During the summer of 2005, I spent a month in Nigeria, traveling and working with the Igbo tribe. (I plan to write much more about my trip in future posts, but you can click here to read an article about my visit).
As it turned out, my sojourn in Africa happened to coincide with the G8 – the high profile summit of international leaders who met to discuss world economic policy. As you may recall, international aid – and in particular African debt relief – was foremost on the agenda of the G8. You may also recall this was the time of the Live 8 concerts that took place simultaneously in the US, Britain, and South Africa.
It was a remarkable and edifying experience for me to watch the G8 unfold from Africa. I recall one evening in particular: I was watching CNN International’s coverage of the G8 with a group of Nigerians – at the time the network was running one of it’s ongoing special reports, entitled something like”Africa in Crisis!” Every fifteen minutes or so, they’d plug the report, along with the obligatory images of emaciated children and ominous music. The commercials were interspersed among the network’s coverage of the G8 rallies and concerts, with crowds of thousands urging Western governments to do right by Sub-Saharan Africa.
As we watched, the woman next to me made no effort to hide her disgust. She was particularly mortified by the portrayal of Africans largely as pathetic victims desperately in need of the largess of the “developed world.” She was profoundly cynical about the noblesse oblige of the West, as well as the objectification that invariably went along with it.
I think of my Nigerian friend a great deal when I read about the increasingly high profile efforts to aid Africa. As I have written in earlier posts, as a Jew I do believe that my spiritual tradition commands us to do our part to alleviate poverty in the world. And to be sure, most would agree that affluent nations cannot turn a blind eye to the scourge of extreme poverty anywhere in the developing world. But beyond the academics of this important debate, there is a deeper and even more complicated issue to contemplate. To what extent do our efforts, with all good intentions, serve to objectify Africa and, in a sense, dehumanize Africans?
As I have also written earlier, Judaism urges us to engage in charitable acts in such a way that does not deprive the recipients of their essential humanity. Indeed, I would venture to guess that for most Westerners, when we think of Africans, we think of them largely as helpless objects of our pity – and not as living breathing human beings. But we must not forget that what we routinely call “Africa” is in reality a vast continent that contains 53 countries, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and cultures.
So while we find our place in the worthy efforts to support efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa, here’s a suggestion: let’s also make efforts to learn more about real Africa and real Africans – and not merely the pre-digested images served to us through Western cultural sensibilities. Here are some great Internet resources that can provide you with a helpful starting point. (Thanks to my friend, congregant and reference librarian extraordinaire Lesley Williams for helping with the research!)
News From Africa
A great source of news about Africa, this website publishes regular news, features, press reviews and editorials. It is the initiative of Koinonia Community, a not-for-profit development organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya. All the articles published in News From Africa are written from the perspective of the African grassroots people, their struggle for freedom, dignity and justice.
Science in Africa
A monthly magazine containing popular articles, research findings, events, scientific developments, and resources about science in Africa. Intended to promote local and international awareness of science conducted in Africa, the site also lists job, funding, and educational opportunities for scientists, educators, and students.
African Studies Quarterly
ASQ is an interdisciplinary, refereed, on-line journal dedicated to publishing the finest scholarship relating to the African continent.
This database of over 3,500 digitized visual images and 50 hours of sound files from 45 African countries is search-able by keyword, subject, or country.
The Story of Africa
The Story of Africa tells the history of the continent from an African perspective. Africa’s top historians take a fresh look at the events and characters that have shaped the continent from the origins of humankind to the end of South African apartheid. There are many pictures and over 40 sound recordings.
An examination of the diversity, dynamism, and global influence of Africa’s peoples and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment. It covers prehistory through the 20th century . Themes include various forms of wealth, working and living in Africa, the Kongo people of Central Africa, and the African Diaspora.
The Africa page of a wonderful music community website devoted to fans and practitioners of rhythm music.
Afropop Worldwide is PRI Public Radio International’s weekly series showcasing the contemporary musical cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe. It is a great source of general information about the music of Africa and the African diaspora.