Excerpts from author Alex Halperin’s contribution in the latest issue of lit magazine, “n+1”:

The safer parts of Africa have become a workshop for high-concept philanthropy, wrapping adventurism in a veneer of charity. Young Americans bring yarn to a small Ugandan town, where they teach women to crochet hats to sell back in the States. Two British girls on a gap-year teach kids photography in Nairobi slums …

I can sympathize. It wasn’t enough to go to Africa; I had to feel important doing it. So I found a generous organization that would sponsor me to go find Africa’s untold good news, although I’d never been there. I wanted to write about social entrepreneurship, fair trade, and microfinance—this last the biggest thing in poverty reduction since Live Aid. Since I wanted to sell my stories to the mainstream American media, it would help if my central characters were white. I needed to find people like Daniel Sheridan.

As a student at Coventry University, Sheridan invented a seesaw that generates electricity. Like most ideas for saving Africa, at first it sounds miraculous: an inexhaustible source of free, clean renewable energy powered by exercising children. Several reporters did cover this irresistible story. Unfortunately, as the BBC didn’t note, Sheridan’s innovation is unworkable. The seesaws are large and expensive. Who will pay for them? Technologies like cell phones and plastic jerry cans for carrying water have eased African village life because they are cheap and don’t require installation. It’s a credit to Sheridan’s intelligence and intentions that his work deserves tough questions. But the average African village is more likely to see Bono swoop in and personally dig a latrine than have an “Energee-Saw” installed …

…  Mzungu, the Swahili word for white person, has become a standard way to greet whites across East Africa. Young children with open palms call “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they chase foreigners. By calling themselves Mzungus (the Swahili plural is wazungu), visitors form a defensive crouch against charges of ignorance, the way dumb American tourists in France sometimes refer to themselves as ‘dumb American tourists.’

Read the rest here

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