Africa Day: A time for celebration and reflection

The 1960s was a significant decade for Africa as nearly two-thirds of African countries gained their freedom.

A maize field, Mkushi, Zambia, December 2019. Photo credit: Eoin Ryan. Maize is the staple food crop of most African countries.

A maize field, Mkushi, Zambia, December 2019. Photo credit: Eoin Ryan. Maize is the staple food crop of most African countries.

 

Each year, Africa Day falls on 25 May to commemorate the formation of the African Union (formerly the Organisation of African Unity) in 1963. More specifically, it celebrates the liberation of African countries from their former colonisers - the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and South Africa.

We, in Ireland - as a former British colony - can relate to the struggle for independence; a rawness that still lingers today.

The 1960s was a significant decade for Africa as nearly two-thirds of African countries gained their freedom. In 1990, Namibia, became the most recent African country to gain their independence (from neighbouring South Africa).

In 2020, Ireland marked sixty years of diplomatic presence in Africa. Moreover, Irish Aid - the Irish Government’s programme for overseas development - continues to support events each year to mark Africa Day, embracing it as an opportunity to promote our very own African community here in Ireland.

In recent times, I’ve been inspired by the media presence and impact of young people of African descent in Ireland. In particular, the Black and Irish organisation - namely Leon, Boni, Femi and Amanda - who have used social media to celebrate the identity of black and mixed race Irish people, while sharing the struggles and successes from within their community. Check out their RTÉ podcast series (season 2 out now!).

Our screens have also been graced with talented musicians such as Denise Chaila, Tolü Makay, Soulé, and Tebi Rex; author, Emma Dabiri; poet, Felicia Olusanya (aka FeliSpeaks); journalist and gaeilgeoir, Ola Majekodunmi; actress, Demi Isaac Oviawe; academics, Bashir Otukoya and Mamobo Ogoro; as well as sports stars such as Gina Akpe-Moses and Adam Idah. The list goes on.

This year, I’d like to mark Africa Day by reflecting on my own relationship with the African continent; one I am eternally grateful for through my continued encounters at home and abroad.

In 2019, I left my job in finance and relocated to work voluntarily for an NGO in rural Zambia for six-months.

No, I was not going to “find myself”, or worse, try to “save” Africa.

And I most certainly wasn’t taking photos of the “poorest-looking” people, or most “run-down” buildings - the same ones people call home - to show family and friends how “awful” it is.

Truthfully, I don’t think the world needs any further negative depictions of Africa from the perspective of a white person - based on their own preconceived interpretation - that distorts the true reality.

Without over complicating things, there is a problem. It’s called “white saviourism”. You know, going to Africa to build houses and schools; or put simply, the mindset of going to help the “poor people”.

My intention here is not to bash the agencies that send volunteers, nor do I wish to personally attack any individual. Instead, it is to pose a question to those who want to volunteer in a “developing” country - what is your true motivation?

A gap year? A bucket list? To look good on your CV? Or maybe you are frustrated and feel like this could be your chance to save the world.

If this is (was) you, I understand.

As humans, we seek a “feel-good factor”. In addition, we want to help others. Therefore, overseas volunteering seems like a perfect combination of both. However, the structures that have created the overseas volunteer industry, as well as “Rich versus Poor”, are complex - do you truly understand the historical and present day context of the country you will be working?

As such, if we continue to “dip-in and dip-out” of Africa - without questioning why we are there in the first place - in my humble opinion, we are just adding to the complexity.

Ireland, it’s not that long ago since we were “poor” and “developing”. To the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of Ireland, think back - how would you have felt having your photos taken by foreigners documenting your “poverty”?

While in Zambia I listened and learned about the challenges facing rural communities, while experiencing the language and culture through interaction with students, staff, and locals.

One downside, however - now, don’t laugh - was the amount of time I spent as an unused substitute playing for the local football team. Ironically, my “whiteness” didn’t hold much weight when trying to earn a spot in the starting line-up. Although, I’ll never forget the day when I finally got my chance - and scored!

The most rewarding part of the experience was the real conversations that happened when I took the initiative to openly address the “elephant in the room” - the power dynamic of a white person (mzungu) living and working in an all-black rural community in East Africa.

One evening, a local Zambian colleague and I were chatting about the many flaws of the “development industry”, when the topic of “volunteering” in Africa took centre-stage. I had showed him my facebook feed and asked him what he thought of the advertisement that popped-up - a three-week volunteering opportunity in Africa, advertised against the backdrop of an elegant elephant walking beneath a beautiful sunset.

His reply, as we both chuckled, was something along the lines of, “this agency does realise I can see these advertisements on my feed too, right?”.

We need to continue to work towards shifting our narrow perception of Africans beyond those depicted on charity appeal ads. In addition, we must grapple with, and critically analyse, our human urge to “want to help” when considering overseas volunteering (see resources below).

On a final note, I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the talented, passionate black and mixed race people of Ireland, many of African descent, who are actively and positively contributing to shaping the Ireland of tomorrow - thank you for education and inspiration.

Happy Africa Day!

Useful resources:

Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, Daniela Papi-Thornton - this is a must read book for anyone considering volunteering abroad; very accessible, simple language used.

Comhlámh: the Irish association of development workers and volunteers, who promotes responsible, responsive international volunteering, and development work. Check out their code of good practice for volunteer sending agencies, and “issues to consider”.

Radi-Aid: an awareness-raising campaign created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance Fund (SAIH) who produced satirical videos that challenge the perceptions around issues of poverty and development.

* Eoin Ryan is studying International Development at Maynooth University.