Last year, in case you missed it, the world was made aware of the existence of Mindy Budgor. Indeed: an earth-shattering event, made even more so by the hagiographic BBC coverage of her life achievement. Which was: taking a short-cut to becoming a warrior in an utterly unspoilt Maasai community somewhere in Kenya, the First Female!!!! I suggest the thinking among said Maasai was probably: ‘If we just give her what she wants, maybe she will then just go away and leave us in peace.’ Oh yes, she wrote a book. Warrior Princess. For those with strong nerves, here’s the interview.
Over the last two decades or so, we have been subjected to an endless parade of individuals using a fairly randomly chosen bit of Africa (preferably unspoilt but with mod cons), as a décor for the all-engulfing drama of their own extraordinary and massively important lives. So we had Angelina Jolie shutting down Namibia because she needed the nation as a backdrop for the singularly important event of her giving birth. We also had Madonna, although she skipped the entire birth giving thingy and just went to Malawi to get herself an orphan or two. She then decided to raise the entire country in the best way possible (her own, of course) but omitted to inform the government of her plans, which, bizarrely enough, failed to amuse president Joyce Banda. Oh and we had Christina Aguilera, last September, making ‘an emotional trip’ to…Rwanda; that’s a bit like visiting Auschwitz for a very private cleansing ceremony. The website Africaisacountry took that little ego-stroking gem apart here:
I came across one bona fide example last year. She was using the tourist-infested seaside resort of Abene, in the Casamance, as her very own African backdrop. She runs, among many things, a music festival that must unfold itself in exact accordance with her wishes, musicians be damned. One day she was upset because she had received lip from a few local women she was leading in development (naturally). They apparently did not agree with her methods. The village queen in question was of European extraction but unlike Budgor, the locals won’t be shod of her any time soon, it seems.
Image from a large exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. One of my readers wrote in and said the work could possibly be by or have taken inspiration from the great Beninois artist Georges Adeagbo. Thanks, Judith!
I am moved to relate all these tales because I have recently been trimming my archives. Among the papers I consigned to the dustbin were a few reviews of a book by a Dutch journalist, applauding the demise of the White Man in Africa. One review mentioned that the book related how in some parts of Africa (certainly not here in Dakar), lighter-skinned people were used in advertising because it sold the product better. Odd, that.
In another review of the Dutch journalist’s book, the celebration of ‘the White Man slipping from his pedestal’ in Africa also got a mention. Oddly enough, the reviewer went on to count the blessings of development cooperation, which historically has been rather intimately connected with the presence of said White Man. A while ago I wrote a little miniseries about the many problems associated with development.
You see, I do not consider the disappearance of the White Man from Africa a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But I find the barely concealed glee with which said disappearance is described by the (inevitably female) author a little disingenuous. In her own article, that went along with the promotion of her book “Goodbye Africa”, Marcia Luyten (the Dutch journalist in question) notes with relish that the white man ‘no longer plays a significant role,’ must ‘abandon his superiority’ and ‘arrogant paternalism’.
My guess is that journalists like her cannot help it. They have grown up in the wake of a movement that has spent the last fifty years smashing this perceived superiority of the (white) man over the head, having its remains hung drawn and quartered and burnt to cinders for good measure. Cheering at man’s individual or collective misfortune has, unfortunately, become one of its unbecoming hallmarks. Equally unfortunately, the same movement has come to dominate the discourse that has blighted the African landscape of ideas for the past half century: the discourse of development. The result? A depressing parade of cut-and-paste “Women and Development” projects, equally applied in the arch-conservative Christian-dominated regions of Southern Africa and in the stagnant matriarchies that are liberally sprinkled all over West Africa. No wonder our development friend in Abene had arguments; West African women as a rule do not take kindly to being told what to do.
Many moons ago I reviewed a book by the writer Lisa St Aubin de Teran, who was, in her own words, leading the village of Cabaceiros in Mozambique from poverty to a safer existence. Cool. She was extremely busy with a new tourism resort, schools and all the rest of what constitutes, according to Westerners, “development”. All this happened against the backdrop of – here we go again – an utterly unspoilt Africa where people play drums in the moonlight. A lot. The book came out at roughly the same time that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy made that imbecilic speech here in Dakar, declaring that Africans ‘had not entered history’. I concluded my review of the book by saying that Sarkozy got a volley of richly deserved flak for his stupidity. When, on the other hand, a rich white woman writes roughly the same, she shoots to the top of the bestsellers list. Superiority? Paternalism? I think Luyten was looking at the wrong sex. Or gender, if one is ideologically so inclined. But all this does prompt this extremely heretical question: what is it with (some) white women and their colonial fantasies?
Still, it was quite a relief to read that there was some room left for The White Man in Africa, minus arrogance, paternalism, superiority and I guess he’d better leave his testosterone at home too. On second thought, he’d better bring it along because because the first issue Luyten brings up is geopolitics, to be exact: the very real threat of jihadist fundamentalism. And lo and behold, Dutch white people (even men!) have heeded the call and taken the plunge…after the French who got there first. They will gallantly gather intelligence and do all manner of good and useful military things, in order to save the career of Bert Koenders, the former Dutch development minister (Labour), currently heading the UN Mission to Mali. He needs his succession of UN posts like a fish needs water; a goodly portion of the Dutch Labour Party views him in the same way as I imagined the Maasai considered Ms Budgor.
Another area where the White Man (minus arrogance etc, you get the picture…) can be useful is Business – although he must take a leaf out of the book of his Chinese competitors and become rather ruthless and imbued with realpolitik. Bit strange, that.
But the third reason for white people to bother with Africa is the best: humanitarianism. Yes!!!! There is still space and scope for White Saviours! Provided, I assume, they are female. It’s a bit like sex tourism in The Gambia, Casamance and Kenya, I suppose. It’s all OK, as long as (white) women do it.