancient proverb, “African solutions to African problems” makes a lot of sense. Whatever people's good intentions (and dodgy perceptions) are on the outside, ultimately we are our own responsibility and if we are ever going to spread our wings, it will come from encouraging the African entrepreneurial spirit. Not from buying into other people's perceptions that it does not exist.
In real terms this means things like blocking the bureaucracy and bribery it takes to start and maintain businesses here; fighting for fairer international trade rights; celebrating successful businessmen and women instead of always attributing their achievements to drug smuggling, corruption and witchcraft. In the run up to the general elections, we must look out for leaders who preach these messages and can demonstrate that they mean it. Leadership aside though, there are simple things we can each do like supporting local products over imported goods, and – in line with the spirit of the Christmas season – giving. It's a struggle with no easy way out, but in the long run, as a nation and a continent, we must learn to rely less on aid than we do on our ability to save ourselves.
Forget about making poverty history. Let's make Africans rich.
This article was printed in Sunday World on November 11, 2008