To Reduce `Shit hole’ References to Africa, We Must Reduce Our Tolerance for Aid and Charity Branding of the Continent
United States’ President Donald Trump has come under attack for allegedly referring to Haiti, El Salvador and the African continent as ‘shit hole’. The source and focus of the reaction has been on the use of the word `shit hole’. According to the Oxford dictionary, a shit hole is ‘an extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place’. But how does Trump’s use of the phrase ‘shit hole’ differ from the phrases and words that have predominantly dominated the way Africa has featured in the Western media?
The demeaning term was used in the broader context at a meeting on immigration issues in the States. According to the US media, Trump had asked: “why are we having all these people from shit hole countries come here”. Trump went on further at the meeting to state that instead of granting temporary residency to citizens of countries hit by natural disasters, war and epidemics, the US should instead be taking migrants from countries like Norway.
The African Union has expressed ‘shock, dismay and outrage’ over the alleged comments, and says there is a ‘huge misunderstanding of the African continent and its people by the current Administration.’ The United Nations has also condemned the alleged statement by Trump. According to the UN Human Rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, "there is no other word one can use but racist. You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as 'shit holes'." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has also accused the president of falling "deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of racism and xenophobia".
Trump himself has denied the use of the word “shit hole’ although he has admitted he was tough which implied he did say the rest of the statement and still believes those are ok. Our focus on the use of the term `shit hole’ might be distracting us from the implication of the rest of his comments.
The notion was put forward in the AU statement that Trump does not understand the Africa continent and "there is a serious need for dialogue between the US Administration and the African countries.” But Trump is representing `the Africa’ that has been packaged to the world. The views expressed by Trump drives the immigration policies of the West. His main fault is that he was not diplomatic in his choice of words.
Africans are dying for their migrant rights, drowning to access the world. For decades, visa restrictions have had serious impact on the ability of Africans to access full employment and economic activities globally. Are we mad at Trump for allegedly saying out loud crudely what the Immigration Policy of the West has long been for Africa? What frankly will an apology do? Trump’s alleged comments like all communications about Africa is intended to serve, rationalize and justify the exploitation and marginalization of the continent and its peoples. In this case, he was making the case for the reduction of blacks to the United States and promoting the profile of the kind of immigrants wanted in the US: from Norway “white”. He said this openly, as opposed to implementing it quietly like the others.
Trump’s statement also argued against granting temporary residency to citizens of countries in Africa hit by natural disasters, war or epidemics. It is worthy to note that Trump is castigating disaster-affected people and countries few weeks after 2017, which was the worst disaster-affected year in the United States. 2017 officially was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States, with a price tag of at least $306 billion.
While the whole of Africa as a continent with its 56 nations experienced less natural sudden onset disasters in 2017 than the United States, Trump has stereotyped Africa as disaster, war and epidemics prone region of the world and castigated the continent accordingly because Africa is over represented in the global/western media as a disaster, war and epidemic prone region.
But why should Africans be shocked by this reference? A recent report identified 17 major humanitarian crises where immediate challenges for the humanitarian community is expected. These included 11 countries expected to face deteriorating humanitarian situation, (7 of which are from Africa): Afghanistan, Bangladesh/Myanmar, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali, Republic of Congo, Somali, South Sudan and Yemen. And, 6 countries where crisis is already severe and is likely to continue in 2018: including Ethiopia, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan, Syria. Here again, Africa dominates the list at 3 out of 6.
Humanitarian crisis are the two words and phrase used most predominantly in regard to Africa in the Western media. The conditions or situation used in making the case for increased funding for aid to Africa does present ‘shit hole’ scenarios. The only difference between what Trump has said and that of the other statements on Africa is that the other reports called for aid and increased funding for Africa.
In the last decade plus, Africa featured predominantly in Western media through its humanitarian needs. Every Christmas period and all Sundays, media events play out on Western Television showing horrific images of African children, devastated villages and appeals calling for western donations for Africa. These images are usually not the norm in the continent. Many travel through beautiful cities in Africa to search for demeaning images for western-based fund raising activities. Why have such images not been challenged? Why is Trump’s comment any different? Is it perhaps because it is not associated to aid or some kind of funding?
The harrowing images that have been painted and promoted about African countries, to rationalize and justify fundraising drives, has indeed perpetuated a ‘shit hole’ image about Africa globally. Would it have been okay if the comment had been Africa is a `shit hole’ and the continent needs 5 billion USD to get it out of this `shit hole’, would that have made the demeaning phrase more palatable?
Trump’s alleged `shit hole’ reference is a demeaning representation of Africa that should not and must not go unchallenged but so also are the proliferation of the gross generalization, the racism and misinformation communicated through charity aid drives for Africa. The `shit hole’ perception of Africa is fuelled and normalised by fundraising for aid in Africa.
Trump’s alleged comment comes from a place and space where we Africans have allowed ‘shit hole’ references made about Africa to go unchallenged because we are lured by the possibility of aid to our countries.
A senior UN humanitarian officer, who remains indeed a friend of Africa and an inspiration to me made this comment; "The silence of African voices in the dialogue on humanitarian issues is most disturbing. The voices of African leaders are decidedly silent when it comes to talking about humanitarian issues that directly affect their people.’
Frankly one of the positive outcome to Trump’s alleged comment is that Africa Governments have collectively spoken out against demeaning comments about the continent. This is a welcome change. This response must be sustained. To reduce `shit hole’ references to Africa, the continent has to reduce its tolerance for the predominance of the humanitarian narrative on the continent.
Yes; there are pockets of humanitarian challenges in the continent, and in pocket areas within the countries in the continent. But this is not and should not be the dominant narrative for Africa. According to 2017 World Investment Report, Foreign Direct Investment in Africa stood at $60 Billion USD in 2015 and $59 billion USD in 2016. Mean while, according to the World Bank, remittances to sub-Saharan Africa alone was $33 billion USD in 2016 while sub-Sahara Africa in that same year received an estimated US$7.5 billion in humanitarian assistance in 2016.
The rationalisation of humanitarian assistance in Africa promotes ‘shit hole’ images. So my fellow Africans, let’s continue to be angry, but not at Donald Trump, but rather for letting the world brand Africa as a humanitarian basket case where every one is starving, sick and killing each other. Let’s be angry, but let’s channel that anger to a commitment to re-branding our continent.