Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway

Source: The Other 98%
This image is a reminder that wealth is no guarantee of wisdom, as our wealthiest society proves itself ever less aware of how children learn best. I found this online a few days after learning of the satirical homage to the popular (in the U.S.) Do They Know It's Christmas? -- Feed the World song that pulled at heartstrings but did not build understanding in either direction across the Atlantic. In fact, the popular song reads much like the travel writing that is parodied by Binyavanga Wainaina in a classic article from Granta, How to Write About Africa.

The satire Radi-Aid: Africa For Norway evokes many tropes of the well-meaning but poorly informed. The satire is not bitter, though: the site is actually hosted in Norway.

I do participate in development projects, as do many of my students and colleagues. But those succeed best that begin with listening, and with the realization that  People Are More Alike Than Different, the guiding principle of my friends at the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. The video above serves as a worthwhile reminder of how even our best efforts will be seen if we fail to remember this.

While I was mulling this post and thinking about how best to present these parodies, I heard a remarkably appropriate story from South Africa, a country whose struggles with HIV have been monumental, and whose government once took an approach that was as absurd as it was lethal. In South Africa Finds Its Way, Jason Beaubien recounts South Africa's difficulties -- both past and present -- but then describes the successes that have arisen as the country finds its own ways of coping with the highest infection rates in the world. Transmission is still a huge problem, but treatment is in many ways far ahead of U.S. and European responses.

Background -- Why I Shared This
Since preparing for my first study tour to Cape Verde in 2006, I have given a lot of thought to what it means for someone in the United States to promote justice abroad, particularly through travel with students, particularly in Africa, and particularly if students from Africa are part of the journey. What the hell do I know, after all, that would be of any use?

As an economic and environmental geographer, I know that countries on the periphery of the world economy suffer disproportionately from environmental problems and generate much of the wealth that accumulates in the economic core, with few of the benefits. As a cultural geographer and traveler, however, I know that these imbalances, however important, do not define people or places. As a parent and citizen in a core country, I also know that the concentration of wealth has not eliminated all of our problems, and in fact has created some that are absent in developing countries, or found only among their economic elites. How do I address these very real imbalances while also honoring the richness of the human societies behind such abstractions?

As I struggled with these questions about six months before my first Cape Verde study tour, an African-American environmental activist shifted my thinking with one simple statement: "You are a bridge," she said. "You do not need to have the answers. You just help people make the connections." Working at Bridgewater State University, I have found that metaphor most helpful in my studies abroad and in my classroom and online teaching.

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