At the Nairobi Peace Institute, I sit in a bright room with a Congolese man named John. John divides his time between teaching Peace Studies at an American university, doing reconciliation work in Rwanda and Sudan, and developing mediation programs for tribes in northern Kenya. He has a wide smile and a lilting accent. I am here to learn from John, about NPI and about peace work in Kenya. He smiles at me from across the table, apologizes that there is no chai, and begins to teach me.
John begins with 1984, the real year, not Orwell’s. About Ethiopia and Stevie Wonder and pictures of babies with big bellies and flies on their faces. I think that he’s talking about how great it was that the world finally cared about Africa, but he’s not. He says those photos and songs and TV ads, “destroyed the dignity of Africans.” He says the world advertises Africa when there is a disaster, but not when there is a success. (Except Mandela, and there’s a reason for that too, he says, unsmiling). His words echo in my head. Destroyed the dignity of Africans.
I do this too. I write about the disasters and the poverty, the beggars and the rapists. As though this is Africa. I too appeal to the emotions of others with images of need, without the other images, just as true. Why don’t I write about my Kenyan friends and colleagues who are educated, professional and happy? Or about the amazing diplomacy work, development work, and research that Kenyans are doing?
But isn’t there also value in describing the suffering? The poverty isn’t fabricated. My stories aren’t just some isolated instances that I’m using repeatedly or falsely to rip at people’s emotions. This is what I see every day. Like yesterday, I was in a small brick building just down the road where there are 15 babies in 2 crowded rooms, waiting for mothers who are in prison or adoptive mothers who have yet to appear. I know a woman who runs an orphanage in the highlands outside of Nairobi who can’t pay her rising, astronomical electricity bills and so is trying to care for 25 children with no electricity. And I just learned this week of an Internally Displaced Peoples camp less than 30 miles away that no one seems to know about where 200 people are literally starving at this very moment. I can’t imagine that failing to mention this suffering is somehow lending these people dignity. I describe these images because I feel so strongly that this kind of disparity should not exist in a world where so many of us are so wealthy and have access to every possible resource.
So I’m at a loss. I long to write with respect and humility, to honor the people whom I live with here in Kenya. I don’t want to contribute to a phenomenon that allows the western world to nurse condescending stereotypes of Africa. And yet, these stories need to be told. If my writing, or someone else’s song or photo, can shake someone out of apathy and maybe somewhere down the road even move them to relieve a little bit of the suffering in their world, isn’t that worthwhile? Isn’t the act of writing my own way of “look[ing] after orphans and widows in their distress”? Lord, have mercy. My African brothers and sisters, have mercy. And my wealthy North American family, please, please, have mercy.