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.