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Warped thinking breeds mistrust against West

By Jenny Luesby | October 29th 2013

By Jenny Luesby

Kenya: Some two years back, at lunch with a fellow who would be described by many as a ‘Kenyan cowboy’ — being a member of the long-term white community that arrived in Kenya as colonial settlers — we got onto the subject of the strained relations between the black and the white citizens of Kenya. It was a conversation the country was ‘not yet ready for’, he opined.

And, indeed, so sensitive are Kenyan relations with the West, with foreigners, with whites, and with all who are not black Kenyans, that it was a matter already sitting like a mass of broken egg shells — long before the latest superheat, brought with the International Criminal Court proceedings now unfurling at the Hague.


Yet into this space, one long-resident German philosopher has in recent days launched a brave and provocative book, The End of Arrogance: Africa and the West – Understanding their Differences.

Despite the near constant referencing to the world ‘beyond’ for benchmarks and inspiration, from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson, and the global village that our young generation now live in with their social media and internet savvy lives, it would be hard to broach a more uncomfortable subject.

For the reality, as this book only too clearly captures, is that the relationship is at best ‘disrupted’, and, in reality, deeply dysfunctional: in a mixed set of prejudices that are surely acting to hold us all back.

The author, Dr Helmut Danner’s determination to dig into this rupture is born of many years inside the world of aid and ‘development’ with results that have done more for the development of the Gigiri suburb of Nairobi than for Kenyan national progress.

So why this level of failure?

Unpleasant truth number one is his exposition on the arrogance of the West, set in some time warp of inequality, where prevailing attitudes are that westerners know best what works for Africa and have all the answers — if only the Africans can be nursed towards some understanding of what they need to do.

It’s a painful presentation, compounded by shots at our own cowboys for their historical hangover and resilience in hanging onto a ‘master-servant’ mentality, that has, worse still, now moved onwards into Kenya’s own elites and, lately, middle classes.

More confrontation on where things are stuck comes with his argument that Africa, too, has got locked into a disabling way of thinking.

The commitment to what the West ‘owes’ to Africa, the bitterness and distrust of genuine engagement, and the lack of self-awareness and culpability make for a great deal of emotional energy, but not a great deal of resolution.

Blaming the ‘others’ is not a path to solving issues that were anyway embedded, he says, taking perhaps the most sensitive example of all in the form of slavery — which was not a western introduction, but an African industry. When Africans can stop blaming the West, they can open the door to look at their own relations with one another, he argues.

‘Get real’

Wincing yet? For sure, we all are, for Danner’s book challenges everyone to ‘get real’ and rethink what each of us is bringing to such long-term failures. Yet, at the core of his thesis is what one reader described as a call for ‘humanity’.

It is a message perhaps best encapsulated by a single quote drawn from the Merchant of Venice, speaking to the fact that all of us bleed when we are cut, and building to a set of chapters outlining how we can each try to understand each other’s differences better, so that we can move forward in equality and respect.

It’s an idealistic proposition, but in this one academician’s call for the correction of a messed up relationship — burdened with historical injustices, and stuck on a shelf of long-ago honed attitudes,  never to be discussed, reassessed and rebuilt — is a warning of the cost to all in staying stuck with our individual arrogances.

Does it matter if we just stay hating the West, fed up that they think we live in mud huts and cannot teach them anything? Does it matter if whites are forever only mzungu, who can only represent oppression and exploitation, and never individuals of any shade of perspective at all?

Yes, it matters. Because a world without Africa, a world that imposes from without, and does not draw from within, is a world that runs the risk of being a world that has lost its roots, its spirituality, and all the answers that it needs to learn from the beginning.

For, in truth, the West is not static. Africa is not static. Ethics are not static, nor values, nor beliefs. And there never was the best created in anything without we all came to the table and made the supreme effort to understand each other’s differences, and create sums that work for everyone.

For which reason, painful as it might be, there is really a case for getting out of the cupboard all our painful prejudices about each other, and our attitudes left over from the past, in order that the present and future are not only extensions of the past, but more than that – for all of us.

The writer is Consulting Editor at The Standard Group.

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