Trading in Poverty; or, why I have a pavlovian response every time I see a front page story on “Africa”

by zunguzungu

Doctor finds higher calling when death knocks” from Sunday’s San Francisco Comical:

Frank Artress nearly dies while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and gains a sense of perspective, which moves him and his wife to “become bush doctors, dedicated to easing the heartbreak of Africa.” The key, however, is that their lives have changed; now they are giving back. So they become bush doctors. In Arusha, Tanzania. This is the place I lived when I started this blog, so it’s a place I know something about. And I don’t wish to make fun of these people, since I’ve done my time volunteering there, and they probably are very real and gunuine people. But I do wish to make fun of the newspaper that took their story and made it stupid.

Here’s a description of their new life:

Their new African home was a tiny apartment on one of the noisiest streets in Arusha – with a Maasai market selling chickens, goats and cows, a boisterous nightclub, and a mosque with predawn calls to prayer. Their electricity was intermittent, their tap water brown and they had no radio or television. They learned to appreciate cold showers and goat meat.

OK, “their new African home”? Putting aside the stupid way everything that happens in Africa seems to deserve the adjective of the continent, this paragraph is so confused about the kind of life one can and cannot live in a place like Arusha that’s it’s almost totally incoherent. First of all, one can live in first world comfort in Arusha if you want–none of this “brown tap water” and goat meat crap–and you’d still be paying much, much less than you’d pay for a rathole in San Francisco. There are lots of tourists and expats in town, and you can eat excellent Western food (or Italian, or Chinese, or Ethiopian) every day of the week and still pay a lot less than it would cost to live on Spaghetti in SF. If you don’t like goat, eat the chickens and cows that the Maasai are apparently selling on their doorstep. And even if the electricity is intermittent (something I doubt, if they’re as central as the description says they are), then there’s no reason why they couldn’t have radio and television. Both things exist and are widely available there. Same with running hot water.

The point is, if they want to appreciate deprivation, then they’re doing so by choice. Just as they went to climb Kilimanjaro as a kind of grander version of camping, these are people who are on a kind of deprivation tourism, living without all the first world conveniences because they’ve decided to try that out and see how it works. And bully for them for doing it; I did it, Thoreau did it, and lots of people do it, because its a good experience for bourgeois swine like us to have, on a variety of levels.

But the SFC wants to re-imagine it as a kind of spiritual quest, the hardship endured by people who have realized a higher calling and are “healing Tanzania.” No. People who go to “Africa” invariably get much, much more out of it than they deserve, or paid for. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s a self-serving illusion to think that the “white man in Africa” is doing anything but benefiting from that journey.

Some quotes from a companion piece, written by Meredith May trying to soak up some of the radiance from her Dr. Livingstone:

What Africa gave us in return is perspective. On our bouncy travels over dusty, pitted dirt roads, we saw so many Africans walking with the heavy burdens of poverty: emaciated men pulling oxcarts, women balancing buckets of water or bundles of charcoal on their heads, children with distended bellies herding cattle. All walking, every day, for hours, in the constant heat, on errands of survival. The next day, they would do it all over again. What did we have to complain about?

Yet the beauty of Africa is in how the people survive. I watched a bushman use bellows made of goat bladders to stoke a fire and melt scrap metal he collected from the side of the road. He poured the molten metal into the ground and buried it, pulled it back out and formed it into the two bracelets I now wear on my left wrist.

The ways that African deprivation becomes a commodity to be purchased and worn, well, that almost speaks for itself. As should the ways that Tanzanians (itself a highly differentiated identity) become figures for a continent, the ways that all people in Africa are simply Africans. Errands of survival, indeed; do homeless people on Shattuck avenue go on “errands of survival”? People have a tendency to try to survive, no matter where they are, and there’s nothing particularly noble or romantic about that. But it’s this Freudian sentence that sticks in my craw: “What Africa gave us in return is perspective.”

In return for what? What did this reporter give in exchange for her journey? What was traded to acquire that perspective? If it was money, then she got what she paid for. She got a perspective on the continent that tourists and the vicarious tourists of the newspaper reading population pay to receive. And she got a bargain, too. But Westerners have been pretending that there’s something noble about looking at poverty for a very long time, a self-serving fantasy that “bearing witness” to other people’s suffering, even sharing (selectively) in it, is something noble, and somehow benefits the people whose suffering is being exploited. The fact that she actually uses the words “in return,” without having done a thing herself, indicates how deeply rooted this fantasy of Western benevolence is.

To that point, let me merely append this bit of dialog from Sullivan’s Travels (which I got from Edge of the American West, who, patriotic Americans that they are, also like to post pictures of their local newspaper) a 1941 movie about a director dressing up as a tramp in order to experience how the other half lives. As he admires his newly ragamuffin appearance, he happens to ask his butler, Burrows, what he thinks:

Burrows: I don’t like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?
John L. Sullivan: What’s the matter with it?
Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.
John L. Sullivan: Who’s caricaturing? I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous. You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health, but it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with Filth, Criminality, Vice and Despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Sullivan: Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.
Burrows: Quite unwillingly, sir.

It’s open to debate whether Preston Sturges’ film is an attack on artists of the thirties who sought to use art as a political tool, people like Capra, or John Steinbeck traveling and living with the Okies as a prelude to writing about them. Michael Rogin has an interesting article (“What’s the Matter with Capra?”) on that. And as for bearing witness as a social crusade in general, I’m skeptical but basically agnostic. So I’m not going to say that the good doctor Artress is a anything but a good person trying to do good. Most Western development projects do more harm than good, by a wide margin. But while the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, good intentions can also lead you to good places too, so more power to them for doing what they can. But never admire someone for experiencing deprivation when they get paid for it, or admired for it. And this desire to pay and admire such modern day Doctors Livingstone for living the dream, to make them into bwanas against a backdrop of African ciphers for poverty and suffering, well… Such reporters get what they pay for too. And they get a bargain.