Back in 1984 a group of rich pop stars gathered together to 'save Africa' in response to famine in Ethiopia. The result was Band Aid. Thirty years on and another group of rich pop stars has come together to 'save Africa' in response to ebola.
Tarzan of the Apes is a fictional character who first appeared in a 1912 book of the same name by Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the time the popular view of Africa and Africans in the West was of a primitive, backward, and retrograde culture and people who needed to be 'saved' by the white man and white civilization.
It was the very mindset responsible for the continent's colonisation, which over a period of 400 years devastated its people and plundered its natural resources, leaving deep economic, social, and historical scars that have yet to heal. While Africa no longer suffers the colonisation that it did when Tarzan first appeared in popular culture, it continues to suffer from the colonial mindset and from a global economic system that has ensured its continued under development up to the present day.
The ebola crisis has succeeded in forcing its way into Western consciousness as no other disease has in recent years. Why? What precisely is it about ebola that has struck fears into our hearts that sets it apart from diseases such as malaria, which according to the World Health Organization kills one child in Africa every minute?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that ebola is an equal opportunities disease, every bit as capable of spreading among and killing people in the West as in Africa, where it originates. In an article for The Lancet back in April, Melissa Leach of the Institute of Developmental Studies in Brighton writes, "Ebola is being highlighted as an "exceptional" disease - one well worthy of dramatic political and public attention. This contrasts with more mundane diseases - malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea - that more regularly afflict Guinea's women, men, and children."
The Band Aid phenomenon of the 1980s was created by Bob Geldof. It began with the Christmas single, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', and went on to spawn twin Live Aid rock concerts in the UK and US. It succeeded in raising an estimated £30 million to aid the victims of famine in Ethiopia and was the catalyst for the proliferation of Africa-focused charities and NGOs operating throughout the continent and creating a veritable industry in the process. However, if judged by results, those charities and NGOs have had little or no impact when it comes to reversing the conditions responsible for 40% of people in sub-Sahara Africa continuing to live in absolute poverty.
The underlying problem afflicting Africa, and making it easier for horrible diseases such as ebola to spread and gain traction, is a simple and enduring one. It is capitalism. The non negotiable condition of the development of the northern hemisphere is the under development of the southern hemisphere, and until this changes Africa will continue to labour under the weight of economic exploitation and oppression.
Band Aid reinforces negative stereotypes of Africa and Africans. It reflects a colonial mindset that is so deeply entrenched in Western culture that we aren't even aware it exists. The sight of a bunch of rich pop stars parading themselves as paragons of virtue and heroes is crass and eminently offensive. While it may allow them to wallow in self congratulation and positive PR, it is paternalism of the most grievous kind. Solidarity demands a response that is rooted in challenging the political and economic status quo responsible for Africa's under development and with it the ability of diseases like ebola to gain traction and spread. It does not equate to acquiescing in it with a charity song that jars with lyrics which objectifies and essentialises Africans as a homogenous mass of helpless and hapless children waiting to be saved by 'whitey'. It denies Africans their own voice and in so doing undermines their dignity.
Ultimately, it is not Africa that needs to be saved, it is us. Only when we are saved from the greed and paternalism that distorts our understanding will Africa and the rest of the developing world finally begin to emerge from under the iron heel of Western hegemony.