When the editor of this site suggested for my next piece (this one) that I try tackling the Chibok kidnapping, Boko Haram becoming a household name thanks to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and mentioned Kony 2012 all in one email, the thin wire with which I keep my closet of inappropriate rage barely contained snapped. You can’t imagine how hilariously exhausting it is to be a committed pacifist with an anger management problem.
It turns out that what tripped me up was simply the use of the word ‘Our.’ Why the hostility, you ask? Because I was raised in the eighties and I bought into ‘We are The World’ and I have never handled disappointment well. This is about globalization, sovereignty, actively being African in the 21st Century and the long arcs of human history. It is personal. The fact is that when it comes to armchair activism, I am severely compromised.
The damage happened in the mid-2000s. I lived in the UK at the time, trying to study this discipline called ‘Development Studies’ at a nice school. Small classes, committed teachers, requisite amounts of left-leaning politics. And, importantly, people who don’t bat an eyelid when you tell them that you are from Tanzania. In fact, some might relate an anecdote of their own days cruising around the country post-independence doing something important with farmers or politicians or whatever.
One day a copy of Hubert Sauper’s film Darwin’s Nightmare fell into my hands. It is a compelling piece of work, quite intense, and in some ways duplicitous – which I know because I speak the Kiswahili that was ever-so-slightly mistranslated into inadequate English subtitles. Naturally it is banned in Tanzania because prostitutes, trafficking, street children, AIDS, corruption and racism are not themes that the Government of the United Republic would allow anywhere near its carefully curated international image.
And because I was in the process of falling even more irrevocably and intensely in love with my desperately complicated country, I was keen to show it off. I booked a room with a projector, spread the word, invited whoever was interested to come see a screening of Darwin’s Nightmare so that they could of see, feel, consider, think about, be moved by and enchanted and heartbroken by Her too.
When the film ended I thought we would sit in a moment of silence to consider the human condition and how unjust this world can be. Instead I was asked point-blank: “so, what are we going to do about this?” The audience trickled out, visibly disappointed to have wasted an afternoon watching a movie about people they couldn’t just, like, ‘fix’ because the organizer of the event didn’t have a campaign strategy complete with action points for them to attach to.
There is something about learning your place in the world, isn’t there? I watched them leave, wondering how on this sweet green earth these inexperienced children imagined they have a modicum of what it takes to ‘save’ anyone in Tanzania, having never even been there.
This is Africa we’re talking about, not a paint-by-numbers kit.
What happened was that I had just encountered the deep and unapologetic arrogance of developmentalism, and it was a shock. Suddenly coming from Tanzania wasn’t what I thought it was: just another thing, like coming from Myanmar or Colombia. No, we all have roles to play.
The lesson was reinforced a couple more times. I watched with amusement as students tried to bully then-president Festus Mogae of Botswana about the plight of indigenous people in Botwana during a speech he gave at the institution. He handled them like a consummate African head of state uninterested in being bothered. They ended up confused, routed and thoroughly condescended. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment.
And one evening, I sat in a pub next to a gentleman who upon learning of my nationality proceeded to regale me with tales of his colonial service, only to insist that the only reason a woman like me would be in the school I was attending was because my parents must be part of the kleptocracy. After all, no such thing as honest Africans who work long and hard to give their children an elite education, right?
Bojo! Clearly, this man did not know he was talking to a full-blooded Mhaya. And then he dragged my folks into it. Let’s just say that many of the principles by which I conduct my professional life and approach to international relations, class, the development industry, sprang out of those seminal encounters.
I haven’t hashtag brought back our girls yet, not because I don’t want these precious young women to be found and released and for their captors to be disarmed and routed. It’s because the fury hasn’t run its course yet. I hope it never does because it keeps me honest.
BringBackOurGirls is a great campaign, and I am awed and happy to see it succeed. It is changing the way things can be done; of course I am studying it. But I can’t be part of a remote-controlled effort to pressure the powers-that-be in Nigeria because I just don’t know enough about the players, the situation, the costs, the… everything. It wouldn’t be honest. It would be me, after a viewing of Darwin’s Nightmare, saying: “what can I do to save these poor people?” I haven’t even tasted their fufu. Where would I begin?
There can be no cool remove, no convenient attachment to principles or opportunities that allow me to ignore the intimacy of the act of ever helping anyone. No delegation, no armchairs, no hashtags that I can’t back up with depth and consideration. Our girls? Not until I can say it and mean it with respect and knowledge. This will not be a Kony 2012, Boko Haram is not a household name and there will be no encouraging of savior complexes on my part. Yes, I have been compromised.
Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at mikochenireport.blogspot.com @MikocheniReport