People have their reasons for going to Africa. Mine was accident and opportunity. Near the end of the last century, I applied for a journalism internship in England. The intergovernmental organization in question, however, had promised a Canadian of similar qualifications to a forestry institute in Nairobi. I pulled up a map to find Kenya (true story), and off I went.
Over the course of ten months, I joined the long line of interlopers who had failed to save Africa despite considerable expenditures of various governments’ money. This didn’t strike me as a terrible thing: I came with no pretense of saving anything, and the Western development workers I met bent into earnest pretzels in an effort to distinguish themselves from their colonial forebears and the generations of aid workers who followed. “Capacity building” was in. Scarce was the office without a “Teach a man to fish” poster. Rather than arrogantly presuming to save anything, I decided to learn something.
How Baedeker served as the Coles Notes for a Nazi invasion
Young aristocrats of the nineteenth century embarking on a grand tour trusted one guide above all others: Baedeker. The compact, crimson-bound volumes were, as British travel writer Eric Newby once described them, written “as if by spies for spies.” Axis forces might have agreed. In the winter of 1940, Hitler gave General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst just five hours to prepare Nazi battle plans for the invasion of Norway, and the general had to scramble to devise a plan of attack. He rushed to a bookstore to purchase a copy of Baedeker’s Norway, Sweden, Denmark, with Excursions to Iceland and Spitzbergen (and a handful of other titles, as red herrings). Using the famously detailed maps as his guide, he laid out a plan to strike Norway’s five key harbours. Hitler adopted the plan, and under Falkenhorst’s command Norway succumbed to the Nazi invasion in April 1940.
So I read all the local history I could and wrote about my doings on a primitive early-2000s blog. It seemed like a suitable post-colonial endeavour, coming of age in the spirit of the grand tours of bygone centuries. In its wonky way, my internship—a none-too-revolutionary fact-finding mission about online learning—still felt like an experience to be proud of.
And then the world changed. Today the increasingly popular enterprise of voyaging abroad has become the subject of disdain. The shift crystallized for me when I found my peers approvingly passing around a link to a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa, which skewers Facebook photos of well-dressed young people from the West posing with an assortment of Africans. “In order to really see the world, they decide to go somewhere where they can understand what their privilege looks like,” reads the blog’s preamble. “So they choose AFRICA! Yay! A whole continent dedicated to helping white people understand what it means to be poor and undeveloped.” I mentioned the blog to a friend, a city-bred writer like myself, wondering why foreigners get a bad rap for working in Africa. “I hate those people,” he wrote back. “Just be a tourist, like a normal person.”
Skepticism about foreign adventures has been growing, and with some cause. The long disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped the Western appetite for military intervention. Long-term overseas stints have plateaued; increasingly preferred instead are “volontours” of mere weeks, in which teenagers are carted around in a protective bubble. Meanwhile, the confluence of social networking and youth empowerment offers up ever more glib approaches to saving the world, often touting “awareness” as if it were a material force. These culminated in the brief, controversial Kony 2012 campaign, in which a pandering video whipped millions of youths into a frenzy against the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. It raised awareness of the cause, but it also unleashed a torrent of frustration upon the growing cult of self-flattering engagement with the developing world.
Programs in the vein of the Invisible Children group behind Kony 2012, or the Kielburger brothers’ Me to We mega-business, take a mercantile approach, mixing merchandise sales with short stints abroad, and stadium gatherings where thousands of acolytes can celebrate, well, themselves. Despite its name, Me to We does pretty well on the “me” front. (Visitors to its website are met with a banner ad: IS YOUR SPIRIT INDESTRUCTIBLE? If so, they are urged to prove it by buying a Nelly Furtado tank top.)
Rebecca Tiessen, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, interviewed young participants in overseas development programs. She found that the most important motivation for many was the chance to field test their career choices. But they also felt a desire for self-development, to grow as individuals, to appreciate their own luck.
These are fuzzy concepts, if ever any existed. Some students returned with a heartfelt but uncritical appreciation of their good fortune. Notably, discussions of actually helping had become decidedly secondary. In this exchange, benefits flowed from poor to rich.
This is the conundrum: earnest thinking about work in the developing world brings the potential of neo-colonialism. But if you embrace the approach I felt so proud of, viewing Africa as a place to learn from, then you risk falling down the Kony hole. This can have practical consequences. Young foreigners interested in self-improvement, who may feel unsure about why they are there in the first place, don’t make the best workers, and they can take jobs away from locals.
Does this mean we should disengage? It would be a shame if, in our irritation, we decided that the greatest virtue lay in staying home. Well-founded critiques should not become generalized into a sneer toward anyone who wishes to be useful.
There is no easy prescription for international engagement that jettisons the baggage of centuries. But a good starting point is to apply real skills to achieving this goal. This is easier for professionals with talents to offer, for doctors and engineers, more than for high school students, but anyone can offer clarity of purpose. If I were to arrive in Belgium to work for the betterment of Belgians, I had better understand how to be effective. Why should a job in Kenya, or anywhere else, be different?
So this is my advice to the boy of a decade ago who sallied off to Africa: you had best find ways to make yourself truly useful. It’s a great place to learn, and it’s good that you’re there. Just remember: it’s not all about you.
This appeared in the November 2012 issue.