Engaging With Africa

Americans will do anything for Africa, someone once said, except read about it. This is something that people who write about Africa think about. People like Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times’ columnist. Kristof has his methods—using Americans as an avenue through which to hook people on African issues—and he wrote about them recently.

There’s another way to get people to care about Africa. Convince Americans to go to visit. Let them rub up against rural poverty. Let them cuddle Burkinabé babies, drink home-brewed sorghum beer, and rock back and laugh with Ghanaian villagers. That’s exactly what a group of Hispanic Americans did recently. They traveled to Burkina Faso and Ghana to learn about Catholic Relief Services and the people we help.

Burkina Faso

Engaging with residents of Burkina Faso. Photo by Lane Hartill / CRS

“I think [the Hispanic perception] of Africa is in line with the overall perception of Africa from most in the US: it’s the stereotypical ‘Heart of Darkness’ where unruly tribes constantly jockey for position in a never ending cycle of violence and poverty,” says Julian Lazalde, a Catholic Relief Services advocacy officer who was on the trip. Based in Chicago, Julian works to promote solidarity between Americans and those CRS helps overseas.

But after his trip, he had a more nuanced, visceral sense of Ghana and Burkina. “To truly speak about global solidarity in a powerful way, it’s essential to see the embodiment of your work in person,” Julian says. “To feel the heat of the homes, to see the cramped conditions where upwards of eight people live on less than $1 per day; I felt as though I could literally smell the heat.”

Julian got a 10-day taste of two countries. But I’d like to invite him and the group back to Africa and let them see deeper into it. I wish they could see the side of Africa I see when I visit the people CRS helps.

I’d introduce them to Chantal, a woman in a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad whom I met. We sat in the courtyard of her hut and she told me about how her husband abused her, about how he strung her upside down, called his brothers, and they beat her. She pulled back her veil and showed me the scars on her forehead. The more she talked, the more it came out: How she had to submit to him all the time, the accusations, the abuse. By the end of the interview, her tears darkened her veil. But CRS’ partner convinced her husband to stop beating Chantal. This is how you convince someone to care about Africa.

I wish I could have introduced them to Tacko, 20-year-old friend I met in The Gambia. She worked for CRS’ partner the Catholic Development Office. She was an HIV counselor, and she could stare a woman twice her age right in the eye and tell her not to feel sorry for herself. Buck up, she’d tell them, you have a family and people that love you. She lived alone. When I left The Gambia, Tacko’s halting English, her moxie, her genuineness, stayed with me.

A few months later, I was in Nigeria, interviewing kids orphaned by HIV, when I got the email: Tacko had died. I was crushed. But Tacko’s life, I know, can move people to think in new ways about HIV.

Burkina Faso

Engaging with residents of Burkina Faso. Photo by Lane Hartill / CRS

Then there was Teresa in Kankan, Guinea. She’s a sweet teenager who is followed by an imaginary man. She’d turn around and he was there. And then he wasn’t. Or he’d appear in her bedroom, telling her he loved her. Her father had already written her off as a sorceress. Her mother had died, and now she had dropped out of school to support the family. I’m not crazy, am I? she asked me. No, I told her. You’re not. People in my country have the same problem and they get help. I was relieved that she was enrolled at a CRS-supported vocational center.

That’s how you get people to care about Africa. Sit them down in the hot sand of Chantal’s courtyard and listen to her talk about how men treat women. Give them a few hours with Tacko and I guarantee you they’ll never think the same about HIV again.

It’s not easy to convince Americans to go to Africa. But it is easy to write about Africans in a way that humanizes them, that connects Americans in a personal way with them. If readers have to crunch through number and statistics and they only get trace elements of humanity, forget it. They’ll click away. You’ve lost them, and their interest in Africa.

And right now, Africa needs all the interest it can get.

Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa.

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3 Responses to “Engaging With Africa”

  1. Carla Aguilar Says:

    Lane, I thought of you when I read that Nicolas Kristof article. Thanks for this post.

  2. Nicholas Troilo Says:

    In 2003 our family business, a small wine retail boutique in Darien,CT, started a program called Turning Wine Into Water. We have devoted some of our profits to building water wells in the remote Makungwa region of Zambia and this year are working in Ethiopia. In Zambia we helped more than 5500 people get access to clean water by building wells and sanitation facilities in the area.
    Despite our daily message of the desperate need for potable water in Africa, we have gotten little attention from the public for our projects. The biggest deterrent is that we don’t want to raise money through elaborate social events and that money is directed to Africa – a continent many Americans know so little about.

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