The Rock Star's Burden



Hale'iwa, Hawai

THERE are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment. If Christmas, season of sob stories, has turned me into Scrooge, I recognize the Dickensian counterpart of Paul Hewson - who calls himself "Bono" - as Mrs. Jellyby in "Bleak House." Harping incessantly on her adopted village of Borrioboola-Gha "on the left bank of the River Niger," Mrs. Jellyby tries to save the Africans by financing them in coffee growing and encouraging schemes "to turn pianoforte legs and establish an export trade," all the while badgering people for money.

It seems to have been Africa's fate to become a theater of empty talk and public gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help - not to mention celebrities and charity concerts - is a destructive and misleading conceit. Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.

I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children's Village. I am speaking of the "more money" platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for - and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.

If Malawi is worse educated, more plagued by illness and bad services, poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early 60's, it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.

In the early and mid-1960's, we believed that Malawi would soon be self-sufficient in schoolteachers. And it would have been, except that rather than sending a limited wave of volunteers to train local instructors, for decades we kept on sending Peace Corps teachers. Malawians, who avoided teaching because the pay and status were low, came to depend on the American volunteers to teach in bush schools, while educated Malawians emigrated. When Malawi's university was established, more foreign teachers were welcomed, few of them replaced by Malawians, for political reasons. Medical educators also arrived from elsewhere. Malawi began graduating nurses, but the nurses were lured away to Britain and Australia and the United States, which meant more foreign nurses were needed in Malawi.

When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.

Mr. Gates has said candidly that he wants to rid himself of his burden of billions. Bono is one of his trusted advisers. Mr. Gates wants to send computers to Africa - an unproductive not to say insane idea. I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state's expense to work in their own countries.

Malawi was in my time a lush wooded country of three million people. It is now an eroded and deforested land of 12 million; its rivers are clogged with sediment and every year it is subjected to destructive floods. The trees that had kept it whole were cut for fuel and to clear land for subsistence crops. Malawi had two presidents in its first 40 years, the first a megalomaniac who called himself the messiah, the second a swindler whose first official act was to put his face on the money. Last year the new man, Bingu wa Mutharika, inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs, one of the most expensive cars in the world.

Many of the schools where we taught 40 years ago are now in ruins - covered with graffiti, with broken windows, standing in tall grass. Money will not fix this. A highly placed Malawian friend of mine once jovially demanded that my children come and teach there. "It would be good for them," he said.

Of course it would be good for them. Teaching in Africa was one of the best things I ever did. But our example seems to have counted for very little. My Malawian friend's children are of course working in the United States and Britain. It does not occur to anyone to encourage Africans themselves to volunteer in the same way that foreigners have done for decades. There are plenty of educated and capable young adults in Africa who would make a much greater difference than Peace Corps workers.

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth. Such people come in all forms and they loom large. White celebrities busy-bodying in Africa loom especially large. Watching Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently in Ethiopia, cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity, the image that immediately sprang to my mind was Tarzan and Jane.

Bono, in his role as Mrs. Jellyby in a 10-gallon hat, not only believes that he has the solution to Africa's ills, he is also shouting so loud that other people seem to trust his answers. He traveled in 2002 to Africa with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, urging debt forgiveness. He recently had lunch at the White House, where he expounded upon the "more money" platform and how African countries are uniquely futile.

But are they? Had Bono looked closely at Malawi he would have seen an earlier incarnation of his own Ireland. Both countries were characterized for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather. Malawi had a similar sense of grievance, was also colonized by absentee British landlords and was priest-ridden, too.

Just a few years ago you couldn't buy condoms legally in Ireland, nor could you get a divorce, though (just like in Malawi) buckets of beer were easily available and unruly crapulosities a national curse. Ireland, that island of inaction, in Joyce's words, "the old sow that eats her farrow," was the Malawi of Europe, and for many identical reasons, its main export being immigrants.

It is a melancholy thought that it is easier for many Africans to travel to New York or London than to their own hinterlands. Much of northern Kenya is a no-go area; there is hardly a road to the town of Moyale, on the Ethiopian border, where I found only skinny camels and roving bandits. Western Zambia is off the map, southern Malawi is terra incognita, northern Mozambique is still a sea of land mines. But it is pretty easy to leave Africa. A recent World Bank study has confirmed that the emigration to the West of skilled people from small to medium-sized countries in Africa has been disastrous.

Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for. Again, Ireland may be the model for an answer. After centuries of wishing themselves onto other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation. In a word - are you listening, Mr. Hewson? - the Irish have proved that there is something to be said for staying home.

Paul Theroux is the author of "Blinding Light" and of "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town."

Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.


very interesting points, and to be honest its rised some rather straight on honest questions... quite an eye-opener...

So, you are saying that a country hasn't developed/made progress since you taught there in the 60's? Excuse my math skills, but I do believe that is over 40 years. Are you saying the world hasn't changed in 40 years? My God, man, how much longer should a country suffer with the same problems? Bono and Ali must have had a much different experience when they spent time in Africa some 20 years ago. It has obviously haunted him ever since. I applaud his efforts.

There's a certain freedom experienced when you can get over yourself and reach out to those poor and in need. Most of the time we just please ourselves. It's an injustice for those more fortunate monitarily speaking, to just sit back and watch people fade away. It's an even greater injustice for those having a will to supply those in need with love to sit back and be idle. This guy clearly is missing the boat, (but to be expected). This goes not only for the epidemics of the world, but also for the guy next to you. What's he going through. We can talk all day about greed and corruption, but the fact remains that there IS an urgent need through out the whole world to help your fellow man. These folks just happen to be receiving the immediate heavy hand, and have been for quite some time. People are dying at an alarming rate and there is no sign of relief in view if we don't do something. It is our duty as humans to get off our F*&^ing asses. But of course changing another man's mind for the better, is not truley in our power. Only when he is brought low out of his high mind will he see the injustice. The intelectual whiner loves to hear his own voice, but without action your words a futile. Just some thoughts... Peace...

First of all: Never get angry at a rock star for being wealthy. Let's face it, the reason that that "rock star" is wealthy in the first place, is because you put them there. You bought the cd's, concert dvd's, concert tickets,posters, etc. If you feel the need to get pissed off at a wealthy rock star/band, do it because all of the money you poured into them went into their arm, nose, and overall demise. When you buy all the things they have to offer, and they choose to jet over to the president/ congress/ and the rest of the assholes who are actually the ones stealing your money, so that they can make a change and feed people, let them have at it! The government doesn't listen to the rest of us until we vote. Let the biggest mouths speak the truth and bully them into what's right. Hats off Bono and U2!! They listen to you!

while there is great accuracy and insight in many of your comments, mr theroux, it seems you may have become a bit sloppy with your own dusty cynicism and self righteousness. i too am an rpcv - micronesia, funny enough. i too am close to malawi children's village. i am, in fact, the greatest culprit, representing the hand that offers the money that clogs the gullets of the rich politicians. as an aid worker - from grass roots ngo's to the UN - i am part and parcel of the lies we perpetuate out of guilt and greed and utter confusion. but dear man, corruption, greed, rape and pillage - all these born and brewed in ego- abound; they are hardly exclusive to ireland or malawi. but this you know. as well as you know the story of the redwoods, and the 50's and the crime that is our current administration. it is simply a matter of degrees and chronology. and it is easy, as the writers before me stated, to point and wail. but what does no good at all is berating the individuals - however mildly misled, however undeducated to the finer lines in a nations history and self inflicted suffering- who put their money and their mantra in the right place. i too take my hat off to these famed peace wavers. i am no better, nor, good man, are you. they are doing something POSITIVE. it is that simple. and no argument could tip the balance. absurd? sure, from some places. detremental? not measurably so. as you say, to africa, if we are to respect it at all, we must give its own power, its own accountability, and dare not place it on the hands of a man strumming his guitar and raising awareness. africa has chosen this path, and continues to do so. if you are preaching against insulting africa's intelligence, careful; this continent needs not you nor i to decide whether to walk its own demise. good sir, follow your own advice; give africa room to be its own nation of nations. and do well by it as a human and a beneficiary of all the magnificence it offers; contribute as often and in as many ways as you are able. writing is an excellent choice, if you can refrain from indulging your own ego. and instead sing along while you encourage your friend's children to return to their homeland. while you sip from your ivy cup.

oh dear man, who is it that we think we are??

Paul Theroux like alot of critics you watch the show but totally miss the point. It's not just about Africa it's about humanity, it about all of us becoming civilised, it's global. Why shut one person wear a watch that is worth £30000 when another starves? Surerly in the 21st century people should die for lack off food or basic human needs. If people like Bono bring it to our attention then that is a good thing. Or should we just turn away and let it happen?Don't knock the Irish they are the most generous and forgiving people I have ever come across.As an Englishman I was brought up on a diet of Irish jokes but after living in Ireland the joke is on the English.

your words have really been profound for me. my 19 yr old daughter is currently in malawi, teaching for a gap organisation. the situation there is exactly how you have described, only worse. 70% of the population have hiv. the schools are in a dreadful state, they don't even have basics. jessica phoned us after about a week of arriving & just cried with the enormity of what she was facing. she says the malawians have nothing,but are so keen to be educated.teachers wages must be very poorly paid as a malawian teacher at jess' school in mulanje, couldn't afford essential malaria treatment for his 4 yr old daughter, jess & her friend emma paid for it, cost approximately a couple of pounds. jess too, now has had malaria .
all the money raised for africa cannot all get through, so your words on charity are true. but we still, who have so much, need to help. there are many successes. malawi could do well as, in ireland, but something needs doing there quick.
jess is struggling with the helplessness of the situation, but she'll be home in a couple of months. how long before aid and then genuine education get to malawi & other african nations?

i forgot to say how proud my family & i are of jessica. one person can help another.

Paul Theroux is a bit of a rock star himself, isn't he. He's clearly explained why feeding people doesn't solve a systemic problem, but tell that to the teacher who can't afford to buy his child malaria treatment.

You want him to stay in Malawi, Mr. Theroux? Hopefully some of the billions Bono is raising for health care in Africa will reach his child. Based on your stated avoidance of charity, you're not doing anything to encourage that teacher to stay. Have you thrown up your hands?

Should we lock down his borders? Should we make it impossible for him to flee? Should we appeal to his sense of nationalism or charity in convincing him that if his chance comes to find a better life for his daughter that he should pass it up?

Or should we be making it easier for him to stay where he is, where he and his daughter could become the foundation of a legacy of learning in their village.

You seem to think that because debt relief and health care are not complete answers that they aren't worthy causes. Doesn't that seem a bit cynical, even for an aged writer? Debt constricts a government's options, including incenting teachers to stay at home. Health care deficits chase away those who can flee.

I agree that feeding people doesn't solve anything in the long run, but when people are hungry the long run is immaterial.

Good government never lasts long in a world of poverty. A good economy provides the motivation for everyone to insist on a good government. The first world can reward the leaders of the third world for good governance while doing what we can (like debt relief and health care aid) to create the conditions necessary for the third world to prosper.

In the first world we have the leverage to push third world leaders to be more responsible leaders, but we expend that leverage pushing them to facilitate the needs of our militaries and the needs of our nations' corporations. If we can manufacture that happy conicidence of responsible leadership and grassroots opportunity, we will have set in motion the solution for the problems we now only barely touch.

But how can we expect responsible third world leaders when what we really want is leaders who will do our bidding? How can we expect grassroots opportunity when people who struggle still don't have healthcare or adequate nutrition?

Ive recently returned back from Malawi, i was teaching for a few months. A few of you have said that Malawi receives donor money. I can say from my experience that yes they do receive money but the government and police are so corrupt that the people who are suffering rarely reap the benefits. Its devastating and i intend to do more research and go back out to do more aid work.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on December 16, 2005 1:30 AM.

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