Like Jesus, and my ancestors, I love to think and speak in parables and fables; they teem with a rare brand of wisdom; the kind found not in large libraries but deep within the sturdy souls of men and women who have lived it.
Among the Agikuyu, a story is told of a friendship between the two characters omnipresent in the Kenyan community’s lore: Wakabuku na Waruhiti, The Hare and The Hyena. One day, the quintessentially cunning Wakabuku told his not-so-smart friend Waruhiti, “Waruhiti, I really pity us for the fact that we have to live with our old mothers. We have to labour day and night for them yet they just sit at home and eat our food. I have an idea. Why don’t we go beat up our mothers tonight and kill them?” Waruhiti, in awe of his well-meaning friend’s ‘noble’ idea replied, “What would I do without you Wakabuku? Let me go start looking for a sack to put my mother into as I thrash her away to meet her Maker!” With that, the two parted, each to his homestead. When darkness fell, boom boom boom sounds from both homesteads rented the air. The next day, Waruhiti visited his friend Wakabuku to brag about his accomplishment but to his gravest surprise, Wakabuku’s mother welcomed him to the house. He fainted. He would find out later that as he was pounding his own mother to death, Wakabuku vigorously beat a drum to make the same sound.
My uncle, Mwangi, told me this story during my first year of primary school. With my six-year old brain, I could only marvel at Wakabuku’s wit and laugh at Waruhiti’s utter folly. My uncle was however kind enough to highlight some of the teachings of the tale, which included: do not allow yourself to be misled by malicious people, never do evil against those who matter to you, etc. However, coming to think of it now as a university student, thirteen years later, this might have been my first encounter with the can of worms that is pity.
I would argue that Africa has almost always been perceived with the Wakabuku’s sense of ‘well-meaning’ pity. ‘Here is yet another African complaining about the negative image of Africa. Don’t they ever get tired of talking about this nonsense?’ I see you thinking. And yes, you are partially right: it is quite taxing. However, you must understand what this pity robs Africans of: their very own humanity, their dignity; the quality that standardizes all of us as humans.
In one of my classes, an American student asked, with an incriminating tone, “You blame me for donating my $5 to a charity to capture the bloodthirsty warlord Joseph Kony, so what do you want me to do? Don’t you think people are busy with other things to do?” I could not help but notice that her eyes were similar to those of another student, who very concerned about how I had locomoted to the US, asked during our orientation week: “How did you get here from Africa?” To which I almost replied, “Haven’t you heard of the latest Flying Elephants 5?” These were eyes of well-meaning pity; very morally justified for the owners but totally dehumanizing for the target — me. And to my dear classmate: I hope the five dollars you could have used for a burger at McDonalds, but since you are the caring type decided, after watching a touching 30-minute video and feeling some guilt, to have it run behind Kony’s trails, actually captures him.
The thing with pity is that it begets paternalism. The ‘pityer’ becomes the saviour and the ‘pityee’ becomes a mere object of salvation. Yet we keep wondering why our saving missions fail one after the other. Ernesto Sirolli, in his popular TED Talk entitled ‘Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!,’ tells a story of how as an aid work in Zambia, he was part of a team “on a mission to save Zambian people from starvation” by teaching them how to grow Italian tomatoes in a particular fertile river valley. They gave incentives to the unwilling local people and finally the tomatoes grew into huge, red luscious balls. However, before harvesting, about 200 hippos stormed the tomato garden and enjoyed the delicacy brought unto them by the well-meaning Italians (talk of an easy meal!). The distraught Italians, angry with the amused local people asked, “Why didn’t you tell us this would happen?” The Zambians replied, trying to hold back their laughter I suppose, “Well, you never asked!” A lot of other aid-and even developmental-organizations might claim to be different, but think of it, how different? In any case, weren’t the Italians even following the now-superior mantra of teaching a man how to fish instead of giving him fish? I propose we ask next time, the ‘man’ might be allergic to fish. Yes, Africans have allergies too, you know.
As I was growing up, my mother’s meagre salary put my family below the ‘standard of poverty’: we lived under less than a dollar a day (leave alone the updated 2 dollars a day the World Bank claims one needs to lead a decent life). However, there was one thing that was guaranteed to earn me a thorough physical and verbal beating (the latter being worse) from my mother: begging for things from other people. I never for a day went to bed hungry and never felt my mind shackled by poverty. In any case, I learnt the word poverty when I was ten. It goes without saying that, like almost everybody below their poverty line, I do not fancy the title ‘poor.’ To me it is just a tag meant to attract pity and leave every other characteristic out. Of course no one will ever let you know that my mother woke up at 4:30 every morning and bought me a present almost every single day. It is just easy for everyone to lump her up with the 46% Kenyans who are ‘headcounted’ as being poor and who need some of your ‘saving’ magic. No wonder somebody shamelessly remarked to my Zimbabwean friend Tino, as Michael Jackson and team’s We Are The World played in the background, “That song saved your life!” I wish I were Tino, the ‘somebody’ would have gone home toothless.
Power to Binyavanga Wainaina for writing to ‘thank’ Madonna, ‘the mother of the children of Africa.’ Surely, which one of us would have survived the ravaging lions and the scorching savannah sun without her big heart, bigger than the Kilimanjaro, and her deep pockets, deeper than the Afar Depression?
Just to be clear, I am not pointing fingers at non-Africans. In any case, the corrupt African ruling class is no better than Waruhiti in the Agikuyu fable. They will accept deals for mineral exploitation that allow foreign multinationals to pocket over 70% of the revenues leaving behind just a polluted environment for the local people. In the irony of ironies, these hyenas will siphon money from national coffers and then pity their poor citizens. Chew on this as you think history:
“Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor.”
– William Blake.
I wish to conclude with the words of the man I know would have said what I have tried to say a thousand times better, our recently departed grandfather Chinua Achebe (may Ngai rest his soul in eternal peace):
“I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the best of intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?”
It’s about time we chose: to either continue seeing Africa through the lenses of the Wakabuku na Waruhiti’s pity or to start seeing Africa as people, real people. The two options are mutually exclusive.