Recently a comment in a post made on UK writer Nicola Morgan's blog got me thinking. The post was about what seems to be a lovely book written by Ms Morgan's friend. Among the many things in this book is a bit about his trip to Botswana where he visited an orphanage. The thing that troubled me was this- "Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror."
I felt an immediate annoyance, but even as I write this I can't quite put my finger on the cause. Does this writer not have the right to visit an orphanage in Botswana and write about it? Of course he does. At the blog I wrote about how I'm sick of African countries forever being seen as unfixable basket cases full of unspeakable horrors. Botswana is far from that picture. Ms Morgan found my comments unjustified.
Why is it when a British writer comes to Botswana and visits an orphanage and writes of what he sees, it is different than a Motswana writer going to an orphanage in England and writing about what she sees? I don't know, but it is.
I feel, for reasons I can't quite articulate, that England will not be defined by the atrocities her orphans might endure, while Botswana will. There will be the impression that yes, these children have problems but England has the capacity to help them out and get them back on their feet- alone, while Botswana does not. Someone from outside must save them; it is the children's only hope.
The same thing applies to this business of celebrities adopting African children. Madonna adopting a child from Malawi is not the same as a Malawian pop star adopting a child from England. It sounds the same, but it is not. In one case, it is a child finding a new home, in the other it is a condemnation of a country.
This issue involves charity to some extent. My problem, I think, starts with the flaws in the whole concept of charity. It is charitable to visit an orphanage in Botswana and talk about the terrible lives the children have endured. It is charitable to adopt a child from Malawi. But charity has two aspects I find repugnant.
First, it assumes the recipient is unable to help themselves. It institutionalises helplessness. It, almost by definition, insists that the person first be helpless to receive the charity. Why couldn't the adults in Malawi help the child Madonna adopted? Of course they could, but she needed them to be thoroughly helpless to justify her charity. Why must the UK writer write of the terrible tragedies Batswana orphans endured? Is there no Motswana who is helping these children? Can Botswana not attend to its problems on its own?
Second, charity of all sorts helps the giver much more than the one receiving. The giver gets satisfaction in being defined as charitable- sometimes in big ways by announcing to the world what they have done, sometimes in small ways by just saying quietly to themselves "I am good, I've done a good thing". In either case, by whatever fraction of a degree, the charity benefits the giver, it is always at the expense of the receiver. The receiver must be found, identified as unable to sort themselves out, and then the giver must step in, wearing their glowing suit of armour and save the day. The handing over of money or food or clothes is a one off thing. We go back to giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him to fish or in many cases ( as in aid (charity) from many Western countries) allowing him to have a fair shot at selling the fish he has rotting in his basket. Charity makes people weaker and more helpless.
I grew up poor as many people who read this blog know. I wrote a story called "The Do Gooders" which was published some time ago in the UK journal Riptide
based on a memory from my childhood when people from a nearby church brought food to our home for Thanksgiving. I've never in my life been more ashamed. I swore as I hid behind the curtain that I would never again be placed in a position where I would be the recipient of charity. Never. I'd rather die. Without a doubt this event taints much of my world view.
It is all of this which fuels my anger at the manner in which the world views Africa and my adopted country of Botswana. Charity, as history has proven on this continent over and over again, improves nothing and, I feel, only makes things much, much worse. Perhaps I am so far away from sense I cannot see reason, I'm not sure. My hope is my dear readers will sort me out.