The Smiling Faces of Young Africans

Joy is possible amidst poverty and material commodities are not necessary for happiness. This was the lesson that Los Angeles Dodgers baseball player Clayton Kershaw learned during his recent trip to Africa. A feature in the New York Times by Karen Crouse describes the Dodgers player and his wife, Ellen’s trip to Zambia with the child sponsorship ministry, Arise Africa.

Kershaw wanted to learn more about Ellen’s passion for helping Zambian AIDS orphans, a passion she discovered, like so many Americans, on a college trip to the country. The article describes his reluctance to spend three weeks away from the practice cages, his work ethic and the way he was able to fashion a portable catcher so he could keep practicing. But it gives no sense of the work that Kershaw or the organization were doing with the orphans in the “remote villages and compounds surrounding” Lusaka that they visited. Rather we hear about the emotional connection Kershaw made with the children whose hugs and smiles helped him overcome his first shocked encounter with their poverty. Like so many African nations, Zambia appears to be only inhabited by children, making possible his discovery that: “The people, as long as their basic needs are met — they’re not starving and they have shelter — are such a joyful culture.” Luckily for Kershaw, while these children needed his help, they were not the desperate, dying kind and so he returned to the US with a renewed sense of well being and some perspective on his own life and society, questioning his American desire for big houses and faster cars.

The ways Africa and poverty are understood by Americans is both enabled by and makes Kershaw’s all too familiar journey possible. The ‘discovery’ that many travelers make – that people living in poverty in Africa are not hopeless, discontented or nasty – makes it very easy to help them. It means you don’t have to change anything too much, just maybe give them a mosquito net or some ARVs. Such a discovery is made possible by the discovery that the ways Africans live has more to do with their ‘culture’ than with their poverty. This is a ‘culture’ that is so beyond a desire for the material commodities so ruinous to the American well being that a little bit of help (letting those joyful children watch you practice pitches for example) goes a long way.

It is a cliché that travel is about finding yourself and not really learning about the places through which you travel. But Kershaw doesn’t even really find himself in Zambia. He finds a comfortable space in which to inhabit his American privilege without having to question it. In ‘learning’ that poverty is really a good way to live; he is not straying very far from a familiar story in America about the evils of too much stuff. But while Americans feel that they are able to find some balance between this ethic and the equally American responsibility to consume, it is reassuring that Africans can have much purer commodity-free lives

When I was working with young American travelers in South Africa, I found something positive in their discovery that South Africa (which was always Africa in their lexicon) was not a place defined by hopelessness based on poverty. It seemed like a good lesson for Americans who painted the entire continent with the same brush of disaster and suffering – poverty does not create a mass of undifferentiated homogeneous people with no power or agency to change their situation. But it became a disturbing message when it increasingly led to a desire to ‘help’ Africans in simplistic ways. When ‘culture’ looks like poverty and poverty ‘looks like culture any questions about the structural and geopolitical causes of poverty are easily muted and travelers like Kershaw can bask in the smiling faces of young Zambians.

* Kathryn Mathers, a visiting scholar in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, is the author of Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa” (MacMillan, 2010).



Kathryn Mathers

Kathryn Mathers is the author of "Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa" (Palgrave, 2010).

  1. Mathers, I want to read that book of yours! And you know how many children would have smiled if they were given the $4000+ that it probably cost the Kershaws to travel there (plus the obligatory trip to Luwangwa)?

  2. Interesting article. I agree with what you are saying to a point.

    But from another angle I think that some people just want to ‘help’. Whatever that means. They genuinely want to do something. But what’s missing I suppose, is the right type of dialogue with the people they intend to help. They just need a bit of education. I don’t expect a young baseball player who has probably never been to Africa or never really cared much about the continent to know what’s really going on and how to genuinely help. Especially if he’s been force fed the typical media stereotypes of Africa his entire life.

    And just to play Devil’s advocate, many people/organisations/NGO’s on the African side are quite happy to sell the ‘smiley African children’ picture to westerners so they can get that aid money.

    My two cents.

  3. I take 12-20 students to Ghana each summer as part of a faculty-led course. Teaching at a relatively wealthy private college with a decent, but not stellar, academic reputation it is really difficult to convince students not to go to London or Amsterdam. Many of those trips which cost $6000 and are nothing more than expensive vacations regularly draw dozens of students. My trip was the first to Africa and requires a ton of advertisement on my part to fill the roster. I also have to keep the costs to about half that of the Europe trips to be competitive. In the classroom we learn about micro-development strategies and then students, along with people from the community in Northern Ghana whom we visit, design small development projects. When we are in Ghana they get 1 week and $200 per student to make their projects a reality. The community we go to was a site in my dissertation research and I know that our visit is a short term economic boom and a pretty good bit of entertainment for residents. I’m not certain any of the development projects make a major difference for the better but some seem to have been marginally successful. When I come to this blog I sympathize with the snarky views about sheltered Americans fetishizing Africa as either a land of war and AIDS or smiling children and zebras. I know some of that goes on in the way my university advertises my course and how some of the students internalize the experience. I’m really torn, however, because despite the fetishization associated with my course, nearly 40 students, most of whom would never have traveled to Africa otherwise, get to spend quite a bit of time seeing urban, rural, poor, rich, and in between Africa. Sure I cringe when they show me the pictures of themselves at homestays and they are dressed in traditional dress with a baby on their back but I’m still of the mind that the potential harm of our trip is negligible compared to the possible changes in at least a few students’ minds. I’d like to hear more of your opinions on the topic though.

  4. Thanks you for the comments, they speak to some incredibly complex issues that my book, which details long term work with travelers and tourists, including many study abroad students and volunteers, tries to address (shameless plug!).But briefly some responses as a way to situate my own frustrated response at the NYT article’s (typical) representation of what seems to matter in Kershaw’s journey: My students often argue that the images of smiling children fill a need for raising money and so might be worth the costs.Yet realistically that equation has never really made much sense given that however much money is raised very little of it makes it to those children, let alone their communities, and even when it does it certainly has not changed the degree of poverty in which the people the children are meant to represent live. I believe that the cost of those images, as well as the cost of Americans having a life changing experience in Africa, is in fact extremely high for Africans. When poverty is reduced to a question of children needing some books or some clothes or some medicines that can in fact often be provided by young Americans doing good work in Africa, it becomes easier for Americans to not question the structural foundations of poverty and work to changing it, perhaps even by working to change their own society; it often means that people in these communities who want to solve the problems they are facing are not heard (although like dootie bubble I have worked with programs that try hard to change this) and it becomes harder and harder for local NGOs and other agencies to raise money and to do the work that they have been doing for many years effectively.

  5. Well, as we are all saying, this is a complicated subject. Kathryn you raised a good point about the possibility of some of these young Americans not looking at the real structural causes behind the high levels of poverty in Africa. Actually it’s not only young Americans if we’re to be fair. I think this basically creeps into the good aid/bad aid debate. I think we can all agree that aid can only help to a degree and that things won’t really change until the major power brokers in Africa focus on getting the continent working and stop using aid as a crutch. I know that sounds simplistic and I’m also not denigrating a lot of the good aid work that is being done out there by many good people.

  6. I completely agree with you (Kathyrn). Thank you for posting this. I studied abroad in Ghana for a year and after studying the odd and embarrassingly colonial habits of white students I ended up becoming friends with Nigerians (who happen to be an ethnic group with the stereotype of having money) about 3 months into my stay. I did not volunteer whatsoever or take pictures or hug and kiss mass amounts of children I had no relation to. My choice to hang out at clubs, restaurants and parties thrown by the Nigerians caused an extreme backlash from the white students & I ended up having a guilt complex, of oh-im-in-Africa-but-im-not-volunteering. It took me months of analyzing everything from every different viewpoint till I was finally at rest with the conclusion that I wasn't a bad person for living the life of the small African middle class. I believe the complete rejection I received from the white community for my behavior was based off the kinds of attitudes you bring to light from this baseball player's article and is ultimately patronizing to the continent. I understand where you're coming from & I hope to read your book in the near future. I don't have the patience to handle this subject matter but I'm glad you do, someone's gotta do it!

  7. I love it when I read something that puts its analytical finger on something that bothers me but I've been too intellectually lazy to really pin down. Thanks for this blog post. Also for the intelligent comments it has drawn forth.

  8. I studied abroad in Ghana for four months. I did volunteer, but I never felt skilled or knowledgeable enough to do the things I was asked to do (mostly give psychological surveys to the women who came for skill training from the Agbobloshie slum in Accra). That sheds light on a combination of arrogance on the part of Westerners and lofty expectations from Ghanaians. I'm always floored at the people just out of college, or sometimes just out of high school, who say, "I'm going to go be a teacher in Guatemala!" (or Namibia or Uganda or whatever place). I always want to ask them, isn't that going to be hard? Aren't you a literature major? Why are you so carefree about teaching poor kids when to become a teacher in the United States you would require at least two more years of training?

  9. Mathers,
    Thank you for writing this. I am going to sleep with a smile on my face. This is the reason I don't ask (anymore) my beloved Americans what they think or experienced whenever they travel to "Africa." I look forward to reading your book.

    (On a side note: I too have tried to visit Americans' homes to take photos with their smiling babies and hand them Kenya shillings, but they don't appreciate it too much. Maybe it is the exchange rate of our shilling to their dollar. Next time I'll try the Naira or the Rand).

    AIAC, "you people" are rocking the waters. And I am loving it. I was just reading your blog post titled The Good Guys. I must say the comment section on that one is sizzling right now (insert finger licking sound here).

  10. This is a very touching story this young man has told. And most americans actually do not know the truth about Africa in general. The media portrays Asome places in Africa as starving, no water, basically negative misleading information. Africa is one of the most beautiful historical places to visit and if you really want real positive information regarding not just Africa but other foreign countries read National Geographic is bares more history than any history book you have ever read in school. I would like to thank the young man who sees life in a different perspective since going to the motherland. Unlike (half a dollar) aka fifty cents who wants you to buy his drink (aren't there enough energy drinks out there not doing anything)/

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