After reading Chris Blattman’s post about it a little while back, I grabbed a copy of G. Pascal Zachary’s new book Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. It’s a collection of essays and reporting on contemporary Africa by a journalist known for skipping the heart of darkness and poverty porn cliches in favor of a nuanced, compassionate view of his subjects. (But fair warning: the Kindle edition is distractingly full of scanning errors.)
I found food for thought in many of the essays in Hotel Africa, but one called “In Malawi, Charity Is Not Enough” stayed with me. In it, Zachary, interviewing a farming family struggling to survive amidst a drought and an AIDS epidemic, begins to cry, and then just as quickly begins to question the validity of his own emotional response. “What’s wrong with me?” he asks, before launching into a list of his hardened-foreign-correspondent-in-depressing-lands bona fides.
The episode highlights the difficulty of situating one’s own emotions in the context of a narrative (or advocacy) about other people’s pain. This issue is frequently raised in criticism of Western journalism on Africa, and motivated much of the backlash to the Kony 2012 video, which focused on the white filmmakers’ discovery of African suffering. Zachary, clearly both embarrassed and sensitive to the risks of making his reaction the center of the story, nevertheless owns his feelings, but uses the moment to discuss the perverse effects of emotion-driven charity and to call for principled, sustained engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.
Reading Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries shortly after Hotel Africa, I was struck by the echoes of this dilemma. Weston and his wife set out on an ambitious journey through West Africa, but somewhere in Burkina Faso, his mental state begins to deterioriate.
For a journalist or a human rights advocate, the consequent loss of objectivity might be disastrous, but the travelogue format gives Weston the leeway to engage his breakdown directly. Instead of minimizing it, or alternately, presenting West Africa as the monolithic “thing that drove him crazy,” he uses it to shrink the distance between himself and his subjects, generating real insight into the emotional lives of the individuals with whom he interacts.
The book is full of rich detail and interesting historical anecdotes (as well as a surprising amount of political economy shout-outs) about a part of the world that most readers will never see, but its real value lies in Weston’s success at communicating exactly what he set out to discover: “a better idea of how the world’s poorest people make it through the day.” Worth a read.