Open Book 2012: Constructive Engagement
At the 2012 Open Book Festival, held in Cape Town from 20 to 24 September, Michela Wrong and Jillian Reilly explored the complexities surrounding writing about Africa as outsiders in a session titled “Constructive Engagement”. This debate was chaired by Deborah Posel, founding director of the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Humanities in Africa, and much emphasis was placed on the question of what it means to be a white, female foreign national living and working in Africa.
Wrong, a British journalist who spent six years as a foreign correspondent in Africa, spoke about her latest book, It’s our turn to eat: The story of a Kenyan Whistle-blower (2009), which details the plight of John Githongo, an exiled Kenyan journalist who uncovered widespread corruption within the Kibaki government. Reilly, a writer and public speaker focusing on affairs in the developing world, introduced her book Shame: Confessions of an aid worker in Africa, a non-fictional account of her time spent as aid worker in Zimbabwe.
Reilly’s and Wrong’s texts speak to similar issues, questioning how one comprehends Africa and its place within a global context, and maintaining a critical view of aid relationships, ethnic rivalry and corruption in Africa.
Reilly detailed her meteoric rise from a naive 23-year-old American girl searching for social and personal change to becoming the custodian of a multibillion dollar AIDS Industrial Complex. She spoke about her gradual disillusionment with Western aid agencies. She remains critical of the authoritarian nature of Western aid, describing it as “money that comes with strings”, a kind of “straightjacket” used to fund projects which are overly concerned with visible badges of presence and do not resonate with local ways of being.
Her ultimate decision to leave southern Africa stems from a sense of failure to bring about fundamental social change and the notion that she would always be “on the outside looking in on something [she] couldn’t possibly understand”.
Wrong shares Reilly’s suspicion regarding the role of foreign aid and the Western project of “development” in African countries, and remains reproving of the relationship between corrupt African government officials and complicit Western governments that turn a blind eye to misspent aid funds.
Wrong and Reilly also touched on what it means to be a white woman of foreign nationality working in Africa. Wrong discussed how African misconceptions of white women as “very stupid” can be useful to a female reporter – she suggests that possible informants are more likely to reveal information due to the assumption that white women are unthreatening and unintelligent. Reilly also recalled her experience as a young, unmarried white woman in Zimbabwe. In order to gain the respect of her co-workers she had to become “Mrs Reilly” (with a fabricated husband in South Africa) – “a blank canvas” who masked her age with conservative clothes. She spoke about “grow[ing] up, and old in Africa” and admitted to feeling like she “lost something” as she had to shoulder increasing responsibility in her fast-track career as head of an AIDS organisation.
Posel described both women’s books as “unflinchingly honest” – and indeed their authors did not shy away from tough issues during this discussion. These texts are of great value in exploring the complexities of insider/outsider dichotomies, the pitfalls of foreign aid endeavours, as well as the ways in which Africa is “written” from an outsider’s perspective.
|Shame: Confessions of an aid worker in Africa