Bwana Saves Africa

Today’s New York Times Magazine carries a fawning profile of John Prendergast, the force behind the Enough Project (reference: Congo, Darfur and now southern Sudan). Prendergast is described by reporter Daniel Bergner as “America’s most influential activist in Africa’s most troubled regions.” A former Clinton White House official, Prendergast probably wrote the book on how to utilize celebrity diplomacy. (Actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Don Cheadle’s status as foreign policy experts originate with the Enough Project.) At best the article is interesting as a how-to manuel on influencing US foreign policy on Africa. At the same time reporter Bergner also undercuts his own thesis by conceding it is difficult to measure exactly Clooney and Prendergast’s importance in the recent surge of US public focus on Sudan. For the profile Bergner followed Pendergrast to southern Sudan where a referendum on the south’s political independence from the north is planned January 2011. Much of the information in the piece won’t be new to people familiar with Prendergast or developments in Sudan. Some readers may get a chuckle out of Bergner’s man-crush on Pendergrast. Bergner writes that Prendergast has “… wavy gray hair that fell to the shoulders of his T-shirt. The hair, along with the unshaven scruff on his chin, made for a look of dashing flamboyance that was undercut by bursts of boyish energy.” We also learn that Prendergast has no time for critics of his methods or his grasp of the issues, that he “has devoted all of his adult life to Africa,” and discovered “human suffering” when he saw scenes of Ethiopia’s 1985 famine on TV. Prendergast can’t stop himself from describing a first trip to Sudan in the 1980s as “… a bit of ‘Apocalypse Now’.” Not surprisingly, we also learn that he has been betrayed by Africans whom he has admired. Etcetera, etcetera.

Anyway, Howard French, former New York Times West Africa correspondent, best summed up the piece in a tweet: “Bwana saves Africa. Part 3,276. Barf. Will we ever get beyond such stories?

Comments

comments

Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

13 Comments
  1. But Africa needs Galahads because it's not only poor, but scary! One of the volunteers traveling to rural Tanzania next year with my NGO will, grudgingly, bring along her husband, who doesn't believe she will be safe without him. Does he imagine that he'll rescue her from drug-crazed boy soldiers?

    1. Hahah. Sneer away (I agree, the only thing more wasteful than one person going on a personal mission to save something/someone in Africa, is two) …

      but let me point out the ultimate in meta-irony: you're admitting that you're with an NGO. In Africa. So who are you rescuing from what? Does it feel righteous at least?

  2. Dear Laughing,
    I'm not sure that NGO work in Africa as such implies the self-aggrandizing stance that distinguishes too many celebrity "experts," not to mention Pendergrast, and that evoked French's ”Bwana saves Africa" tweet. At least many of the people I know in the NGO community regard the Africans they work with as equals with whom they cooperate rather than as inferiors to whom they alone can bring salvation. Thus my own NGO—not atypically—tries to assist completion of projects deliberated upon and determined by the residents of the village where we work. Even the NGO itself originated in a suggestion by some of the villagers instead of in my own "righteous" conviction that I could save them.

  3. These guys who come for so called humanitarian …have a profit motive because usually they sponsonsored by some MNCs. Everyone is interested in african resources…

  4. Of course, parsing the difference between legit development workers and self-proclaimed "saviors of Africa" is sometimes tricky (and they sometimes overlap). As one of the former, I'd suggest that one difference is what each aspires to build or create. Those who come to "save" also do not last long. While Pendergrast is clearly very much in love with himself (and shows indications of some much deeper flaws), you have to give credit where it's due: he's done more to raise awareness of Sudan than I have.

  5. Le blanc's excellent point about the difficulty of "parsing the difference between legit development workers and self-proclaimed 'saviors of Africa'" rests on the solid truth that none among us have unmixed motives—which partly explains why none among us produce unmixed results. Although criticizing the reinforcement of African stereotypes by celebrity experts and saviors is surely warranted, Le blanc rightly suggests it does not follow that such people do no good at all, which criticizing them can seem to imply.

    Similarly, we who consider ourselves "legit development workers" have warrant to fear that, in the end, our best efforts will amount to nothing; but I don't see that fear as justification for attempting nothing.

  6. people are far too quick to dismiss this man without really knowing the first thing about him – like, for starters, how to spell his name.

  7. Ask Bob Geldof what he got for his troubles. The irritating aspect is that does anyone out there consider that the people you went to school with at Boarding School and University are (check both the UK and USA's Foreign student population) daft? Not every "Bwana" is a dictator.

  8. I think…..could be wrong….that cool bags kenya is trying to point out that there are some Africans, well educated, who are making a difference in their countries. Thing is….in the field of development, Africa is portrayed as if every single person living in Africa is either suffering from malnutrition, has a fly on their face and tears in their eyes, or is a militia trying to kill the former. Hence the need for westerners to swoop in and save Africans. Did you know that Somalia has a football team recognised by fifa and they're currently participating in CECAFA?

  9. proudly kenyan is right …. did you know that a young senegalese designer, living and working in Dakar, is exibiting his art in the Museum of Arts and Design in New York? and that …

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