Once again Africa’s starving will stalk television sets across the world as the drought in northern Kenya and the Horn bites in earnest. Once again charitable organisations will issue heartrending appeals for funds and once again the mute beseeching in the bewildered eyes of children will persuade the compassionate among us to put our hands in our pockets.
And once again Africans in the continent and the Diaspora will burn with shame and indignation. Shame because Africans will yet again be seen as charity cases, people unable even to feed ourselves, our poverty on public display. Indignation because we will not be able to do anything about the emergency unless others come to our rescue.
People outside the continent have little idea how scenes of such suffering cut our insides to ribbons. The children we see on the TV screens are our children; the men and women are us, our parents, our relations, our friends. Africans face up to such tragedies with stoicism, not indifference as some have suggested, because when you are helpless before a catastrophe, you endure in silence.
But we have endured long enough and the silence is now deafening. This chain of famines leading to emergency aid from outside leading to more famines must stop.
As long as the dominant image of Africa in the outside world is a matchstick child with an outstretched hand, we can have no self-respect.
We in the media rage when we are portrayed as weak and helpless victims and demand that the Western press in particular be more balanced in its reporting. ‘Why don’t you print the success stories?’ we demand; ‘Why don’t you tell the world that more African countries are self-sufficient in food than in need of food aid?’ we ask. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to ask if deep in our hearts, our rage is nothing more than a feeling of deep humiliation, an impotent anger that we often direct at the very people who are trying to save lives in Africa.
What we should be doing is to harness our anger, our rage, our indignation, our hurt pride and direct it against the real enemies of our people: hunger, lack of clean water, disease and poverty. We should battle these scourges; we should be the commanders leading the charge. If others wish to help, they should be made welcome but we should not sit back and allow others to fight our battles for us.
Take the recurring cycle of famines. Today, some 27 countries need food aid; 2.5m people in the Horn are desperately short of food and water; tens of millions are malnourished. Yet, 40 years ago, Africa was a net food exporter. Between 1966 and 1970, Africa exported an average of 1.3m tons of food. Since then we have become net food importers – by the end of 1980, we were importing 10m tons of food.
Famines have many causes, some natural but far more manmade. Droughts account for only a small proportion of famine in Africa; wars and civil conflict, the destruction of rural communities, the laying waste of productive farmlands and the effects of diseases are the major causes of famines. If man makes famines, man can unmake famines.
Droughts have always been a integral part of Africa’s climatic patterns and will continue to be so. Droughts are not unique to Africa; they occur everywhere. Droughts can be beaten. We know that food shortages will occur from time to time. Why are we not building stocks of food for such lean times?
Even when we are faced with emergencies such as the one in the Horn, why cannot we raise our own funds, gather our surpluses and free up our transport systems to deal with the emergencies? Why do we have to wait for compassionate outsiders to do what we can easily do ourselves?
During a recent debate in London, Sir Bob Geldof and I had a royal verbal punch-up over various development issues and because he had ignored African musicians during his Live 8 concert. I cannot reprint the ripe language he used but in essence he asked me why African musicians were not organising similar concerts themselves. He would be first in line at such an event, he said. I had no answer.
Why are our entertainers not out there collecting for emergency relief? Why is the African Union not calling an urgent meeting to deal with the current crisis? Why are rich African governments and individuals (and there are plenty of these) not dipping into their coffers to solve these problems?
Why do we still have famines and why are our children still dying of preventable diseases? Why are we not using simple, age-old systems to deliver clean water to our citizens? What is stopping us? Africa is our continent, the people are our people, the problems are ours and the solutions will come from us.
All we need to change our circumstances is for each and every one of us to swear that we shall never again humble ourselves before the world. We shall overcome, starting from now.