On the day that I write this, Kenya reports 73 confirmed cases and 11 deaths. The total number of cases in Kenya so far is 41,619 confirmed cases, with 777 deaths. In neighbouring Uganda: 9,864 cases total, with under 100 deaths. Our lockdown has been relaxed, our curfew extended. We are a little more free to move around than we were in March.
The idea that African countries have been able to weather the pandemic more than the West, however, is one that has stumped journalists, scientists and ordinary people alike. Bill Gates predicted that “millions” of Africans would die from the disease — 1.3 million have recovered. How has the continent that is representative of pain and suffering not buckled under the weight of the biggest health crisis in modern history?
Reluctance to admit that “the Africans” have done better this time has led to several articles and interviews trying to make excuses for the phenomenon. It’s too warm on the continent. There must be some genetic makeup that makes them immune. They’ve been cushioned by aid from Western countries. If that is the case, why haven’t the Western countries helped themselves?
I’m not trying to argue against science. While it is true that several African countries have indeed suffered because of the virus, it would be impossible to say that any African country has done so to the extent that Western countries have. Even with adjustment for the population structure, the death toll in Kenya was still expected to reach around 5,000. The National Interest puts it best: “There is still a big difference between 700 and 5,000; what might account for the remaining gap?”
Under the guise of inquiry lies a sordid, racist undertone. Western media is reluctant to say Africa is doing well because that would mean taking back centuries of poverty propaganda aimed at placing Western nations at the highest level of altruistic thought. The idea that black Africans are inferior has been destroyed by the fact that we have proven ourselves to be better at managing a pandemic. It is the West that is dying in droves.
My favourite thing to do when I come to America, or any Western country, is to watch television advertisements. My dad works in advertising and once told me that a country’s advertisements say a lot about where they stand — morally, economically and socially. In America, the advertisements switch like clockwork between selling medication and insurance to selling fast food and other consumer items. Occasionally, there is the UNICEF advertisement.
The UNICEF advertisement always begins with the image of a child standing in the middle of a traditional homestead, filmed at midday to make the place look like a homestead. He has not washed, nor has he eaten. His belly is round with malnutrition and there are flies in his eyes. His mother and her friends sit in the back, near one of the huts, chatting. In the background, the voice of a middle-aged white woman begins to tell his story. Kamau has not eaten for four days. His mother struggles to choose between him and her first born. Kamau has no clothes. Kamau will die in the next 24 hours if you do not make a donation of $6.99 today. Help save a life.
I am prepared to say with the utmost certainty that there is no African mother who would let her child be photographed without at least wiping his face first. My own experiences of working with youth and their families in Nairobi’s informal settlements tell me that even the most impoverished of people will fix their clothes and look presentable if they are told they will be photographed.
Last year, when writing a research paper on Kenya’s postcolonial education policies, I stumbled across thousands of photographs of Kenyan tribes taken by the British when they were still in occupation. Black skin glittered in the sun. Men, women and children put on their best attire — ostrich feathers reaching high into the sky, dresses lined with cowrie shells, jewelry so intricate that it weighed down the neck.
But the idea that African people can take care of themselves, can thrive by themselves, does not accommodate the Western ideology that they are on their knees. That they are begging for survival. For rescue. And so Western literature took on a different hue. It speaks of Africa as a dog by the roadside, begging for scraps from wealthy passersby. Everybody wins: the dog eats and the donor can go and post photos of their trip to Tanzania on Facebook.
COVID-19 is the fly in the colonial ointment. In the midst of harrowing pain, discomfort and general confusion, many African countries have managed to pull through. Citizens have followed the law and checked each other. Technology has been created to test, contact trace and inform citizens of their safety. People have checked on each other; stayed at home; put on masks not because we feel forced to, but because we understand that the general health and wellbeing of our society depends on it. And it has worked. We’re reporting the lowest numbers in the world right now. The help that we were supposed to be doomed without is the one that is crippled.
So where next for the African agenda? I think it’s time to admit that the continent is not as crippled as we believe it to be. The rule of law that governed us like slaves and children ended when we achieved independence. Yet it still lingers, in diplomatic language, in NGO organizations looming over small villages.
The pandemic has turned this on its head: perhaps for the first time ever, the continent has had to rely on its own systems and its own will, to save lives. And contrary to what anybody believed, we have pulled through. We are freed from the yokes of Western reliance, from the stereotype of flies in our eyes that follows us everywhere we go. It’s time to let us start living out that truth.
Help us by letting us help ourselves. We’ve clearly shown that we can do it.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.