Friday, July 8, 2016

Are "Our" Problems Caused by "Them"?

The Livingstone Museum, in downtown Livingstone, Zambia, has an interesting way of chronologically displaying the area's history.  It starts with the natural exhibits of the land, so famously shaped by Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, move on to the local ethnography, and finally to the more recent history of the town itself.  In this chronology, there is an interesting section that display a model of the pre-modern African village, with its semi-naked residents and thatched huts, immediately followed by the town of Livingstone at the turn of the century, with cars, shops, and a multiracial population.

The exhibits, conspicuously, are respectively called, "Our Village" and "Their Town."  The texts that accompany these titles drive the provocativeness home.  As a short summary, it basically says that before the arrival of the Europeans, Our Village was a self-sufficient unit, growing food and making tools through cottage industries that filled the needs of all residents.  But when the Europeans arrived and started building Their Town, they brought with many manufactured consumer goods, the likes of which Africans have never seen before.  As Africans accepted things like sugar and razor blades with growing affinity, things changed.

Africans realized that they continuously wanted to have access to these nice things, and these were not things that Our Village can produce on its own.  They had to go buy them in the stores at Their Town, for which money was needed.  So more and more Africans moved from Our Village to Their Town, so that they can earn money to buy those nice things.  Demand for traditional African crafts dropped sharply, and cottage industries in Our Village gradually died out, making their residents even more dependent on Their Town for supplies and resources, a trend that continues today as Africa urbanizes.

The underlying meaning of the narrative here is pretty clear.  Before the Europeans came, Africans lived happy, independent lives.  When the Europeans came, they destroyed traditional livelihoods and reorganized the economy to the extent that Africans are forced to be dependent on them.  As such, because modern-day Africa's economic problems are collectively an extension of the issues colonialism left behind, today's poverty here can ultimately be traced back to the Europeans, and hence is their fault.  Naturally, because Europeans created Africa's problems in the first place, Europeans should also play an active role to resolve them.

It is surprising how many Africans, even in the educated elite, buy into this line of logic.  The author, separately speaking to a Chinese executive from Huawei and a French one from Alcatel, was told in both instances that during their business meetings with African government officials for telecommunication contracts, they were asked to lower prices with this exact line of reasoning from the Africans.  It is one of "Africans should not abide by the normal business practices of supply and demand, because Africa deserves help from foreigners in the form of favorable terms, due to foreigners' ugly deeds in the past."

And now the logic is being passed into the next generations of Africans, through interaction with elites of their countries, through social and school teachings, and now through the authoritative exhibits of a nationally funded museum.  It builds a society-wide mentality of collective helplessness combined with an obsessive need to extort foreigners.  Africans cannot fix Africa's problems because Africans did not create them.  But since foreigners caused them, it is 100% justified for them to give Africans cash and other handouts.  If they do not, well, then it is injustice in the purest sense.

What is worse, such a mentality is perfect for governments to disincentive any need for improvements in governance and policymaking.  The thought is that since foreigners caused Africa's problems and only they can fix them, African governments cannot do anything to make Africa better anyways.  It reduces the local populace's expectation of the government's performance, and allow government officials to be corrupt and do next to nothing for their constituencies with little political scrutiny and next to no electoral punishment.  In democracies where votes equal to legitimacy, such mentality represents a dark future for the countries.

There is no denying that colonialism has left the continent with negative legacy with pragmatic repercussions for generations to come, but to use the dark past as a guiding light for dictating Africa's future only helps to create a self-fulfilling prophesy of same problems created by foreigners being continued by inert African governments.  The only way to break what essentially is a vicious cycle is to throw away the past, let history by history, and allow the country to start from a blank slate.  The fact that Africa of Our Village had thriving cottage industries illustrate that there is no economic handicap that Africans cannot outcome independently.

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