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Because You Think Poor is Cool


The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once said, “People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them.”

These days, one doesn’t have to go to Africa. All that’s necessary is to witness the committed talk about Africa. This Sunday afternoon, the place to do that was the Virgin Atlantic lounge at JFK International Airport.

Our allotted contingent of Live 8 celebrity personages gave their preflight press conference before decamping to the strenuous wilds of, well, Edinburgh and they were a fired-up group indeed. Rebel billionaire Richard Branson led off the event with an exhortation to “companies around the world to put aside some of their wealth,” to build infrastructure for Africa.”

In his next breath he got down to business. “I’m very pleased that we just set up Virgin Nigeria.” It’s going to fly many places and make a great deal of money. And that’s precisely what Africa needs: capitalism, local wealth generation, employment, and lots of it. But Branson’s speech contains a kind of cognitive dissonance: It conflates profit with charity and was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to rhetorical excess. Profit-making is synonymous with investment, itself synonymous with compassionate action for Africa which is so much for the better because it makes everyone look good.

Branson once said, “Ridiculous yachts and private planes and big limousines won’t make people enjoy life more, and it sends out terrible messages to the people who work for them. It would be so much better if that money was spent in Africa.” A scene from The Aviator comes to mind: Howard Hughes dining with Kate Hepburn’s family, one of whom opines that money’s not all that important to them; Hughes replies, “That’s because you have it.” To the non-rebellious non-billionaires among us, ridiculous yachts and private planes and big limousines can certainly make people enjoy life a great deal more. But that’s a small point.

Branson, waxing on the myriad troubles of Africa on Sunday at JFK, moved on to its horrific burden of disease: “You have diseases like malaria which shouldn’t even exist….Getting a mosquito net over everybody is not cheap.” It certainly is not cheap. On the other hand, it is not terrifically expensive (although insecticide treatments can drive up the price). But more to the point, there are already local industries which turn the stuff out in ample quantity. Branson’s implied message that non-Africans must step up to the plate and provide in these cases can, in practice, actually harm African entrepreneurs through economic dislocation. Furthermore, what nets are available are often enough sorely abused. As I said Saturday,Africans are people, and do as they will. To identify a problem of theirs and focus upon a solution predicated upon our action is fundamentally to forget this.

More to the point, spending money in Africa doesn’t offer quite the solution that Africans spending money there would provide. Spending money in Africa doesn’t provide the solution that Africans making and spending their own money would provide, either.

But, really, this whole affair is only somewhat about them anyway.

Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children at the dais with Branson, picked up on the theme of overstatement and excess and ran with it. Referring to the petition drive of the campaign which he helped co-found, he declared with satisfaction, “We got one million Americans to sign a commitment to see the end of poverty in the world.” In the world. What next? Petition drives to demonstrate popular momentum for happiness, love, and interesting television?

MacCormack ran with the ball but actor Djimon Hounsou of “Give us free!” fame who took it to the goal line: “The events of this week have been the most important events in the history of Africa.” Indeed yes. What, after all, were the Pharaonic dynasties, Great Zimbabwe, and the Boer War set against these lovely concerts and concerned people?

Hounsou’s presence was notable not merely for his hyperbole. He also brought the total number of persons of African descent at the press conference to three. By and large, the contingent of 100 or so humanitarians and hangers-on with whom we were to travel were white, youthful, and good-looking. For my part, the first two out of three is not bad.

And travel we did. We flew in a Virgin Atlantic 747 to Heathrow. Branson thrilled the stewardesses by chatting with them and praising their work. One clever Christian-affiliated media persons capitalized upon Branson’s press conference comment that “Christianity has been bad for Africa” — a reference to his dislike of abstinence campaigns — to extort a business-class upgrade from a harried Virgin PR staffer.

Arriving at Heathrow, and lo, Sir Bob Geldof was waiting for us in the customs-processing waiting room. He delivered a kindly speech that rallied the troops, pausing only to shout, “Fuck off!” at an errant door alarm. “America has come in peace to our country,” he declared, “Does that work? Yes, it does.” The kids nodded gravely.

Geldof then made the mistake of introducing some actual Africans — prominent Africans — and the level of crowd murmuring promptly rose. The second African to speak, a woman of indeterminate origin (I too had stopped paying attention), concluded her remarks with an exhortation against “profit,” to which the suddenly-attentive crowd cheered lustily.

Customs cleared, speeches heard we were back on the plane to Edinburgh.

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