Thursday, July 31, 2014

The African Narrative.

In recent days, you have probably heard about the Ebola virus in West Africa.

It has finally become newsworthy; although, the disease has been in Guinea since February. It has not suddenly gotten worse, it has just finally become "interesting" enough to spread awareness on.  It has also exposed, once again, the very disturbing narrative that is often thrust upon Africa--Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Before I talk about that, I want to give a bit of a back story. West Africa is a very important place in my life. It is a place where I have spent a lot of time. Sierra Leone, in particular, I consider to be my adopted home--and where I plan on living and working eventually. I have strong connections with many people in Sierra Leone, and deeply love its culture.

This is why I am so grieved to see the same story of Africa again and again.

Sometimes, when I give presentations on Sierra Leone, I will begin with this or a photo like this, and ask for people's responses. Common reactions are sick, poor, sad, pain, and helpless.

And, I understand those responses. They are natural; they are usually well-intentioned and kind-hearted. Before I ever went to Sierra Leone, as a well-intentioned, kind-hearted fourteen year old, I thought the same thing. Plus, I had world-changing plans to save every poor, starving child by my knowledgeable self.

What I did not consider, before I stepped off the plane and my world view was changed irrevocably forever, was that I was not the superior being coming to rescue some living statistics.

That is the common narrative thrust on Africa: a continent full of living (but mostly dying) statistics. Oh, they have faces--sad, starving faces to use at fundraisers to try and save some of these statistics.

But, here's the thing. That is NOT Africa's narrative. The people of Sierra Leone are not defined by their poverty or their circumstances (and they do not all have the same circumstances either).

They are defined as human beings. People with the same diverse emotions, personalities, abilities, perspectives--with every quality that makes up a person.

The African narrative is made up of every life and every story that every person chooses for their own person.

But, that is not easily definable. It also calls into question why so many people could allow so many other people to live in extreme poverty; often lacking basic human rights like clean water, healthy food, education, and medical care.

This is why the current narrative of the Ebola epidemic so disturbs me. The disease has been spreading in West Africa for months. Steadily, hundreds of people have been dying, yet there was very little awareness or coverage. Suddenly, the coverage is here, but the story has often focused on how it could easily reach Europe or America. I have been hearing and seeing the same refrain: "It's just a plane trip away!"

I want to say, but you are also just a plane trip away from an entire continent of fellow humans.

And, if I were putting it in completely mercenary terms, ignoring Africa doesn't just "hurt" Africa. Ignoring Africa is ignoring millions of strong, resilient people with creativity, ingenuity, and ideas that benefit the whole world.

It disturbs me that people discount this emergency because it is "typical" or "normal" for people to die in Africa. It disturbs me that millions of diverse people are all painted with the same faceless statistics. It disturbs me that people can give no dignity, respect, or empathy to an entire continent of people.

I write these things, neither as the spokesperson for Africa (I am in no way setting myself up as the only perspective), nor as a perfect, selfless human being. I wrote about my previous well-intentioned ignorance. For many people, I know that is the same way.

But, we cannot stay ignorant.

The people of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and all of Africa deserve our empathy and respect--not because they are "poor and sick," but because they are people.

Get involved:

President Koroma of Sierra Leone has declared August 4th to be National Stay-At-Home Day--dedicated to education, prayer, and reflection. If you can, set aside a moment for prayer or reflection.

Donate to immediate disaster relief:

Samaritan's Purse

Red Cross

Mariatu's Hope (They also provide excellent, long-term hygiene education that helps to prevent things like this from happening.)


Sarah Asay said...

Very articulate and well put. Thank you so much for sharing this. It can easy to completely forget our neighbors.... It's disturbing how little media coverage this is getting.

Danna Richardson said...

It could be only getting attention due to the two Americans who are living with the disease.
I share the same feelings about the people of Mexico. Had America helped out this neighbor state many decades ago, maybe that country would not such a horrible government today, and their people could live there and have a better life.

KC said...

It is very sad the way some Americans seem to think we live in a bubble cut off from the rest of the world. That it's "my fellow Americans" instead of "my fellow humans." It's a poisonous mindset. I'm hoping the general "live and let live" feel of the younger generation will lead to more compassion. I'm surprised by the reaction to that picture though. Those kids look well-fed to me.

Millie said...

Sarah: Thank you for your support.

Danna: That is definitely part of it. I agree completely about many American's attitudes about Mexico. It's tragic.

KC: I hope too that people will become more compassionate. Empathy is so necessary.

These particular children were actually suffering from extreme worms, because of unclean water. The distended stomachs are because of the worms. They now have a clean well in their village and all have been through anti-parasite treatment.

Hamlette said...

I rarely read the news, so I wasn't aware of this at all! Thanks for dedicating a blog post to raising awareness. I'm off to check out some of those links you posted.

KC said...

I'm so sad to hear that about the kids in the photo. I'm used to seeing big toddler bellies like this because they're well fed. This is heartbreaking. I'm glad to hear these particular kids now have clean water to drink. Thanks so much for drawing attention to these issues and for the work you do.


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