afrika aphukira

Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . . Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective--uMunthu. Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Paul Theroux's 'mythomaniacs' and Malawian burden

In his op-ed piece in today's New York Times, Paul Theroux points out the destructive myths that portray Africa as a place that can only be saved by outside help. Using the example of Malawi, where he taught as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, and where he recently returned for a short visit, Mr. Theroux argues that Africa needs its doctors and teachers, trained on the public purse, to stay and work there, rather than immigrating to the global North.

Mr Theroux describes an Africa that is, in his words, "much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed." But because it appears to be unfinished and different, it attracts what he calls "mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth." Giving the example of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie holding babies in Ethiopia, Mr Theroux says "White celebrities busy-bodying in Africa loom especially large," reminding him of Tarzan and Jane.

The results of such Western antics, Mr. Theroux observes candidly and impressively, have been "violence to Africa's belief in itself," yet for all the resilience Africans have shown, in the face of bad leadership, nobody has given credit where it is due.

If Mr. Theroux had ended his op-ed here, and not gone on to reproduce stereotypes about Africa and ignore the impact of debt and the role of the West in worsening Africa's problems, I would have considered his ideas rare and dignified, worthy of the attention of anyone interested in hearing views on Africa not found in mainstream discourses. But Mr. Theroux has gone on to call Malawi a "failed state", to characterize Malawi's current president as being no better than the two previous presidents, and he has said nothing about the destabilizing role the West has played in Africa over the centuries and decades.

While Mr. Theroux dismisses the idea that Africa needs debt relief, his reasons are not about the immoralilty of the notion of Africa owing the West money, given the contexts in which Africa found itself needing loans and aid from the West. He dismisses the idea of debt relief, in addition to the idea of sending charity money to Africa, because, he says, the money is never accounted for.

Mr. Theroux appears oblivious to the amounts of money in question, and the larger problems that debt servicing causes. On May 29 this year the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported that Malawi receives $90 million in aid each year, and pays $162 million to service debt. A 2004 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development revealed, according to The Green Left Weekly (of Australia) of June 29, 2005, that between 1970 and 2002 Africa received $540 billion in loans, and paid back $550 billion. Ken Wiwa wrote on July 4 this year that Nigeria started out with a debt of $5 billion. Since then Nigeria has paid back $16 billion, and it still owes $35 billion.

Whether Mr. Theroux is aware of these issues or not, one is left wondering exactly who owes who here in the manner the issue of "debt" is framed. If we add to the mix the 70,000 highly trained Africans who immigrate to the global North each year, and the historical wealth that was systematically stolen from Africa and taken to the West, including the free labor that fueled the industrial revolution (Inikori, 1999, 2002), the question of who really owes who becomes more intriguing than enlightening. But these are issues people like Mr. Theroux and countless others in the mainstream, both in Africa and in the West, conveniently choose to ignore.

Mr. Theroux has done remarkably well to point out how Africa can in fact be self-sufficient, and is not given credit for its resilience, but his effort leaves one with the impression that all is well in the West. He talks about bad governance, corruption and rigged elections as if they are a peculiar African phenomenon, when in fact these very vices are alive and thriving in the West itself. Given the ills and inequality Hurricane Katrina uncannily stripped naked, talking of Malawi as a failed state takes on eerie, curious proportions.

Malawians love to beat upon their presidents, and rightly so. However Malawians also appreciate the complexities involved in being a leader, so much that it is almost disingenuous, if not prejudiced, to characterize the three presidents who have ruled Malawi as nothing but megalomaniacs and swindlers. I have little praise for Malawi's presidents myself, but to say that President Bingu wa Mutharika "inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs" is to perpetuate an innuendo characterized by exaggeration and inaccuracy. Of course Malawians were shocked when the ever-vigilant Malawi press uncovered the President's wish to replace his accident-damaged presidential limouisine with one Benz Maybach (not a "fleet" as Mr. Theroux suggests). Malawians expressed enough outrage and the President canceled the deal.

In the nineteen months President wa Mutharika has been Malawi's leader, Malawi's economy has reversed from a MK5 billion ($500 million roughly) deficit to a MK3.6 billion ($360 million roughly) surplus, according to the Reserve Bank of Malawi (Financial and Economic Review, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2005). Gross domestic product grew by 4.6 percent in the quarter in question, and money supply increased by 13. 4 percent. The World Bank and the IMF have released more amounts of "aid," and more is on the way. Several road and infrastructure projects have been carried out and completed, and several cases of high profile corruption are being investigated.

Of course there are new problems brought about by Dr. wa Mutharika's style of leadership and temperament, including allegations of corruption. Other problems involve political resentment from his opponents, while others stem from weakened structures and reccurent drought. The Malawi media has been fastidious, and has kept the president and his government in check. In other words, there are many positive and encouraging things that are going on in Malawi today, none of which merited mention in Mr. Theroux's description of Malawi.

His point about the credit that Africa deserves but does not receive might as well start with Mr. Theroux himself, otherwise he risks being lumped together with the rock stars who feel burdened with a conscience more from hiding the ills and roles of their countries than from the crocodile tears shed on Africa.

View blog reactions posted by steve sharra @ Thursday, December 15, 2005


At Friday, December 16, 2005 1:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Paul Theroux's is just one of the many westerners who come to Malawi or indeed any African country for a short time and claim to be experts on Malawi. They thrive on emotional impressions informed by their alien background and speak with such ignorant arrogance and begin to educate Malawians with impudent notions with no analytical basis and facts that the Mlauzi analysis has unearthed. The WTO saga is showing the world that the 3rd world can no longer be taken for granted and be pushed into poverty with unequal bargaining power. Let us continue to educate the West of the evil they have created and continue to perpetrate with ill informed programmes and notions under the guise of developing Africa when in actual fact they are stripping Africa of the very essence of its survival and uniqueness. However, just like the 60's peace corp has observed we are a resilient "much lovelier, more peaceful and innately more self-sufficient and in our own way more prosperous than the west.

At Friday, December 16, 2005 4:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to commend Mr. Paul Theroux's interest in Malawi. Not many westerners care about issues outside their environments. I would also like to agree with him that international aid has not done much to help Malawi get on her feet towards economic independence. If anything, governments over the years have caught themselves in a cycle where they have tended to develop a dependent syndrome. Today, more than 50% of Malawi's budgets are funded by foreign aid. I appreciate foreign aid that goes into humanitarian efforts like health sector and education sector development but all budgetary support allocations are, I believe, are just a way of satisfying Malawi's spending appetite for her leaders. one just has to look at the type of vehicles that government ministries in Malawi have, how many vehicles per cabinet minister, the number of local and international trips the head of state makes per year, budget allocations to the Office of the President, state house and one would see how loopholes are deliberately created to "abuse" aid that comes from donors. As for debt and its relief, that is a long cycle that cannot easily be broken. There is a 15 year MASAF project running in Malawi right now. For most Malawians, MASAF funds are free money for Malawians to develop and sad to say quite a large group of people have become rich with the funds. The truth is that MASAF funds are a loan from the World Bank payable in 40 years time. I do not have a problem with accessing funds for social action and development. We all know these funds have built hospitals (although most buildings do not have staff to run them), roads and bridges. My problem is eating a mail and billing it on our children. Most of the infrastructure being put in place through MASAF funds are not income generators. In 40 years time most of those structures will be in need of repair and that is a double cost to the future generation. I do not have an answer to solving this kind of situation. So to agree with Mr. Theroux, foreign aid has not done much to help Malawi as a nation. I however, do not agree with him when he says Malawi is a "failed state". We have the potential and what we only need is a leader to unite us, a leader who will not think about himself/herself before others. To some extent I will agree with Mr. Theroux that Malawi's main problem has been its leadership through the years. We have the resources, the necessary peace and tranquility but all our leaders did not produce the best out of these. As a country we have put partisan politics before national unity and development. People like Theroux are not giving us solutions but only pointing out to us areas worth looking into.

At Tuesday, December 20, 2005 12:21:00 PM, Blogger mlauzi said...

thanks for the comments, and the detailed examples. it is revealing to learn about what is happening to MASAF. i didn't know, for example, that it is a loan payable in 40 years. i have also been corrected on the Maybach issue. bingu indeed ordered three of them, not just one. however i still believe theroux and others downplay the role that debt, and world financial institutions, play. the figures speak for themseves.




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