If Bob Geldof and his Band Aid buddies really want to help, they should stop portraying the continent as helpless and full of dread and start addressing the structural problems that are holding the continent back.
First and foremost, Happy New Year. After the annus horribilis of 2014, all I can do is hope that 2015 brings us joy, peace, prosperity and good health. And I also hope 2015 will see “the winds of change” blowing across Africa. Because there has to be a change. And this change can only start with us. For how long can we keep standing aside as the helpless victims? For how long must we wait for the likes of Bob Geldof to tell our stories?
Back in the November 2011 issue of New African, in a piece entitled “Saving the Africans… Again”, I shared my reflections on the negative views of Africa often perpetuated by organisations such as the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) and individuals such as Geldof. Three years later and sadly I have to start my new year’s reflections with the same issue. Geldof has done it again. This time with Band Aid 30, which instead of being about starving Africans in Ethiopia is about Africans dying of Ebola. I feel again now what I felt in 2011. This latest effort is wrong on so many levels.
Firstly, Africa has money, and to paint a picture of a continent that is so inherently poor as to be unable to fight disease itself is misleading.
Someone as well-travelled as Geldof must be aware of this. Africa has the funds necessary to solve our problems without running to the outside world, begging bowl in hand, each and every time. And Africans would have this money if only our leaders were not so corrupt, and if only the political and economic elite were not in bed with their counterparts in America, the UK, France, China and elsewhere. We would have the resources we need if only we didn’t keep accumulating debts from the countries that once enslaved us, robbing us of so much, including our people.
Oh yes, Africa has money, but sadly our leaders are selling us back into slavery. Instead of using Africa’s resources to solve African issues, those at the top prefer to enrich themselves. And instead of signing agreements and deals that will benefit the continent, they are giving away Africa’s money. So for Bob Geldof to paint a picture of Africa as completely devoid of resources and totally helpless is misleading. Instead of depicting a dark continent in need of saving, Geldof should be highlighting the debt, corruption, unfair trade deals and corporate abuses that keep Africa “under-developed”.
Secondly, let’s look at the words to the Band Aid 30 song. We all know how powerful music is. It can evoke strong emotions with the pictures it paint in our minds. So one can easily imagine that someone who has never been to any African country but is consistently told that Africa is a place of disease and death will believe it. And that is exactly what the new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” describes, as it claims: “There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear”.
The song continues that Africa is a place “where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear.” This is obviously a sensationalist exaggeration. At the time of writing, there have been 6,599 cases of Ebola reported in Sierra Leone, 7,168 in Liberia, and 2,134 in Guinea. Don’t get me wrong, those figures are appalling and upsetting. But in terms of the continent’s 1 billion population, the image Band Aid 30 poses is outrageously misleading. There have also been a few cases in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, but in the vast majority of Africa’s 54 countries, no one is dying from tears of death.
As if the words could not get any worse, the lyrics go on to say that “the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom”. Has Geldof ever experienced a typical African Christmas? Christianity has a following of hundreds of millions across Africa, and for most Christians, the birth of Christ is the most celebrated event of the year. Geldof ought to visit one of those Christian families over Christmas and tell the world whether the occasion was filled with “doom”.
Geldof may be right to think that times are difficult for many Africans, but that is also true for communities across the world, including those in the UK, which has its own fair share of poor and homeless people who rely on soup kitchens and food banks. British singers would never come together to sing a song trying to elicit pity for the UK’s poor households and portray them as passive and helpless victims, so why do so with Africa?
Those in the West might be unlikely to know this, but it isn’t only Geldof and his Band Aid pals who have done a charity record for Ebola. Songs have been recorded by artists from Liberia and Guinea to South Africa, the DRCongo and Ghana. But did any of these songs receive international airplay? These days, when artists such as P-Square and D’Banj have huge international followings, the excuse that people do not know or like African musicians doesn’t hold water. Today, even kids from China are doing the azonto dance. Just search YouTube and you’ll be amazed at the number of non-Africans across the world taking part in the azonto craze, proving that music and lifestyles from the different African countries can easily cross over to the international market.
In all of this, there’s one person I am particularly proud of: the Ghanaian British-born singer Fuse ODG. Right now, Fuse is one of the hottest artists in the world. His hits, such as “Million Pound Girl”, “Azonto” and “Antenna”, not only went on to top the charts in the UK, but also went viral on social media and led to his winning many international awards and collaborating with the likes of Wyclef Jean. I’m proud of Fuse because he refused to take part in Band Aid 30. If you follow him, you’ll know he’s all about TINA or “This is New Africa”. And in this new Africa, we Africans do not need Band Aid 30 to rescue us. Rather, we need to be rescuing ourselves and if there is one good thing to have come out of Band Aid, it is that so many people are saying this on TV, radio, social media and in print.
I would say the majority of Africans are deeply tired of Geldof’s patronising ways. If he genuinely wants to help, he should direct his time and efforts into trying to tackle the deep structural problems. He should use his influence to advocate for laws that will prevent multinational corporations from operating unfairly in Africa as well as their elite African allies moving money out of Africa to be stored in tax havens. He should convince his own leaders to recognise the huge debt that the former imperial British power owes Africa for decades of slavery and colonialism.
And he should find ways to support rather than undermine and belittle the hard work being done by African organisations.
From seeing us as savages who needed taming, to enslaving us, to portraying us as helpless victims of poverty, Africans continue to be portrayed as an inferior people. How much longer can this go on? “The winds of change” must blow and they will have to be generated by Africans. But hey, these are just the reflections of an ordinary African woman.